Living the Questions

Finding peace in uncertain times.

Coping with Chronic Illness & Pain? The #1 Tip I've Found

Two experts share their best advice for coping with chronic pain and illness.

Why do I have chronic pain? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years now. I’ve been to surgeons who told me they could cure me, so I’ve gone that route–two back surgeries, one cervical and one lumbar. I’ve had a world-renowned physician tell me I had thoracic outlet syndrome (see this lovely post by my husband). I’ve had a physical medicine doctor tell me I had too little muscle between my shoulder blades and needed to work out more. (Well, I’m stronger but I still have pain.) I’ve tried physical therapy. I’ve tried massage. I’ve taken supplements and tried acupuncture.  

In addition, being the psychologist that I am, I’ve explored every mental aspect of this pain thing. I’ve been to therapists and psychiatrists. I’ve read books that said I needed to release some anger. I’ve learned to meditate and manage my stress. I’ll latch on to one theory, only to find another, and chase that one like a dog chasing after a rabbit. It’s exhausting, and not very productive.

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One day, I was having a particularly rough time and the ruminating began. Why am I in more pain today? Did I sit too long in one position? Did I type too much? Did I work out too hard? Am I stressed out about something?

I tried to distract myself from my worry by surfing the Internet, and I stumbled across the book, Chronic Resilience: 10 Sanity Saving Strategies for Women Coping with the Stress of Illness by Danea Horn. Thanks to Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature, I was able to read some of the first chapter. It was so what I needed!

The author has a chronic health condition and had gone through similar soul searching. She writes, “I searched my psyche for feelings and thoughts that needed to be healed. I prayed to increase my faith…I read book after book, until I had a bookcase filled top to bottom with answers, none of which seemed to miraculously fix what I envisioned as broken.” Years later she asked herself, “Why am I still dealing with the same crap I’ve been dealing with for years?” (I really relate to that question!)

Then it hit her. The answer was simple: She realized that she was human. We come into this world with bodies that can get sick, experience pain, and eventually die. We do anything to resist these truths. We want to think we have more control than we do. She writes, “Each page I turned in all those books was a search for how to get out of being human.”

I also reread and interview I did with Toni Bernhard, author of award-winning How to Be Sick, and her new book, How to Wake Up. She said:

“It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain.”

Of course, I know this. Yeah, I’m human. We’re all human. But somehow, reading the words of these inspiring authors, hit me in a profound way. I didn’t cause this. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think I’ll spend the next seven or eight years going to doctors, having surgeries and taking pills.” I think far worse than the pain has been the questioning of my sanity.   

Danea writes in her book, Chronic Resilience, that the idea isn’t that we have no control. The idea is to let go of asking “Why?” and instead focus on, “What can I do that’s useful?” And for me, I think all this analyzing has gone too far.  The next time I get stuck in a worry groove asking “Why?” or  “What have I done?” I’m going to gently tell myself, “Hey, you haven’t done anything wrong. You’ve already got the answer. You’re human.”

Ahhh. To use Danea’s words, I can feel “all of the cells in my body let out a collective sigh of relief.”

Let’s Keep in Touch!

Join me on Twitter  and  Facebook.

I also write at The Self-Compassion Project.

I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.

 Photo by Tavallai via flickr

Dr. Barbara Markway, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over twenty years of experience. She is the author of four popular psychology books and has been featured in media nationwide.

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