Pain is inevitable. There is no way around it, no way to fight it, it will happen whether we like it or not. Pain can be extreme and intense, like the physical pain of breaking a limb or an emotional anguish of losing a loved one. It can be relentless and chronic, it can be acute and fleeting. Below we share tips for dealing with chronic pain.
Although pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional. The way we perceive our pain, whether we believe it is catastrophic or a minor inconvenience, plays a huge role in its severity. When we interpret our pain as a negative experience, as something that is bad, or wrong, or terrible, the intensity heightens and it turns into suffering.
Many people have the capacity to deal with physical pain. When we are sick, we stay home and rest. When we injure ourselves, we see a doctor and perhaps take medication. When our body gets hurt in any kind of way, our instinct is to deal with it appropriately. But what happens when our pain isn’t physical? What happens when relentless, daily challenges are the source of our suffering? It can be difficult to adhere to tips for dealing with chronic pain in day to day life.
Stress = Suffering
Many of us struggle with day-to-day stressors that have a huge impact on our physical, emotional, and psychological well being. Unmanaged, unmitigated stress can absolutely result in literal and metaphorical suffering. From marital arguments to dissatisfaction at work, stress can play a significant role in your health.
Think about it, how often are you having an emotional and physical reaction to a stressor? When you’re late for work and racing up the highway ramp to see a traffic jam with no end in sight. When you have a successful job interview only to be told that the position was given to someone with better qualifications or more work experience. The you look in the mirror every morning to see your aging body in the reflection. It’s a broken nail, a stubbed toe, a glob of bird poop on your freshly washed car, overdue paperwork, missed deadlines, or a fight with your spouse. Pain is everywhere, big and small.
A lot of you would probably consider these little examples of suffering to be minor annoyances, things that everyone experiences and there’s really no way around it. You’re right, there is no way around it, but have you ever wondered how these consistent, little inconveniences affect you? There are huge physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural ramifications of suffering and if you’re not aware of it, it can cause more harm than you thought.
Fight, Flight, Freeze
If you find yourself constantly sweating the small stuff, then you should consider the physiological effects stress has on you. Most of us have a basic understanding of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), also known as the fight or flight response. When our brain perceives a threat, the SNS is activated, which then soaks our system with a cascade of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
When you’re under stress and your SNS is activated, your brain is focused on getting you out of the stressful situation and nothing else. We often can’t think straight when we’re stressed out because our brains are much too busy avoiding danger to be stringing together a coherent sentence. That’s why it is common to say or do irrational things in a moment of high stress. We say things we don’t mean, do things we don’t intend to, and are left feeling helpless and hopeless.
Stress hormones are important for us and can be beneficial in the short run, but chronic exposure to stress hormones is actually detrimental to our health. For example, too much cortisol, even by way of low-level stress responses, can shrink the hippocampus, the part of our brain that is responsible for thinking and remembering. That is why so often we experience brain fog and forgetfulness when we are stressing out.
The Consequences of Unmanaged Stress
The biological system of fight or flight has significant evolutionary advantages; 100,000 years ago it kept us alive by allowing us to either fight the sabre-toothed tiger or run for our lives. But ongoing, unmanageable stress is not something we are meant to experience on a consistent level, and suffering from stress has serious consequences.
Here are some of the side effects stress can cause (do any sound familiar?)
- Low energy
- Digestive Problems
- Muscle Pain
- Inability to regulate emotions
- Self-esteem issues
- Lack of social skills
- Constant worrying
- Inability to focus
- Poor judgement
It’s easy to see how low-level or high-level stress is in fact physical and emotional suffering when you read through this list. The good news is that there are ways to regulate it and to take back control.
The Power of Meditation
By now, most of us know what meditation is. An ancient, contemplative practice that involves focused, non-judgmental observation, meditation is one of the best ways to manage stress. The reason is because you are essentially training your brain to be open and receptive to anything that arises, pleasant or unpleasant. With time and practice, one becomes more accepting to the ebb and flow of life since there is no longer an evaluation of positive or negative. Life is what is is.
Rather than getting upset at life’s challenges with a stiff upper lip, mindfulness teaches us to allow challenges to be exactly as they are, to let go of resistance, and relinquish control. This has huge implications on our perception of pain; if it no longer is interpreted as a negative experience, we will have a much better capacity to deal with it calmly. This results in less suffering and more wellbeing.
One easy way to start to implement mindfulness into your daily routine is by practicing focused breathing. When you bring intention to the sensation of the breath; the inhale and the exhale, you are giving your mind something to pay attention to. This essentially trains your brain to be present in the moment. Explore Mayv for more tips for dealing with chronic pain.