girl closing eyes looking looks like praying with clasped hands

What’s Your Healing Image?

Short Video – What’s your healing image?

Often pain leaves us feeling vulnerable and fearful. It may help to find an image that has meaning to you, such as a tree or a mountain, to help you feel strong, powerful, and confident. Images can be very powerful in our healing process. Instead of allowing ourselves to feel defeated and victimized by pain, we can feel the characteristics of that image and allow these positive feelings to penetrate our mind and body. Some people use nature scenes, others use an animal, a superhero, or you can make up your own image. What is your healing image?A

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B&W picture of woman looking out on a lake on a cloudy, cold day

The Power of Our Perceptions When Suffering From Chronic Pain

B&W picture of woman looking out on a lake on a cloudy, cold day

I am often asked, “What helped you to get better, to overcome pain?”            

There are many things from a healthy diet, to yoga, stretching and exercising, to certain medical treatments like prolotherapy. Those helped me physically. What helped me emotionally cope with chronic pain, and still does, all started many years ago at an event that taught me about the power of our perceptions. I almost did not attend because I knew that one hour of laying on the floor instead of my bed, would cause tumultuous muscle spasms and increased pain; but, I am grateful courage came forth that night. It started me on a path of deep healing. 

That eventful night, I attended a Dharma talk in a run-down, white house in San Francisco. Perfectly centered between gold and red tapestries that cascaded down the front walls of a small room sat a monk whose serene expression contrasted the sharp, prickly hairs that stood erect on her shaved head. Her serenity brought me a glimpse of peace to which I and the other nineteen attendees hungrily clung.

The Dharma talk’s topic was Suffering. I knew this word well, as do most people. Its meaning is understood through experience that encroaches upon us by one means or another. To me, chronic pain was synonymous with suffering.

 “We are the cause of our suffering,” the monk told us matter-of-factly and gave an example: Imagine standing in a long line, and a stranger pushes you aside to get ahead. What is your first reaction? Do you yell at the person or make sly comments out of anger and impatience while she stands in front of you? Do you envision ways to get back at her for taking your spot and making you wait longer? Do you politely tell her that you were already there? “Or,” offered the monk, “do you first consider the possibility that this person may have been distracted by her own thoughts, not even realizing that she jumped ahead in line, or perhaps, she is in a hurry for a very important reason and it is okay to let her go before you?”

Then, she asked us:

  • Which reactions would create anger, impatience, and tension—more suffering?
  • Which reactions would not create suffering?
  • Do you think that the situation created your emotional suffering, or was it your thoughts and reactions to the situation?

 “How we perceive a situation affects our emotions and thoughts,” was the wisdom that the monk shared with us that night. 

   

Does Pain or Our Perceptions of Pain Cause Our Feeling Victimized? 

When I went home that night, I wondered how the Dharma talk pertained to me. I first thought that the stranger the monk talked about was my pain. Pain was a ferocious entity, a parasite that cruelly sucked so much life from me, cutting me off from the world. I was furious with pain. It exhausted me. It exhausted my hopes. I tried to control it, but my inability to do so resulted in feeling victimized—conquered. I resented this, thusly, I feared and rejected pain more.

Yet, later that night after the Dharma talk, I realized the stranger, which I originally thought was pain shoving and pushing me aside, was actually me. I had become my own victim. The pain was not destroying me; my thoughts, beliefs, perceptions of and emotional reactions to pain had been making me feel victimized. As we enter experiences with certain beliefs, we in turn, create a reality to validate these beliefs. Reality, or more literally, our perception of reality, is what we make it. The meaning I gave suffering, and the story about my suffering on which I ruminated, caused my suffering.

Although I hated pain and battled and feared it, I began to recognize that I did not actually hate and fear pain itself, I hated and feared feeling pain. I was not afraid of pain, I was afraid of suffering and what I emotionally identified with the concept of suffering. It is not emotional or physical pain, but the aversion to pain that caused my suffering. I had created a world of rejecting experiences (rejecting the sensation of pain, my body, myself). How could I not feel anything but enormous fear, depression, and loneliness? It was I who had been taking away my power, not pain.

Pain can feel overwhelmingly powerful, physically, mentally, and emotionally; however, just as our mind can play a large part in our suffering, it can also free ourselves from suffering. Our perceptions are subjective, not fixed. We can change our thoughts, perceptions, attitude, beliefs, and our outlook. 

