By Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH
In my last post, I discussed the cycle of chronic pain and how it works. In this post, I will focus on tools that you can incorporate into your life that will help break this cycle and empower you to take better control of your days…so that you can always look forward to each one.
Accept the Pain…Then Move Forward
This is the first step in effectively self-managing your chronic pain. To be clear—acceptance is not about giving up. It is about acknowledging that something is there and that you have the willingness and determination to take control of it. Once you acknowledge your chronic condition, don’t stay in the same spot; rather, be encouraged to take the next step…
Choose to take Control…Rather than Cope
Ask yourself: Are you currently in control of your chronic pain or are you just coping? To cope with chronic pain means that your days are left to chance–it can be like playing a game of Snakes and Ladders – an unpredictable game of luck. What this means is that on ‘good days,’ you do as much as you can (climb the ladder), and then on ‘bad days,’ you don’t do anything and start to feel discouraged (slide down the snake). In contrast, to take control is to take a proactive stance to carry out positive, planned actions (like the ones discussed in this post) that reduce the ‘luck’ element…so that you can be free to live your life…every day.
Prioritizing and planning your days is an essential tool. Take a moment to consider what things are important in your life and remind yourself that it doesn’t need to be done all at once. Write down the things that you would like to do, and then choose the ones that are more important to you at that moment. Remind yourself to stay flexible. By setting priorities, you will have a starting point to lead you back into a more active life.
Use Action Planning to Achieve Success
We all walk before we can run. You may have the motivation to turn over a new leaf by doing all the things that you have been wanting to do, but resist the urge to just jump in. Instead, use the Action Planning Technique that you learned earlier to set goals (either daily or weekly) that are within your power to accomplish. With larger goals, break them down into several manageable action plans. This strategy not only helps prevent fatigue and setbacks, but you will be able to look back and feel good about the progress you have made.
Track Your Process
You probably have noticed that in several posts, I’ve encouraged you to write something down in a journal–such as your Action Plans, symptoms, or feelings. This is because keeping a record of your day-to-day progress is the most effective way to truly see how far you have come. Our tendency is to underestimate our accomplishments—especially when we are taking small, steady steps. This can lead to frustration and discouragement. So the point here is this: It is important to recognize and acknowledge the successes you have achieved, so that you can continue to build on them. Need new journaling ideas? Consider making a “Bullet Journal” like the one below:
Release Those Endorphins!
You will recall that, over the past several posts, there has been quite some emphasis on both exercise and relaxation; this is because these activities have such significant impact on your physical health and emotional well-being. So it should not surprise you that physical activity and activities that promote relaxation are also major components of controlling chronic pain.
♦ Relaxation Techniques: If you’ve been following my posts, you should have learned several instant relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, and mindfulness. If you have 10 minutes set aside, doing a full relaxation exercise can be even more effective. These activities not only cause your brain to release endorphins but also help your muscles let go of tension, resulting in less pain. Remember, with all these techniques, I encourage you to do them regularly for at least 2 weeks, as it often takes some practice before you start feeling maximal benefits.
♦ Stress Management: It is a well-known fact that stress intensifies chronic pain symptoms. Not only that, but negative feelings like depression, anxiety, and anger can all increase your body’s sensitivity to pain and make it worse. By learning to take control of stress, you will also notice some relief from your chronic pain symptoms. I encourage you to spend some time reading over this Stress Management post, which provides practical tips on effectively managing stressors that you may encounter.
♦ Exercise: Many people with chronic pain hesitate to exercise for fear of worsening their symptoms. But the truth is that unused, tense muscles feel more pain than stronger, flexible ones. While it may be difficult at first, regular stretching and physical activity actually work to decrease pain and discomfort. The key is to start slowly and exercise safely. Tip: Water-based activities (eg. swimming, water aerobics, or just walking in a pool) are excellent low-impact choices for many people with chronic pain (especially joint problems). If you have low back pain, be sure to check out this post on back exercises.
See the Big Picture and Be Patient with Yourself
As you incorporate the above tools into your life, you will see that pain does not need to be the center of your life. By choosing to focus on your abilities, not your disabilities, you will grow stronger in your belief that you can live a full life despite having chronic pain. With that said, remember to take things steadily. It may take you a few weeks or months to see changes or improvements. Even when you start to feel good, don’t be tempted to overdo it. Rather, take things one day at a time.
Reach Out to Others
Once you have begun to find ways to manage your chronic pain symptoms, reach out and share what you know. Living with chronic pain is an ongoing learning experience. Part of being a successful self-manager means getting help and support from others. Consider reaching out to your healthcare professional, friends, family, or work colleagues.
You may be asking yourself, “Do I really need to use these tools every day?” The answer is yes. Just as a person with diabetes has to take their medication every day and watch what they eat on a daily basis, your tools for chronic pain management is also something that needs to be maintained day to day. Everything I covered today–from planning, prioritizing, and setting goals to exercise and relaxation– are all things that may seem like extra work now….but in reality, with a little practice, these techniques will quickly become a natural routine that will make your life easier. So be encouraged to give them all a try to see what works for you.
*The information in this post can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.