In honor of September being Pain Awareness Month, I offer some thoughts to raise awareness on the power chronic pain has on negative thinking and vice versa.
Chronic pain is any pain – physical, emotional, or spiritual – that is felt for 15 days out of 30 for three months or more. It doesn’t matter what kind of pain it is – the brain perceives it all as the same signal “it hurts”.
As a chronic pain patient in recovery, I know well the heavy toll that negative thinking patterns played in my life. I met hundreds of others much like me who experienced the same thing. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. The numbers worldwide are not known. This condition spans across all age and socio-economic groups. Since 1 in 4 in Americans have chronic pain, our awareness of what these people experience will only help them, those of us who are their friends or family, and hopefully raise the consciousness and effectiveness of policy makers in the field.
We all have negative thinking patterns and for good reason. Our survival instincts track our biggest perceived threat and attend to that, so we hear warning voices in our minds. These voices help keep us safe. It is when we turn these voices against ourselves that we bring in self-hate and other self-destructive behaviors. We are surrounded by negativity through all the information that comes to us on any given day: the news, advertisers, other people caught in their negative thought patterns, and our own habits of negative thinking. Our brain chemistry can drive us into these patterns. No wonder we can feel like we are spinning in a downward spiral of negativity, maybe even seeming without end.
Living with chronic pain is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to cope with such a high level of stress in the body.
I became socially isolated, as so many of us do when we hurt all the time. I didn’t feel like going out and my friends were so uncomfortable knowing I had pain that they stopped coming to see me. It’s hard to know what to say to someone who you know is hurting all the time, especially when you can’t do anything to help relieve it. Loss of social connection was a huge change for me to adapt to. The brain is wired for social connection, so such isolation was quite opposite of what was normal for me. It’s an awkward situation all the way around – for my friends, for my family members, and for me. I even sensed discomfort with my chronic pain in the doctors and other health care workers. It was hard for me not to take people’s reactions to their powerlessness over my pain personally. It wasn’t about me as a person that made people shy away; it was the pain itself.
I became anxious and fought depression daily, as so many others like me. As a person living with such pain, it can be very hard to bear these burdens of having to spend so much energy just coping with pain and the accompanying isolation they feel. I noticed my tendency towards negative thinking patterns increase at an alarming rate as my experience with chronic pain continued.
I viewed myself as a victim of my body. The doctors’ answer was to treat the condition with opiate and benzodiazepine medications – a Band-Aid approach rather than a cure. So, in my mind, even the doctors viewed the pain as a victimizer. It took longer for me to complete a given task and if I had to do a series of complex jobs, I tended to get confused. Imagine dealing with constant pain signals, feeling isolated and disconnected, exhausted, and trying to work through your day – all at the same time. Walking in the world and relating to it became what seemed like at time a Herculean task, even with my family’s continuous and loving support.
A feature of chronic pain is how it changes the brain. The chemistry of the brain changes over time in response to the condition of constant pain. Anxiety, anger, and depression are examples of common developments in the brain because of chronic pain. The cells in the brain that process emotion deteriorate faster than normal, so depression-like symptoms heighten. The part of the brain involved in regulating the sleep cycle is also negatively affected. Here we can see that negative thinking is a result of the changes the brain undergoes in the presence of chronic pain.
Another aspect of this is that the person who is in chronic pain can easily add to the downward spiral of negativity by allowing themselves to remain thinking negative thoughts. An example is ruminating about something that happened in the past that they want to change. They cannot change it, but they also cannot let it go or just drop it. Another adverse thinking habit is catastrophizing about future events. Again, the person cannot change the future as it hasn’t yet happened, but constantly frets about what might happen. These are thoughts of fear and they can run rampant in someone suffering from chronic pain.
One can feel at the mercy of these thoughts. It can seem like we are lost in them and we fight to stay hopeful and positive.
As a matter of bringing awareness to the public about people with chronic pain, please know that they are doing the best they can. There is so much fear around living with chronic pain. We are afraid to stay where we are with it because we don’t want to feel it, and we are afraid to try new things because we fear our pain might get worse. On top of that, our brain chemistry reinforces our already vulnerable state. It can seem like a perfect storm to the person suffering from chronic pain, and the way out of the storm often seems nebulous at best.
I address ways we can shift out of these negative thinking habits here.
In the meantime, I hope you have a better understanding of the burden that someone in chronic pain carries.
#PainAwarenessMonth #UnleashTheGripOfChronicPain #LivingBeyondChronicPain
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