5 Seldom-Recognized Consequences of Living With Chronic Pain
Chronic pain is more than pain; it affects almost every aspect of life.
Posted Feb 11, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Key Points: The physical and emotional consequences of chronic pain can show up in ways sufferers may not expect. Recognizing that a bad mood or poor sleep are related to chronic pain could help increase compassion and limit self-blame.
It’s been a hard few months for me. In addition to restrictions necessitated by the pandemic (I’m doing everything to keep myself and those around me safe), I’m experiencing an intensification of chronic pain, partly due to my ongoing chronic illness (ME/CFS) and partly due to a bad flare in osteoarthritis.
This has led me to become acutely aware of several seldom-understood consequences of living with chronic pain. I’ve always known these consequences were there, but because they’re currently taking center stage in my life, I’m writing about them in an effort to raise awareness about this little-discussed subject.
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. Sleep is particularly important to me because one of the defining characteristics of my chronic illness is “unrefreshing sleep.” But at least the phrase “unrefreshing sleep” suggests that sleep is taking place!
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 for my suffering. This involves recognizing how hard it is to perform otherwise simple tasks when I’m in pain and being kind to myself about it instead of acting as if it’s my fault that the cereal box is on the floor (hopefully only the box and not its contents).
Self-compassion also includes skillful action; in this case, I’ve bought a stepping stool so I can reach those higher shelves more easily. I call that self-compassion in action.
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. I find that, 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. After all, my friend or family member and I have taken the time to set up a day and time to connect remotely. Once the conversation starts, who wants to listen to my complaints? Were we to meet in person, I’d be more likely to share. I’m sure this is true of others, too. I’ve noticed that, especially with Zoom or FaceTime, when asked “How are you doing?” people almost always say that they’re doing fine (or even great). Like me, people rarely complain about their troubles.
Once I’m off the phone or the video visit, though, my crankiness often returns and my poor husband has no choice but to be the captive listener. I can even give a cranky response to a suggestion he makes 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. It’s not fair to him… and it’s not fair to me. After all, I’ve been living with a low level of chronic pain for almost 20 years without being cranky about it all day long. I’d learned not to blame myself for something over which I had no control. I’d learned to be kind to my body about what it was experiencing.
If these higher pain levels are here to stay (and who knows if they are), I plan to learn to live gracefully with the pain by recognizing my suffering (mental and physical) and then cultivating compassion for myself and compassion for those who are 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 can alleviate it a bit because it helps my body to relax. In addition, speaking kindly to myself tells me on a deep level that I care about my suffering. That caring response is an antidote to crankiness.
I’ve decided that most of the impatience and crankiness that arise in the face of chronic pain are due to exhaustion. I’m not referring to the exhaustion that comes from poor sleep (although that factors in). I’m referring to how pain is physically and mentally exhausting during waking hours. It’s a tremendous energy drain.
I’ve found some relief by lying down and listening to a favorite piece of music or an enjoyable 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. Call it a distraction if you like; I’m definitely in favor of distractions.
Even if only briefly, 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 here, though, because some emotional pain is best not to push away. I’m thinking particularly of the sadness and grief that arise when chronic pain makes it impossible to engage in enjoyable and fulfilling activities.
Right now, for me, it’s painting. I was angry about this at first (that crankiness paying a visit). But then I realized that underlying the anger was sadness and grief for what I can’t do right now.
Allowing myself to feel this sadness and grief has been emotionally healing. It’s given 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 this 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 I’ve been writing about. 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 feeling 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.
My best to everyone.
This piece might lighten your day: “Top 10 Song Titles That Capture Chronic Pain and Illness,” and this piece might help your body: “Four Techniques to Help With Physical Pain.”