Chronic pain affects almost every aspect of a person’s life. I know because I live with it every day. Here are five seldom-recognized and, thus, seldom-understood consequences of living with chronic pain.
1. Sleep deprivation
Some people with chronic pain can find a sleeping position that allows their pain to subside enough to fall asleep. I usually can. Unfortunately, something that worked when I turned the lights out can wake me up at 1 a.m., as if to say, “Sorry, but this position will no longer do.” Sometimes I can find another position, sometimes not. If I can’t, then by morning, I’m sleep-deprived.
When almost any movement triggers pain, it’s hard to perform everyday tasks quickly and efficiently. This tends to give rise to impatience. For example, because it hurts to reach my arms up (due to osteoarthritis in the shoulders), I often don’t get an adequate grip on something I’m trying to take off a shelf (perhaps a box of cereal). Instead of patiently taking my time to be sure the box is securely in my hand, I grab at it, and it comes tumbling down to the floor.
Of course, then I have to reach down to get it, which triggers more pain.
Certain swear words have been known to pass my lips. When I hear them, I know impatience has taken hold.
Clearly, what’s called for here is self-compassion, not impatience. By self-compassion, I simply mean being kind to myself about how hard it is to perform simple tasks when I’m in pain. Impatience leads me to think it’s my fault that the cereal box is on the floor (hopefully only the box and not its contents). We can learn from our mistakes but then move on; self-blame is never constructive.
Self-compassion also includes skillful action; in this case, I’ve bought a stepping stool so I can reach those higher shelves more easily.
When I’m in pain, I can get snappy and over-demanding. Unfortunately, my husband bears the brunt of this negative mood. This is especially true during this pandemic when my connection to others is limited to talking on the phone or visiting via video. Unlike when I’m alone with my husband, when I’m on the phone or the computer screen, I put on a happy mood when talking to others. I think this is true for most people. I’ve noticed that on Zoom or FaceTime when asked, “How are you doing?” people almost always say that they’re doing fine (or even great). They rarely mention their troubles.
Once I’m off the phone or the video visit, though, my crankiness often returns. I can even give my husband a cranky response to a suggestion he’s made that might make me feel better, such as going for a drive together. My ungracious response is the pain talking.
I’m working on altering this cranky mood by cultivating compassion for myself and compassion for those in my presence. I cultivate self-compassion by speaking kindly to myself, silently or in a soft voice. I’ll say something like, “I’m sorry you’re in pain, sweet body — working so hard to support me.” This doesn’t magically take away the pain, but it alleviates it a bit because it helps my body to relax. In addition, speaking kindly to myself communicates to me on a deep level that I care about my suffering and this helps me not to be cranky.
I’ve decided that most of the impatience and crankiness that arise in the face of chronic pain are due to exhaustion. Pain is physically and mentally exhausting; it’s a tremendous energy drain. I’ve found some relief by lying down and listening to a favorite piece of music or an audiobook. Although I’m in pain when I do this, at least I’ve added something pleasant to my field of awareness. Experiment to see what works for you — a warm bath, a recording of nature sounds, a favorite podcast. Finding an enjoyable distraction makes the pain take a back seat to a pleasant sensation, and that’s restful and renewing.
5. Emotional pain
Physical pain can lead to emotional pain, as evidenced by what I’ve written about impatience and crankiness. I’m giving emotional pain its own space, though, because some emotional pain is best not to push away. I’m thinking particularly of sadness and grief. They’re often first experienced as anger over what I can’t do because of chronic pain. Right now, it’s painting in watercolor. But if I look closely, underlying that anger is sadness and even grief.
Allowing myself to feel this sadness and grief is emotionally healing. It gives me the space to consider what I still can do, such as sitting on the bed with my laptop and writing this piece.
Yes, I may have to do it (and other things) differently, for example, in short spurts. But blaming myself or being angry about the pain serves no useful purpose.
I love a teaching from Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. He tells us to take care of our suffering, be it physical or emotional. Emotional suffering would include the sadness and grief discussed above. Trying to push them away only intensifies them. Now I work on treating those painful emotions with kindness, for example, saying to myself, “I’m so sad that I can’t paint right now.”
This opening of the heart eases my emotional pain. I’m grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for suggesting that I take care of myself by generating compassion for my physical and mental suffering.
Toni Bernhard is the author of How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition), How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.
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