Pain That Stays:
People who have physical pain face a host of problems. For good reason, the main focus is usually the physical pain and attempting to find some relief, if not a cure. Unfortunately for many people, chronic pain becomes a part of life. Medical solutions often are temporary, or inadequate. Sometimes doctors can’t find a reason for why we are in pain. Pain meds sometimes are helpful, but usually only for the short term (and the risk of side effects and addiction are well documented). At some point, many patients are told that they will just have to “live with it”. One of the things that makes doing this so hard is our negative thinking, what I call “pain brain”.
Living with Pain
Living with chronic pain can be discouraging. We are inundated with tv shows that seem to portray medical science as having a cure for anything. We worship doctors and feel as though “there must be someone out there with an answer”. After seeing many specialists however, and getting 3rd and 4th opinions, we often are left with no magical cure. This can leave us with hopeless thoughts. These thoughts tend to make our pain worse.
It is completely normal, of course, to have negative thoughts when we are in pain. It is part of our survival mechanism. If you’re injured or sick and have pain, our thoughts spur us into action in order to save ourselves. We’ve learned through thousands of years that if we don’t take pain seriously, it can get worse. This basic instinct makes sense, and no one really questions it when we first sprain our ankle, or feel the onset of a bad headache. What’s normal in the short term, tends to make things harder in the long term. Thoughts of despair and hopelessness do not tend to help us get through the day when the pain we experience is chronic.
Getting Stuck in the Loop
What are these thoughts and how do we stop them? Well, the first thing to remember is that we often have these thoughts instinctively and aren’t even aware of what we are saying to ourselves. “This is horrible.” “I can’t take this anymore.” “This is never going to get better!” “My day is ruined.” The first step is identifying what we are saying to ourselves. We have a tendency to say these things over and over again. These thoughts are often what we call “catastrophic” or “all or nothing” thoughts. We also “generalize” – because of one negative thing, everything else is bad also. The trap is when we get stuck in a negative thinking feedback loop. This loop looks like this. We experience pain, we think catastrophic thoughts, we feel despair, we feel more pain and more emotional pain, and the pattern repeats. We don’t have to stay stuck however!
How to Adjust Thinking
The key is to decrease the severity of the statements we are saying to ourselves. “Things are difficult right now.” -this is better than “horrible”. “This is one of those days”- this statement implies that it is difficult, but is a reminder that we’ve had tough days before and gotten through it. “It’s a struggle today” is not sugar coating it, but isn’t saying that it is forever. “Off to a rough start” is accurate, but also suggests that the rest of the day could improve. “I will find something else to focus on” – isn’t saying that it will be easy, but that perhaps we can pay attention to something else also. “I see/hear/read/create/find beauty in this” – does not mean that the pain isn’t there, but there is also something meaningful here. When we adjust our thinking to become less drastic, we decrease the intensity of our thoughts. We may have pain, but the door is open to the possibility of some positive aspect of our lives. Pain is a part of our life, but it doesn’t have to define everything about it.
The Power to Change How We Think
Easy to say of course, not always easy to do. Pain can be debilitating and make it difficult to do the things we used to do. It is often a challenge to find new things to do that are enjoyable, and it can be difficult to do things we need to do to take care of ourselves. Actual physical limitations are real, and sometimes permanent. The key however is that no matter what level of pain or physical disability, we have immense psychological power to change how we think our situation. If we get stuck in negative thinking patterns, our pain usually becomes worse. If we learn to master our thoughts, we are able to find meaning again in a life that does not feel the way we want it to. Life, relationships, meaningful activities, creativity, spirituality do not have to stop because we are living with pain. When we find a way to think differently, we can break the pain brain thinking feedback loop.