Such a short and simple word that carries such an intense and complicated meaning. It is estimated that 1 in 5 British Columbians live every day with a chronic pain condition*. The isolation and frustration that commonly accompany the uncomfortable physical and/or emotional experience can, and often do, contribute to overwhelm and feelings of hopelessness that end up making the experience seem even more like a one-sided burdensome battle.
Pain = Hurt – that’s it, right?
A common misunderstanding is that all pain is the same or that it affects just one part of a person – physically or emotionally – for a definite length of time. In actuality, the only similarity in cases of pain is that it affects the totality of a person in different ways. Pain is commonly classified as acute or chronic:
Acute: refers to pain with a specific cause (such as an injury or tissue damage) that resolves itself within 2 to 4 weeks and/or with the assistance of various strategies (heat or ice).
Chronic: does not always present with one specific cause and lasts longer than 4 to 6 weeks. Sometimes, an acute pain might lead to chronic pain – the brain might keep sending pain or alarm messages to the body even though the injury in the body has healed or resolved. Visiting with your physician to diagnose the pain and/or any underlying conditions and to discuss options for safe and effective treatment is important.
Hurt = harm, though – right?
To complicate matters a little further, the answer here is also “no”. After an injury, it does hurt to move in certain directions/ways/speeds; however, this hurt is a reflection of the body trying to heal NOT an indication that additional harm is being done. In fact, by not moving at least a little, more harm might be done than if you were keeping totally still! Pacing activity levels is important: it is not a good idea to push yourself to the max then not be able to do anything for a while. Striking a balance, resuming pre-injury functions/activities without crossing the hurt/harm boundary can be tricky but it us for your own good to recognize and adjust activity levels accordingly.
Pain is part of the human condition
Whether it starts as a physical ache in the body, where a muscle has been pulled, or an emotional stinging sensation in the chest after a long term relationship dissolves, or a throbbing emptiness all over after the loss of a loved one, pain can be felt and noticed in the body, the mind, emotionally, in social functioning, and elsewhere. It is different for everyone; and even different for the same person at different times! As humans, we ALL experience pain at one time or another – to different extents and in various circumstances, pain is inevitable – you are not alone in this experience. However, the suffering from a painful experience is optional. As a reasoning species, us humans have a very active and self-survival oriented mind with the ability to decide whether a painful sensation means danger or threat is imminent and our life is at risk OR there might be something to learn, so relating to the experience labeled “painful” in different – even friendlier – ways is a safe response.
Although no “magic wand” exists that can make pain disappear entirely (at least not yet), we all have the option of living with the unpleasant sensations rather than against burdensome feelings of pain.
What are my options?
As mentioned above, one of the first steps involves seeing a physician for an assessment: if there is an identifiable cause/injury, it could then be properly treated so that no further damage is done; if the source of the pain cannot be confirmed by a physician, perhaps a referral to a pain specialist or a physician familiar with the condition associated with the chronic pain might be considered.
Following a medical assessment and/or as part of a pain management program, other strategies to try include counselling/psychotherapy, healthy eating, gentle movement, Mindfulness, and relaxation.
Exploring how a physical pain might be related to a negative/catastrophic thought which might be related to hopeless or powerless emotional feelings, which might be related to physical sensations of tightness and burning has the potential of opening new doors to treatments and coping strategies. Identifying your sources of social support or even connecting with a support group for other people also living with chronic pain is another option. Expressing your pain in words or art is yet another option. Other, more personally unique, strategies can be created, too: perhaps the image you have of what your pain looks like is a big, heavy, black ball and chain attached at your ankle that is with you all the time. Each of the above coping options and then some are still there– they are just temporarily out of sight under the heavy and burdensome ball. Different forms of counselling can help you to see and relate to pain in different and more effective ways. Let’s work together to nudge that ball a bit and loosen the chain squeezing your ankle!
2. Healthy Eating
Eating a healthy diet provides your body with the nutrients and vitamins you need to sustain the functioning of your body and stay in good health. Lots of protein and leafy greens have been recommended for people living with chronic pain but no special “chronic pain diet” has been confirmed. Consuming healthy foods (rather than processed fast foods) is good for you in general anyways! Keeping hydrated (drinking lots of water) is also important as dehydration could heighten uncomfortable symptoms of underlying conditions. Finding your own balanced diet is key!
3. Gentle Movement
As counter-intuitive as it might initially seem, gentle movement is of crucial importance in cases of chronic pain. Think of what happens to a pair of pliers that sits in a tool chest, unused for a long period of time; what happens? It rusts and becomes difficult to use again. Our bodies are kind of like this, too. Gently stretching or yoga, low impact exercise, walking, cycling, or whatever form of movement is comfortable for you can make a positive impact. As opposed to high intensity and long duration exercise for weight loss or muscle building purposes, gentle movements for pain conditions are meant to sustain function and maintain good health. (Any form of physical activity – even low impact ones – should be discussed with your doctor or physiotherapist first.)
4. Mindfulness and Relaxation Strategies
When the body and mind are wracked with pain, A LOT is going on, both physically and mentally: the heart may beat quickly, muscles tense and contract, feelings of anxiety and worry and fear might flood the mind – really the possibilities are endless! Physically relaxing the muscles can help to release tension and relieve stress. Massage or acupuncture/acupressure are other ways of achieving relaxation. Seeing a chiropractor might be especially helpful in cases of chronic back pain or other spinal conditions.
Learning to be Mindful – fully aware of the present moment, without judgment – is helpful for all unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations or experiences. Mindfulness is a state of being, rather than a special kind of technique; it is about being here, now. Recognizing that good/bad, pleasant/unpleasant/neutral experiences arise, linger, then pass on is important – and part of life. Looking openly and curiously at pain could modify the overall experience: feeling/seeing that pain is not one constant sensation but a constantly changing and moving blend of sensations has the potential of modifying your overall experience. There is no single “right” way to practice Mindfulness – it is based on your own experience at the given moment; underlying principles, etc. can be learned – either on your own or with a professional. Bringing Mindfulness to your life can be an enriching process!
Where/how do I start?
No one chooses to be in any kind of pain – in fact, us humans don’t really like it; what you DO have is a choice about how to cope/handle the experience. I have listed some of the ways pain can be treated; my hope is that you will find the strategy most helpful for you. Being compassionately supported often helps (it’s only human to crave connection). Give us at Summit a call to begin a counselling adventure to help you to go from dragging your feet as you travel the path of life to learning to effectively cope with obstacles and challenges to thriving and looking at that ball and chain in the rear view mirror…
Good for you for reaching out!
Andrea Dasilva is a highly skilled Registered Clinical Counsellor with the Summit Counselling Group. Andrea holds both an undergraduate and graduate degree in psychology from the University of British Columbia; and has additional certificates in Physical and Psychological Disability, EAP/EFAP Counselling, and Theory and Practice of Addictions Counselling. One of her primary areas of specialty includes Pain Management and Disability Issues. You can read more about Andrea on her bio page, and contact her at 604-558-4898 or through our contact form.
Summit Counselling Group is made up of eight, professional, and compassionate Registered Clinical Counsellors; working with individuals, couples, adults, children, adolescents, and families at our executive West Broadway office in beautiful Vancouver, B.C.
*Statistic obtained from: Pain BC. (2015). For those in chronic pain. Retrieved from http://www.painbc.ca/chronic-pain