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Chronic Pain

Why We Struggle with Hope When We Need It the Most

How to make sure your mind is helpful, not hurtful when facing challenges.

Key points

  • People often listen to unhelpful thoughts as if they are always important and true.
  • The mind is a connection-making, language-producing machine.
  • Learning to let go of unhelpful thoughts can help people keep moving forward in their lives.
Fizkes Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes Shutterstock

Without hope, life becomes unbearable. Then why do so many people struggle to believe that their difficult life will get better? I must ask myself the same question. Why do I struggle to trust that good will come and not sink into despair? Understanding how the mind operates helps answer this question.

My patient had been to the best clinics, seen the top doctors, and visited well-known universities for the treatment of her migraines—but with no success. She sat across from me with arms folded and a skeptical expression. That look quickly turned to disbelief and anger when I told her there was hope.

I simply said, “By the end of your pain rehabilitation program, I believe you will get back to enjoying things that are meaningful to you. You’ll play with your grandchildren and once again attend social events with your husband.”

She was furious and asked, “How can you say that? I have suffered for years from migraines, and nothing helps.”

Her frustration was understandable, but she did not know that her condition was treatable. Until we met, she had received standard medical treatment for chronic pain, which is generally passive, where a patient has something done to them. She might benefit from active pain management where she would learn new skills to move and think differently.

The Unhelpful Mind

This patient had a more fundamental problem than not just having good information about how to treat chronic pain, which many patients and healthcare providers are unfamiliar with. The real difficulty she had was with how her mind explained and solved problems.

What this patient did not realize was her mind was engaged in a very routine process of evaluating a problem, looking at possible solutions, and imagining possible outcomes. Put more simply, her mind was producing language to explain life events and experiences, language that she listened to and treated as true, valid, and important.

That was a mistake.

How her mind put together her pain puzzle seemed true; the only problem was her explanation was not helpful. When we evaluate our thinking as simply true or false, we fail to use our ability to stand outside of our thoughts and observe them for what they are, just thoughts.

Why We Suffer

Our brains are constantly creating networks of ideas, words, images, and emotions. For the most part, this ability is helpful.

A farmer can look at the winter sky, test the soil in the early spring, read about regional weather patterns, and predict that it will be a dry summer. Based on this prediction, he can change how and when he plants, adjust which types of seeds he selects, and modify how he cares for the crop while it is growing. His ability to make comparisons, see events from a future perspective, and understand cause-and-effect relationships allows him to adapt and survive.

Just like that farmer, we can also use this same amazing language ability to make our lives miserable, even to the point of being unbearable. We can picture our upcoming presentation at an important meeting going poorly. We can imagine our embarrassment and the discomfort that others would feel in the room as the presentation flops. Following this disaster, our minds can predict that we will be demoted from our position and eventually lose our job. In no time at all, we will be unable to pay the mortgage and end up homeless.

Our minds’ ability to predict outcomes and create solvable or unsolvable problems is not a sign that we are unhealthy or broken. It is simply what the mind does—it uses language to explain what we experience.

Our minds are very good at making connections, explanations, predictions, and comparisons. It is our job to look at the connections our mind is making and ask ourselves, “Is this helpful? Does this mental activity help me go in the direction I want to go, or does it lead me further away from what is important to me?”

How the Mind Works

Our minds are looking for patterns and connections between things to make sense of the world around us.

My angry patient was hooked by her unhelpful mind as it explained her current circumstances and predicted her future. Her mind made unhelpful cause-and-effect connections, labeled aspects of her experience as bad, and linked things together that may not have any relationship at all with each other. In short, her mind was telling her nothing could change, and she believed it.

There are real-world consequences to how our mind operates. Because of the mind-body connection, our thought life, even if it is outside of our awareness, has a great impact on our bodies. What the mind anticipates, the body prepares for. If you believe you are going to be in pain, your body will prepare for the threat and produce pain.

Here is a key principle to remember: Your mind is like your grandmother who loves you and is worried that the worst will happen to you. She is compelled to tell you that you will die of sickness if you leave the house without your coat on.

There is no need to wrestle with your thoughts, just as there is no value in correcting your grandmother. It is not a question of your thoughts being true or not—the question you want to ask yourself is this: “Is buying into this thought helpful or not? Does the explanation my mind comes up with move me forward or keep me stuck?” How you answer that question can be the difference between hope and despair.

Learn to stand back and listen to all the chatter in your mind and just notice it. And continually remind yourself that you are not your noisy mind. You are the author of your story, not the victim of it.