 

That night, the Buddhist lecture initiated my process of learning that when we look through the keyhole into our life, it is important to detach from thoughts, desires, emotions, fears, actions and reactions. When we let go of unhealthful thoughts and reactions, we create space for positive thoughts, open-mindedness, adaptable thinking, and joy. 

I never want to limit my life, but rather, enhance my life with a reality of possibilities.

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Question mark held up in front of woman's face

Do I Have To Accept Living In Chronic Pain Forever?

Question mark held up in front of woman's face

What does it mean to accept living with chronic pain? And forever? How do people do that? Should they?

I struggled with these questions for years as doctors constantly told me that I needed to learn to accept living in chronic pain. I thought, How could someone have the audacity to label me as “a hopeless case” and define my future, my life? Did this mean relinquishing hope of getting better? Did it mean I needed to stop trying? I could not, would not, accept living in pain forever

As much as I had been rejecting pain, I had been also rejecting my body.  I was attached to something that no longer existed. I idolized and clung to my “perfect” body and my “perfect” life before my injuries. Before my back injuries and pain, I was fully living life, not merely existing. I did not want this “new” body. I felt unsafe in this body of pain and had lost control over it. Because of pain and physical limitations, I lost my health, my home, my job, financial stability.  But, over time, I began to realize that my body did not do this to me. It was suffering too, and trying to heal. 

I began nurturing my body as I would a beloved child or a sick family member. I began listening and responding to its needs. Through exercising, Feldenkrais work, Pilates, yoga, eating more healthfully, and gaining understanding of my activity tolerance so I did not overwork my body and cause more pain flair-ups, I began accepting and respecting my body.

Silhouette of person with head in hand surrounded by words related to depression

Chronic pain is as much a mental dis-ease as it is a physical dis-ease.

I needed to learn to accept my body and my Self.

Chronic pain creates not just physical trauma, but a disconnection from one’s Self. Grief is not just for those who have died, but for a loss of ones’s sense of Self, including one’s belief system and how one once defined his or her Self. Within my grief dwelled so many dimensions of loss–loss of abilities, companionships, independence, and how I defined my place in the world. I felt unlovable and inadequate–unworthy. Beliefs swirled in mind, such as: I had no value in society anymore. No one would ever want to date me. I could not go for long walks, or even walk on sand; no one would ever want to spend time with me. I could not be financially independent; I was worthless. All I had is my personality, but society defines people by their career and money. I had nothing to offer. How could I exist in society with pain and dis-abilities?

How could I heal from such catastrophic losses? By increasing my physical functioning, I thought. I changed my exercise goals, bought a stationary bike, and started biking for 1-minute intervals throughout the day, trying to rebuild my strength, thinking things would get better if I focused more on my body. Weeks passed and I realized that my new bike and goals were not healing grief. 

 

To move forward in my grief, I needed to let go of my false beliefs and misperceptions about myself–how I defined myself. Beliefs are stronger than thoughts, for they are thoughts embedded with feeling. We do not just think we are unworthy, we feel it to our depths. Often these beliefs start in childhood and are strengthened by other experiences, such as physical pain and trauma, because we define everything in relation to these beliefs.

Healing from grief and its psychological consequences due to trauma, is a process, a journey–a birthing–of the Self. I needed to open my heart to myself, without judgment. With compassionate awareness, I embraced the experience of my Self. I acknowledged, experienced, and de-tached from my emotional pain, the negative self-perceptions and the stories that I had created.  Underneath, deep down, I found resilience, wisdom, and self-love. Then, I began to accept the true value of my Self, limitations and all. 

From self-discovery evolved self-acceptance, and ultimately, self-love. 

When I began learning to accept and love myself, I began to accept my life. Through my inner journey, a new freedom impressed itself upon me. I had nothing–no roles, labels, or judgments to hide behind. I am what I am. And I love myself for this.

I still look for treatments that will improve my well-being and decrease pain, but I no longer allow myself to be consumed by pain. I perceive it as separate from myself. Pain is a part of my life for the moment, maybe forever, but it is not who I am.

Is it pain or loss that we need to accept?

People have told me that once they accepted pain, they felt a huge weight lift from their shoulders. They could finally refocus from trying to find a fix to living life again. If you ask me today, “Do you accept living in chronic pain”, I will probably say no, but I accept myself and my life, because I, not pain, define who I am and the course of my life.

Perhaps, instead of patients being told to learn to accept living with pain, which usually causes a defensive reaction, maybe they can be asked: “What problems are you having related to pain?” and “How can we work together to mourn your losses and reclaim your sense of Self, feeling even more self-compassion, self-reliance, and self-empowerment in your life right now?”  After all, don’t we all need this, whether we will live in pain forever or not?

