Pain is one of the most intrusive things we can experience because it impacts nearly every aspect of our lives, especially if it is chronic.
As Bonnie Prudden said, “Pain, not death, is the enemy of mankind.” I have lived with pain most of my life, but nothing ever so intense as the pain that came when I developed a neurological movement disorder called dystonia nearly 20 years ago.
The best way I can describe it is to think of a time when you injured yourself, even something like a paper cut or stubbed toe. Imagine the shocking pain you felt at the exact moment of injury; for me that it is how it constantly felt in my skull, neck, shoulders, and back. It was like I was being injured over and over and over. I didn’t know pain like that was possible. It literally took my breath away. Thankfully, I have learned a variety of ways to better manage my symptoms to reduce the pain, but it takes a lot of daily work and dedication.
Often overlooked is that the emotional toll of pain can be just as bad, and sometimes worse than the physical pain. It is remarkably difficult to understand, so we are sometimes judged by others because they can’t see our pain. Most people can relate to short term pain or temporary limitation when they are sick, but life offers a whole new set of challenges when the condition is chronic, particularly for those who were once in good health.
Losing one’s identity, abilities, and choices that many often take for granted is the reality of chronic pain. Adapting to a life filled with pain and debilitation (mental or physical) makes it so you are always being tested to the limits. It is exhausting, to put it mildly. My book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, which was recognized by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, provides detailed information from people living in chronic pain and strategies for how to manage all that comes with it to help one live a more meaningful life.
Life Impact of Pain
If you suffer with chronic pain, you not only live with the unrelenting sensation of pain but probably have trouble sleeping, may experience anxiety, depression, and loneliness, and possibly have difficulty making decisions because pain can impact our ability to concentrate.
Brain activity in people who suffer from chronic pain is different from those who do not. In a healthy brain, all regions are in a state of equilibrium. When one region is active, the others quiet down. In people with chronic pain, the prefrontal cortex, the location for cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning, is always active. When this region is stuck in full throttle, neurons can change their connections with other neurons making it more difficult to concentrate, solve problems, make decisions, or be in a good mood.
As mentioned, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression often accompany pain, and there are physiological reasons for all this. Areas of the brain responsible for sensory stimulation are also responsible for controlling our sleep and wake cycle. When there is overstimulation, it makes it difficult for the brain to rest. Anxiety is also very common because reduced control over pain signals causes the brain to become extremely vigilant in anticipating future pain. We are almost always on edge, essentially living in fight or flight mode. Reduced control over pain signals also contributes to depression due to chemical changes in the brain, as well as, an exhausted feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.
For pretty much anyone living with chronic pain, you know exactly what I am talking about. We not only battle physical pain on a regular basis, we also battle a significant emotional toll as well. Then when people who say things to us like, “just get over it,” or “just push through it,” it in no way acknowledges the complexity of our pain.
There are many ways to treat and manage pain including, but not limited to, surgery, medications, nutrition, physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, cranial-sacral therapy, behavior modification, and biofeedback. Another important component of pain management involves regulating your daily schedule so that we have the right balance of activity, rest, social interaction, quiet time, and energy-giving activities.
Along with treatments to help with the physical pain, we also need to learn to manage the emotional side of it. It is critical that we do activities to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming side of the nervous system. This includes things such as reducing stress (rather, changing our response to stressors), breathing exercises, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, nutrition, a good movie or book, prayer, meditation, rest and relaxation therapies, affirmations, music and dancing, sex, being around animals, quality time with family and friends, good deeds, sunlight, being out in nature, and many more.
By using the above-mentioned activities, we can tap into the brain’s built-in pharmacy where we can produce endorphin, serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, also known as the feel-good hormones. We must also do an emotional cleanse and get rid of anger, resentment, shame, blame, and other negative emotions for our bodies to begin to heal. If we can reach a healthy level of acceptance, it puts us into a proactive state of mind where we look for solutions to problems rather than let them consume us.
We have a choice to accept or resist life challenges; and when I say accept, I do not mean resignation. I am talking about taking responsibility and learning to fight in a more productive way. If we resist our suffering rather than go into it and allow ourselves to feel it, the suffering will only intensify.
When we go into it and feel it, that is when we can find ways to transcend it.