Fighting Chronic Pain: The Body-Mind Connection

Anyone who battles chronic pain is known as a Chronic Pain Warrior. This makes perfect sense if you think about it. We use words like battle, and fight. Who goes to battles? Warriors. Not to mention, it’s a much stronger stance to take than patient or sufferer. Who wants to be known as one of those? I’ll take warrior any day. (Coincidentally, the store I work at is nicknamed the Warriors, so I’m a warrior literally all the time). I initially never thought about a body-mind connection in regards to my chronic pain. What does my mind have to do with my shoulder hurting? (I use shoulder as an example because it’s hurting while I write this). It was seeing a naturopath that changed my perspective on this. She immediately started to focus on healing both the physical symptoms in my body, using techniques such as acupuncture and prescribing natural medications like curcumin and magnesium. As well as mini talk therapy during our sessions. We even have similar conversations, just in less detail, that I have with my therapist. Her belief, and now mine, is that the entire body, which includes the mind, needs to be healed together, as one.

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The perception of pain is different for everyone. When asked how bad my pain feels on a scale from 1 to 10, my answer of 7 may feel different than someone else’s answer of 7 (which is one of the many reasons I hate that question, though I understand why medical practitioners need to use some sort of scale). No one is denying that chronic illnesses cause pain. I can have the happiest day ever and still experience physical pain in an area (or areas) of my body. What I’ve learned and experienced though, is that the amount of pain felt can be controlled, to some degree, by my mental state. For example, when my anxiety was at its worst last summer, so was my pain. Which came first? I feel as though it was my physical pain but it’s the classic chicken and egg story. Physical pain probably caused the anxiety but worsened anxiety could have easily made my physical pain worse. The worst day for pain was the day after I moved out of my ex-girlfriend’s place. I ended up in the hospital. The stress and anxiety increased by the breakup likely had an effect on how much physical pain I was experiencing.

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So the big question probably is, how does this all work? How do I train my mind to make my body feel better. I definitely have not found this an easy process, nor is there a truly definitive answer. The truth is, I may never find it easy and there may never be a definitive answer. After six months of psychotherapy, naturopathy, physiotherapy, and massage therapy, I do find I am in less pain (what was once a daily 7-8 on a scale of 10, is now about a 4-5), and my anxiety levels have decreased by half (from an 8 to a 4). Healing through self-love and self-acceptance definitely has played a huge role. There are lots of other ways I have controlled my mind to help ease the pain. The hardest part is to remember to do it while in pain. Since for me, it comes and goes throughout the day, it’s using different techniques when it does come that are most important (Except at night, I often feel like there’s nothing to be done – there will be a future post on medical marijuana).
Some mind techniques that have worked for me:

  1. Deep breathing – just take a few minutes to focus solely on your breath. The pain may not fully go away, but at the very least ease for a few minutes.
  2. Altered focus – shifting your attention to parts of your body that are not in pain. Or, thinking about something completely different that has nothing to do with pain. I.e., a happy memory you have, a vacation you plan on taking, a project you have at work or school.
  3. Reducing stress – if there are things in your life that are causing you stress and you’re able to let them go, do just that. Maybe a change in career, diet, letting go of friends that are unsupportive, or using meditation to destress after a long day and busy day.
  4. Distraction – as a creative person by nature, I find that while I do things like read, write, paint, or play the piano I have zero pain. This won’t work for every moment of the day, but whenever I have the chance, I try to do at least one of these things. Even if you aren’t “creative” (by the way, I believe everyone is creative, just in different ways) try doing something anyway. Blast some music and sing or dance along, buy some paints and canvases from the dollar store and make some terrible art. You might be surprised at how well this type of distraction works.
IMG_0848This hilariously terrible painting is done by yours truly.

It’s not about tricking your mind, and honestly, I believe that everyone who struggles with chronic pain should also be seeing a talk therapist of sort sort, as well as a naturopath to deal with any emotional difficulties they have surrounding their chronic pain and other areas of their life. A good therapist will come up with specific ways to help you deal with your physical pain while dealing with your emotions. Keeping a positive outlook on your life, as hard as that might be, helps as well. I hop you have a great, low to no pain week!

References:
http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/guide/11-tips-for-living-with-chronic-pain#1
http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/chronic-pain/11-chronic-pain-control-techniques
http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/chronic-pain-and-mental-health-mind-body-connection-0821135
http://www.lifetimedaily.com/the-mind-body-connection-reducing-chronic-pain/

Tips for choosing a naturopath:

  1. Ask your doctor who they recommend. Usually naturopaths with a ND require referrals from your doctor, so see if they have a recommendation for you.
  2. Decide if you would like a Naturopathic Doctor (someone who graduated from a naturopathic medical school and passed board exams) or a Traditional Naturopath who has a diploma.
  3. Determine if they are experienced in treating your specific health concerns. Just as them about their experience.
  4. See if they practice what they preach. If they lead a healthy lifestyle, they are more likely able to work with you on yours.
  5. Find out if they are willing to work with your other medical practitioners. My naturopath always wants to stay up to date with my visits to my rheumatologist, family doctor, psychotherapist, physiotherapist, and massage therapist.
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