For the past few months, I’ve been struggling with physical pain, something I’ve never been great at dealing with. (Though, admittedly, I’ve gotten better at it since 2015, when I had my first surgery!) Waking up day after day with physical pain is a strange experience if you’ve never been through it before. Obviously the physical part isn’t ideal, but the toll it takes on your mental state is even more of a challenge. When pain starts impacting your whole life — where you can go, what you can do, how much work you can accomplish in a day — it goes from unpleasant to frustrating to depressing really quickly, making maintaining a positively present attitude difficult, to say the least!
Since 2015, I’ve be dealing with a string of health issues — all of them different but connected to one another — and, needless to say, I’m quite over all of this pain and doctor’s appointments and lying around trying all kinds of tips and tricks to see what will alleviate some of the pain. It’s both time-consuming and boring, which is a pretty bad combo. Over the weekend I was in a bit of a funk, frustrated and angry and in a bit of a woe-is-me state, when I realized that, once again, I was being handed a perfect opportunity to practice what I preach.
“What advice would I give someone in pain?” I asked myself, “What tactics could I try to improve my mental state, even if I can’t seem to figure out how to get the physical pain to go away?” After hours of avoidance, I finally got myself to sit down and write, and here are some of the things that have worked for me. If you’re dealing with pain (physical or emotional!), maybe give some of these a try and see if they work for you.
1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
When you’re not used to worrying about your health, it can be difficult to pay attention to your body. Since my first surgery in 2015, I’ve gotten better at listening to my aches and pains and arranging my schedule in such a way that I can make myself as comfortable as possible, but it’s taken a long time for me to get used to paying attention. When I first started feeling pain, I tried to ignore it, and when it came back again, my mind was like, Nope, this is NOT happening again. Just ignore it and it’ll go away. Funny how that doesn’t work with physical (or emotional) pain. If you don’t face it, and do whatever you can to help alleviate it, it’ll come back. Paying attention the pain, no matter how badly you’d rather ignore it, is the first step to making any sort of positive progress.
2. DISCOVER A GOOD DISTRACTION.
Distracting yourself might sound like the opposite of the previous tip, but what I mean by this is: once you’ve identified the pain and done what you could do help it (gone to the doctor, taken medicine, done your exercises or whatever else the doctor recommended), it’s time to stop dwelling on it. Feeling sorry for yourself might feel like a luxury you deserve when you’re not feeling well, but it only brings you down further. Instead of wallowing (as I wasted part of my weekend doing, ugh!), find a (positive!) distraction that will keep your mind off the pain. Anything that brings your spirits up — a new book, a favorite funny film, a friend stopping by — is worth trying. And don’t be discouraged if your usual go-to mood-lifter doesn’t do the trick. Pain, especially if it’s new, might require discovering a new distraction! (To find a new one, consider what’s worked in the past. If it’s funny films, scour Netflix for a comedy special. If it’s a good book, treat yourself to one you’ve been looking forward to or ask a friend to stop by the library and select a bunch from your favorite genre!)
3. STAY AS POSITIVE AS POSSIBLE.
Thoughts are incredibly powerful, and, while staying positive during times of pain is most certainly a challenge, it’s worth every ounce of extra effort. When pain is chronic it can be hard to stay positive because there’s no clear end in sight, there’s no “take these pills and you’ll be better in a week” to hold on to, but there’s scientific proof that a negative attitude can make health worse and a positive one can make it better, so, at the very least, you can think of an optimistic outlook as a kind of medicine. If it’s really hard to do (and I know how hard it can be when things aren’t looking great), think of it a physical (mental) therapy exercise. It’s not really fun to do and you don’t always see instant improve me, but if you keep at it, it’ll most likely help in some way. (The trick to staying positive is to pay attention to your thoughts. If this is hard to do, enlist the help of someone else to tell you to knock if off when you’re in a woe-is-me state.)
4. LOOK FOR YOUR LUCK.
Sure, you might not feel particularly lucky when you’re in pain (in fact, it’s probably the last thing you feel), but, cliche as this advice sounds, shifting your focus to all the ways you are lucky can make a hugely positive impact on your attitude. Each time you dread visiting the doctor, focus on the care you’re fortunate to receive. Each time you feel like you’re missing out on fun things, focus on the small joys of getting to rest and recover (and remember that someone else would probably love to be resting right now but for whatever reason, cannot). Each time you compare your current state to someone else’s, remind yourself that you’re lucky to have that person in your life. Gratitude can be arduous when you feel down on your luck, but when you start practicing it, it really does make you feel better.
5. FIXATE ON WHAT YOU CAN DO.
When you’ve tried all kinds of remedies and doctor recommendations and you’re still in pain, your mind might turn to the fruitless task of contemplating all that you’re unable to do. In times of pain, it’s not surprising to feel frustrated and unproductive and useless, but dwelling on those feelings doesn’t do you any good. Instead of focusing on all the things you can’t do — work missed, plans cancelled, dreams delayed — direct your attention to what you are capable of doing. Some days I even write a list of all the things I’ve done (even if it’s just showering, walking Barkley, and reading) so I can remind myself that, even on days when I can’t do much, I’ve still done something. And even if you can’t physically do a thing, you can still listen to a podcast or watch a film or daydream about all the cool things you’ll do when you feel better. This mindset can be tricky to master, particularly if you’re in pain for long periods of time and wonder if you’ll ever be able to do certain things again, but when you fixate on what you can do instead of what you can’t, you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel emotionally.
Over the past few years, I’ve really gotten a life lesson on just how important health is, and how quickly pain can take charge and change your life. I’ve also been reminded that pain isn’t always visible. Someone might look fine, might even act fine, while combatting a pain you can’t see. If you’re pain right now, I hope these tips helped in some small way. If you’ve been through chronic pain (emotional or physical) and have any additional advice to add, I’d love to hear it. In the comments section below, let me know what you do when you’re facing pain ’cause you never know when a tip that worked for you might help someone else too!