I Love me

Spread the word

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Joy

Podcast: Sharing My Experiences with Pain and Healing

In this podcast, I share with Emmy Vadnais, a Holistic Occupational Therapist, my healing journey from back injuries that kept me bedridden on and off for 2 years, along with 5 years of learning to walk again. For me, healing means connecting to our true self and embracing all that we are so that we may live life with meaning and joy. I also hope to be a voice for people who experience pain, educating others on the multi-dimensional effects of pain and the resulting struggles.

11:20 Meditation as a Coping Strategy
18:38 Emotions & Pain
23:00 The Balance between Activities & Pain
31:00 BioPsychoSocialSpiritual Components
35:00 Fatigue & Chronic Pain/Illness & the famous Spoon Theory
41:46 Pain & Trauma/PTSD/Panic Attacks
45:00 Gaining a Sense of Control
49:50 Discussing Pain Medication & the Opioid Crisis

You can find more podcasts by Emmy at HolisticOT.
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Colored synapses lit up

Pain Signals and What We Can Do To Change Them

Colored synapses lit up

 Let’s be blunt. Pain sucks. It really sucks. It interferes with every aspect of a person’s life, and it affects others around us. So, what is pain?  

Our body has “danger detectors” called nociceptors that send messages through nerve roots to the spinal cord, which, in turn, decides to send or not send messages, or to alter and not send all messages to the brain. The brain reads and processes these messages, compares it with our emotions, thoughts, expectations, beliefs, memories and past experiences, etc. and decides if we are really in danger or not.[1] It relays its decision back to the spinal cord, which carries out orders to either set off the danger alarm by turning on or up the volume of pain or to let the body know all is well by inhibiting pain. The brain protects us from danger by sending pain signals and creating pain. Much of this happens quickly and without our conscious awareness.

When Pain Signals Persist

When danger stops, but our fear of pain continues, we remain hypervigilant and on guard, and our brain maintains high alert, sending pain signals to continue protecting us from further harm, even though we are no longer in danger. Overtime, if our brain continues to perceive that we in danger and continues to create pain, the brain starts rewiring. When pain signals chronically over-fire, neural pathways are established that remain intact long after a body has healed from an injury. 

Pain becomes a pattern, or a habit, of the brain even if the danger eventually stops, leading to overstimulated nerves and generalized hypersensitivity. 

Even the smallest touch, sensation, or a memory can be linked to feeling pain. David Hanscom (2016) relates an example of this when he discusses the story of a war veteran. Although his physical injuries had been healed for some time, every time he heard a helicopter, anguishing, physical pain would return at the place of his previous injury.2

Over-firing of pain signals may occur without apparent injury or cause. If you experience pain that has no definable cause and someone tells you the pain is “all in your head”, tell them they are correct, for the brain creates pain, and feeling it is not something you are making up. Danger does not necessarily mean an injury or illness. Emotions, such as anger or depression, negative thoughts, beliefs, lifestyle and life stressors can be interpreted by the brain as dangerous, and the brain is sending signals to the body that it perceives a threat and turns it into pain.

Fight, Flight, or Shutdown

 People who tend to be emotionally “sensitive” and empathic often are more inclined to experience chronic pain and autoimmune disorders. This is also true for people who have experienced some form of trauma in their life. Additionally, those who demonstrate greater anger and emotional distress in relation to their pain, tend to develop or experience higher levels of pain. Whether chronic pain has developed from physical or emotional trauma or an unknown cause, it is well documented that negative emotions exacerbate physical pain. 

Chronic pain signals trigger a continual fight or flight reaction, inducing chronic hyper-arousal of the mind and body and can lead to being withdrawn, depressed, and shutdown because it is too much to mentally, emotionally, physiologically handle.  Chronic pain easily leads to habitual fear of pain, avoidance behaviors, depression, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.  

Living with pain is like living with a blaring alarm clock constantly going off in your head. It disrupts the ability to think, to act, and to calm oneself. The hyperarousal I have felt from pain, often caused me anxiety, which caused more hyperarousal and pain, creating a vicious feedback loop. I could even feel my brain changing, in which I could not think as clearly, my memory was poor, my hearing became hypersensitive, I became hypersensitive to foods and my digestion was poor, I developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and allergies became heightened, such as a gluten allergy turning into Celiac Disease. Pain can affect us on all levels.

But wait, there is Hope! 

We can play a huge part in modulating pain signals.

