By Sarah Martini, LPC, CRC
Do you feel that your chronic pain rules your life? Are you having trouble adjusting to the limitations of your pain? You are not alone. The National Institutes of Health estimate that approximately 11% of American adults experience chronic pain, which is defined as pain that is experienced every day for at least 3 months. While chronic pain tends to be more common in older individuals, people of all ages may experience chronic pain at some point in their lives. Chronic pain can result from an accident or a health condition like arthritis or a herniated disk. In some cases, the pain condition may not easily be explained, such as in cases of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).
The gate control theory of pain proposes that the way our brain interprets pain is affected by nerve “gates” that are either open or closed. Certain cognitive, sensory, or emotional factors can help close the gates and stop the pain signals from reaching our brain. The following is list of suggestions that can help keep your gates closed:
• Make sure you are eating and sleeping well. Implement a bedtime and develop a general meal plan to make sure your body is getting enough nutrients and rest.
• Practice diaphragmatic breathing. Most of us have gotten into the habit of shallow chest breathing, which can increase anxiety and pain perception. Diaphragmatic (or deep) breathing involves breathing from deeper down your chest, from where your rib cage meets your abdomen—the diaphragm.
• Develop a relaxation technique. In addition to deep breathing, it is helpful to have a relaxation technique you can rely on when the pain gets too much, like meditation or progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and releasing one muscle group at a time and can be helpful not only for understanding your pain, but also reducing it.
• Reduce stress. It’s no secret that stress is not good for you. However, stress coupled with a chronic pain condition can lead to pain that never lets up. As the gate control theory asserts, our mental status can directly affect how intensely we feel pain.
• Engage in self-care activities. Not only are self-care activities helpful for serving as a distraction from the pain, but depending on the activity, they can also release endorphins, the “feel good” hormone.
• Pace yourself. Respect the limitations of your body. Do engage in regular activities, but be mindful of what your body is telling you. If cleaning the house in one day puts you in bed for the next two days, recognize that you have overworked yourself. Next time, try pacing yourself by addressing one area of the house and respecting your body’s signals that it is getting tired.
• Seek help from a professional. Whether you choose to see a physician, physical therapist, or psychotherapist, there are many professionals who are trained to help you manage your pain. A psychotherapist can provide the support and coping skills necessary to help you maintain your well-being. Additionally, they can recommend a support group where you can meet people who are share similar experiences.
German folklorist Walter Anderson once said, “Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself.”
So, how are you going to respond to your chronic pain?