We were lucky enough to catch up with Jackie Waters who wrote to us in an effort to help more people like herself living with chronic pain. Jackie was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her mid-20’s. After her diagnosis she began making lifestyle changes to minimize the number of medications she would need to take. As a self-described neat freak, she has always been obsessed with a clean home. The first thing she did was throw out harmful cleaning products and reorganized her home to manage her “bad” days. She also made diet and lifestyle changes to minimize, as much as possible, her joint inflammation. Jackie understands how scary it is to be diagnosed with a chronic illness. She therefore wrote this article to offer her tips and advice to those who are newly diagnosed or struggling to cope with pain.
You’ve been limited by pain for weeks, months or years and now you finally have a diagnosis—one that still comes with some unanswered questions in the form of chronic pain. When your body continues to send pain signals to your brain after an injury has healed, you not only feel chronic pain, but also fear, anxiety, frustration and depression.
The mind plays a central role in chronic pain. Pain is extremely subjective; the intensity, frequency and duration is often only able to be defined by the person experiencing it. The optimistic reality here is that the brain can also play a key role in managing that pain. For those experiencing chronic pain, you can train your mind to cope with persistent pain with these three scientifically-proven mental and behavioral techniques.
#1 Create a soothing home environment
The more stress you feel, the more pain you’ll feel. And then—guess what—the more pain you feel the more stressed out you’ll get. This cycle of pain and stress can really inflame your chronic pain and does little to get you feeling hopeful, happy or motivated. Creating a soothing space in your home that will encourage you to relax is a great way to break this cycle. Maybe it’s a massage chair and some relaxing music or perhaps it’s a serene meditation space to focus on your breath and do some yoga. Even without a dedicated space for relaxation—or even better, in addition to—creating a clutter-free, organized home can also help with stress reduction. Here’s how:
Organize closets and cabinets so that you’re better organized when you go looking for that heating pad, comfy blanket or pain medication. Nothing is more frustrating that not being able to find relief when you need it.
Declutter your living areas. Making sure you don’t trip and fall or feel overwhelmed by clutter will also help reduce stress and help you manage chronic pain. Living in a clutter-free space can help eliminate negative emotions—like feelings of hopelessness and despair—but also instill positive emotions, like confidence and contentment.
#2 Manage symptoms with mindfulness
Mindfulness is a way to stay focused on the present moment, which helps us stop worrying so much about the future and fixating so much on the past. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that can use your breath to help relax your body, which reduces pain, while also focusing on cultivating a mindset of gratitude. Mindfulness can help you not give into the pain.
#3 Get into your body
Getting active is an effective way to manage physical pain, as well as distract your mind from fixating on the areas that are sore or tender. Go for walks, join the gym, take exercise classes. The endorphins released from exercise have been shown to reduce pain and improve mood. Be sure to get the okay from your doctor before starting any physical activity. Other ways you can manage pain through your physical choices include:
Eating well: When in pain you may be tempted to turn to carb and sugar-filled comfort foods, but it’s important you eat a well-balanced meal. Not only can the nutrients help your body heal and recover, but natural foods often have anti-inflammatory qualities.
Relaxation training: As with mindfulness, training your body to relax also means training your mind. Doing progressive muscle relaxation techniques, where you start at your feet and tense then relax each muscle leading up to your head, can help soothe chronic pain.
Massage: Massage is a great way to cultivate temporary relief from your chronic pain. You can go see a massage therapist who specializes in your type of pain, or learn self-massage techniques that, when partnered with deep, relaxing breaths, can help reduce pain and inflammation.
While the brain can help manage pain, that doesn’t mean the discomfort is all in your head. Experiencing chronic pain can cripple you mentally, emotionally and physically. Ideally, training your mind in chronic pain management techniques can help you feel less reliant on medication and more empowered to take back control of your life mentally, emotionally and physically. Ideally, training your mind in chronic pain management techniques can help you feel less reliant on medication and more empowered to take back control of your life.