Much of that hope comes from realizing that a HUGE part of healing comes from within. Just as psychosocial factors, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and our perceptions and expectations can all turn up pain signals and pain intensity, they can also turn down pain signals and intensity. Research suggests that a part of the brain called the amygdala, plays a large part in the connection between pain and emotions, as well as anxious behavior. The amygdala “…plays a key role in emotional modulation of pain….the amygdala appears to be involved in the enhancement (hyperalgesia), as well as in the reduction or inhibition (hypoalgesia/analgesia) of pain signals.”[2]

What is Your Self-Recovery Plan?

Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief that s/he can succeed at something. People who have high self-efficacy tend to exert a high amount of effort for an extended time and demonstrate more adaptive coping behaviors than someone with low self-efficacy.

 Although we may feel broken, we are not. We need to focus our hope inward and empower ourselves. We can play a huge role in our recovery process.

To reduce pain, the brain needs to be distracted from thinking that we are in danger; we need to take action and progressively engage in activities, that over time, tells our brain that we are safe.[3] Active coping skills, movement that feels good, people that make us happy, a safe environment, optimism, joy, humor, mindfulness, creative expression, journaling, decreasing stressors in our lives, enjoying nature are all ways to send signals to the brain that we are safe and the pain alarm system can be turned down. So many options we have to start working on feeling safe!

Pain is not just a physical experience, but also an emotional experience. 

I once took a vacation to a beach resort, where all I basically could do, because the pain was so severe, was lay on the beach, lay in the water or snorkel, nap once a day, and go out to dinner at night. My vacation gave me the experience of safety. Away from hospitals, doctors, therapists, and everything that reminded me of pain and my injuries allowed me to stop thinking about them. Instead, my brain was distracted with warm sun, relaxation, and engaging in activities that brought me a sense of connection with nature and joy. This increased my emotional resilience and ability to cope with pain during my trip. 

pict of palm trees along a beach and ocean in Hawaii

It distracted me from always noticing and feeling the sensation of pain. It decreased my overall physiological state of hyper-arousal and hypervigilance, allowing my mind and body to relax, so much so that my physical therapist noticed reduced muscle tension, greater physical alignment, and improved ability to walk.When we provide ourselves respite in an environment that feels safe, and when we are able to create an emotional state of joy and calmness, we can directly and positively affect our brain and physical state, and improve our quality of life.

When considering this mind-body connection of pain (this painful connection, if you will), remember that our thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs directly influence our emotions. The influence that the mind-body connection has on our health cannot be underestimated. To emphasize the significance of this connection, perhaps we should also consider pain intensity as an emotion—or an emotional reaction—to our state of mind.

 

Try engaging in activities that bring you joy and peace. Start for 5 minutes and work your way up to longer activities. And remember to always give yourself compassion. To help increase your relaxation response and decrease the flight/fight/shutdown response, check out some of my meditations.

 Our emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes all affect pain and have the potential to be natural painkillers. 

BELOW IS A LIST OF STIMULI THAT INFLUENCE PAIN:

May Increase Pain

May Decrease Pain

Noxious touch

Gentle touch, vibration, heat or cold

Depression

Joy

Negative thoughts, Pessimism

Positive thoughts, Optimism

Fear, Anxiety, Worry, Anger

Confident, Calm, Relaxed, Happy

Past Emotional and/or physical abuse/trauma

Appropriate rehabilitation

Emotional or physical tension

Emotional or physical relaxation

Over-focusing on pain

Distraction

Hopelessness

Purposeful activities

Repressed emotions

Actively coping with emotions

Low self-worth, rejection of body & self

Self-compassion and love,

Self-acceptance, strong sense of self -worth

References:


 

[1] Lehman, Greg. (2017). Recovery Strategies Patient Guidebook, Section 1: Pain Principles, pg. 10. Retrieved from: www.greglehman.ca

[2] Hanscom, David, MD. Back in Control: A Surgeon’s Roadmap Out of Chronic Pain, 2nd Ed. Vertus Press: 2016.

[3] Strobel, C., Hunt, S., Sullivan, R., Sun, J.Y., & Sah, P. (2014). Emotional regulation of Pain: the role of noradrenaline in the amygdala. Science China. Life Sciences. April 2014 (57)4: 384–390. doi: 10.1007/s11427-014-4638-x.

[4] Moseley. Lorimer. 2015, November 18. Explainer: What is Pain and What is Happening When We Feel It.  Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-pain-and-what-is-happening-when-we-feel-it-49040

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