Ignoring the pain

Recently an old friend came for morning tea and a chat. We talked about how it is possible to rise above pain if a person becomes engaged with something meaningful or creative. For some, a relationship lifts their thoughts above the pain, for others a connection with nature will surpass their awareness of pain in the body, while others are able to enter a world of creativity that blankets the world of pain. On a TV program I saw how scientists were interested in providing patients (suffering pain) with headsets and screens which enabled the patients to enter a digital fantasy world pursuing a goal through a series of challenges. The patients became so focused, so intent on the quest that they were able to forget the pain for a period of time.

I suppose the chief method for ignoring pain that I have employed over the years is reading. I love to immerse myself in a well-written true story which can temporarily give my mind rest from the insistent pain. Actually I have developed lots of techniques over the years – playing sudoku, listening to music, going for a walk, planning a speech, preparing an English lesson  – and you could probably compile a different list of your own favourite methods.

If I feel absolutely hemmed in with no ideas on how to ignore the pain I often go back to a phrase – ‘this too will pass.’ Time and again I have experienced the passing away of pain so this phrase is a very powerful reminder to me. I can tell myself to be calm as sooner or later I will find a way to lower the pain I am experiencing in a particular part of my body. It may take me months to achieve but I have had this happen in the past and I can find the way to make it happen again. For instance I remember a specific time when I was at my wit’s end:

  • In 1997 I had to stop writing as the pain in my writing hand was too intense. It was so bad that when it was absolutely necessary to sign my name I didn’t use my first name in full but reduced it to an initial plus the surname. I  found it difficult to sleep at night with the ache in my arm and so I developed a position of keeping that arm extended over my head and pillow all night which seemed to lessen the painful sensations. I decided I would keep writing with the other hand. I was never overly proficient with the other arm and gradually I felt that my right arm was also beginning to get a bad feeling so I stopped altogether. I could no longer play the piano. I still have diaries to remind me of that period of time – maybe 5 years all up. I found I needed to continue to make large arm movements (and overarm swimming was perfect) but I couldn’t hold my arms still, such as driving for long distances with both arms on the driving wheel, or lying flat on my back holding a book above my eyes to read. I could lift shopping bags but I couldn’t hold my arms still and carry the bags to the car  without aggravating the pain.
  • Eventually by paying attention to what worked and what didn’t and by not writing at all I managed to tone down the pain and these days I can write and play the piano but I only do these for short periods because I have a sense that within my arms there is a latent capacity for pain that could be re-activated if I do too much. When I feel tingles down the arm or a tightness or ache in individual fingers it is a reminder for me to pull back from whatever activity  is stirring up the sensation. It’s as if the body has a memory of pain in a certain place and it’s necessary to help the body forget the pain in order to recover.
irregular writing from holiday diary

irregular writing in a holiday diary

Ignoring the pain is different to thinking that if we (those of us who suffer chronic pain) take our attention away from the pain that the pain will actually improve. Our state of mind may improve if we ignore the pain but the pain runs its own course. I was dismayed when a doctor applauded me for going back to study as he felt that would take my mind off the pain and might even take the pain away!

We can deliberately ignore the pain for a certain period if we need to but there can come a time when the pain is too strong to be able to ignore. This is a time when it’s stupid to ignore the pain because it will increase if we don’t attend to it. My contention is that the sooner we register low levels of pain the better we will be able to redress it and stop it developing into a major episode. For example, the longer I am engrossed with designing something on the computer the more pain I will suffer in the shoulder/ neck/ head area the following day or longer – and not because I haven’t made all the ergonomic adjustments for working at the computer. But sometimes I choose to do this as I think something is very satisfying and worth the pain. Another example is the enjoyment I get from gardening – gardening sustains me more than it drains me and I find it hard to stop. Sometimes I misjudge whether it will only result in short term painful consequences or whether I have really stirred up extremely difficult shoulder pain again. Then I really regret that I didn’t stop the weeding earlier!

There are some people who might accuse us by saying,’You just need to relax!’ They imply that we have caused the chronic nature of the pain by being a very stressed, tense or anxious person. I think to myself, ‘I’d like to see you stay relaxed if you had this level of long-term pain. I too was a carefree person once!’ But it is true that becoming mentally tense can increase muscle tension which exacerbates the pain in the body – and that’s why we need to find out the kind of things that keep our own minds peaceful. The thing that can really tax my mind is that I go back over the day’s events trying to isolate what may have triggered more pain than I was expecting. Some days there just doesn’t seem to be any good reason.

So let’s ignore the simplistic advice about how better posture, a certain vitamin, a particular manual therapy, a new type of exercise etc. etc. will be the answer to our problem. Some people can even imply that we haven’t tried hard enough. I bite my tongue when really I feel like answering,  ‘Don’t you think I’ve tried all of that and more. If it was just that simple I would have recovered years ago!’

one way to soothe my shattered equilibrium

one way to soothe my shattered equilibrium

When I have done everything I know to keep the pain as low as I can and I still end up in a mess then I ignore thoughts of despair. I remind myself that I am still actually handling the pain, that it hasn’t overwhelmed me yet. I keep alive the thought that I will find a way to reduce that pain again. I calm myself with a nice cup of tea and I let myself switch off by reading a book. Or I allow myself to think of one step I can take next, one thing I can do to to feel I have re-gained control of what is happening – such as  ‘I’ll go swimming tomorrow’ or ‘I’ll switch the electrodes to another site.’ This way I manage to ignore fear and to keep hopeful that however bad it is at the moment another day will come when I will be so glad to be alive. And those days will be many.