Are You Living With Chronic Pain?
When you read the title of this week’s blog you may think I’m only referring to physical pain. But what about chronic psychological pain?
If you regularly experience anxiety, stress, recurring sleeplessness then you’re living with chronic pain. If you often feel loneliness, grief, sadness then you’re living with chronic pain. If you struggle with depression, jealousy, self-judgment and longing for things to be different – it’s all chronic pain.
I’ve written before on some ways to manage chronic physical pain and the fact is that it’s not all that different for chronic psychological pain. After all, psychological pain is also felt in the body. That tightness in the centre of the chest, the churning in the belly, the knots in the shoulders, they’re all symptoms of psychological pain.
In fact, if we accept this definition of chronic pain the numbers of sufferers are huge and probably growing due to our western life-style. So what can we do about it?
The first step is understanding you’re not alone. Remember that old Buddhist saying, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. The Buddhist traditions have always recognised the suffering of man, but not in the same way as the Christian traditions. It’s not the suffering that’s inevitable, it’s the pain.
Suffering is not inevitable because it depends on your mindset. When we feel pain our brain interprets it according to our personal narrative. If the pain is due to having run a half-marathon the day before, chances are you’ll interpret that pain with pride. However if you wake with the same pain when you haven’t exercised you might feel confusion or even fear. The brain is trying to make sense of it and to categorise it – do I need to act on this pain or can I ignore it?
With psychological pain it’s even more about the brain’s narrative. Did my friend snub me when she passed me in the street or did she not see me? Why didn’t get that promotion that I believe I deserve, is it because my boss hates me? Will my presentation be good enough? Am I good enough? And so on…
Mindfulness teaches us to get out of the brain’s narrative and return to the truth of the present moment experience. It’s always easier to deal with reality than with imagination. You may never know why your friend passed you in the street without acknowledgement. There are too many possible reasons. All you know is that she did. You may never know what your boss really thinks of you, all you know is that you missed out on that promotion. You can’t control other people and there will always be situations that are out of your control. All you can do is manage your own response.
At times like these, a useful tool is self-compassion. This is not the same as feeling sorry for yourself. I love Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion. She defines self-compassion as “being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them”. This definition for self-compassion acknowledges the brain’s narrative as being a major cause of suffering. Neff and her colleagues found that the regular practice of self-compassion helps to build one’s resilience against anxiety, makes people feel more connected and was associated with increased psychological well-being.
Neff goes on to say “compassion can be extended towards the self when suffering occurs through no fault of one’s own – when the external circumstances of life are simply hard to bear… and is equally relevant when suffering stems from our own mistakes, failures or personal inadequacies.”
So how do we practice self-compassion? There are 3 main components:
- Learning to practice self-kindness vs self-judgement. When you feel pain treat yourself like you would a close friend. If a good friend told you they were feeling anxious or upset you would probably not tell them it’s all their fault but you would show them some kindness and understanding. Turning this attitude inwards is self-kindness.
- Acknowledging your shared humanity vs feeling isolated. We’re all on this ride together and we all feel the same emotions that come from simply being human. You’re not alone.
- Mindfulness of thoughts vs rumination and catastrophisation. Listen to your inner dialogue. Are you inflating the cause of your pain unnecessarily? Are you imagining things to be far worse than they actually are?
When you feel pain, you don’t need to rationalise anything or try to change anything. Acknowledge it and see it for what it is. Open yourself to a sense of compassion for your own pain. Simply allowing it to be is what will allow it to pass.
I’m reminded of a story told by a meditation teacher, Bob, at a retreat I was on. He described how his family was out walking with friends when his 8-year-old son fell over and scraped his knee. His friends tried to comfort his son, distract him, give him a sweet to make him forget about it. Bob told them to continue on, they would catch up. He sat with his son while he sobbed and said “It hurts, Daddy”. Bob answered “yes, it does”. He didn’t try to console or distract him, just acknowledged the truth of the pain he felt. They sat there for a few minutes more until his son finally got up and said “Lets join the others”.
Recognise your pain, acknowledge it, allow it be present with self-kindness and non-judgment, and watch it pass.
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