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Reframing pain: how to move beyond suffering to enjoy a better life

7 minute read

Even if pain is unavoidable, suffering doesn’t have to be. If you want to lead an enjoyable, fulfilling life with chronic pain or a long-term injury, Vhi Health Coach Micheli Romao has the holistic approach to help you.

As anyone with chronic pain or a long-term injury can attest to, the physical discomfort only tells part of the story. It is an experience that occupies the whole mind and impacts our entire lives, involving mental and emotional challenges that can’t be ignored. If pain is what happens to us, ‘suffering’ is what we do with the pain. It is the meaning we create for the experience, often leading down avenues tinged with anger and regret. On top of dealing with physical pain, you might be suffering from not being able to do something you love.

A complex situation, but one that you can regain control over. The best way to deal with pain – and its accompanying suffering – is to take a holistic approach. This involves proven techniques that will help you reframe the pain and, through constructive practice, truly get back to enjoying life. To give the you all the tools to put this into practice, we will look at both the ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ components.

Practices for managing pain

Let’s deal with the immediate, daily discomfort. Breathing exercises can help you modulate your physical response. We know that stress is also a big trigger for suffering, so this will calm you down. It can also be used in conjunction with the ‘relaxation response’. This is a method of pain management which eases your body’s fight-or-flight response. A simple, typical way to start incorporating this practice is as follows:

  • Sit in a relaxed position.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Repeat a pleasant word or sound as you breathe (perhaps “peace” or “love”).
  • Do this for 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day.

You may feel your body become tense, like your muscles forcing your shoulders to move up towards your ears. So send messages to your muscles to relax. Use the breathing and then say “shoulders down”. Straighten the spine as you do this. This also helps people with arthritis who often have very difficult problems with their hands and feet.

You don’t want to save this for times when pain is acute. It is a muscle in the brain that you need to train. So, start small and build it up. Then when you experience pain, you are able to use it more effectively. Don’t think that you’ll do it once and it’s going to be the best thing ever. You are going to develop that skill. The more you train, the better you get at it. Meditation is also a remedy for dealing with pain and suffering. People can think of meditation as sitting down and being still… for hours! You don’t need to do that. For example, when I am fully engaged with a task, I am practicing mindfulness. Doing some light garden work, my head and mind are totally there. I see the colours, listen to the noises and take in the smells. I engage all my senses on that task and that creates awareness of the present. That’s how you take your first small steps into meditations involving, for instance, guided imagery. You’ll find lots of exercises on meditation apps.

Vhi members get €30 off meditation apps

Hypnosis is even an approved treatment for pain relief, owing to the power of positive suggestion. People with chronic pain are much more susceptible to developing anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders that compound the suffering – positive suggestion is proven to reduce these levels of anxiety and depression.

In terms of exercise, yoga and tai chi promote the best type of movement for chronic pain. The scientific research backs that up so, if you have the space, those practices might help.

Professional help

Ensure you’re getting the best medical advice you can – and follow it. Sometimes with an injury, people try to ignore it and keep forcing it because they don’t want to stop their usual routine or exercise. Then it becomes an injury on top of an injury and can lead to chronic pain. If you start feeling pain, stop. Find something else you can do with the help of a physiotherapist. Be patient. Good self-care is important.

Medication can also be an option. Your doctor will be best-placed to tell you if mood stabilisers or anti-depressants might work for you. Pain and emotion actually share the same pathways in the brain, so they can sometimes help with pain in the same way. This also means that techniques used to regulate emotion can help regulate pain.

If you go the medication route, it is important to continue the prescription your doctor has set out for you. Some people stop as soon as they start to feel better but medication doesn’t work in this “magic pill” way; it’s something you have to maintain.

Tackling suffering

A huge amount of suffering can occur when you enjoy things like sport, or simply the freedom of mobility, and then you don’t have that freedom anymore. The person is genuinely grieving, thinking: why did this happen to me? It takes time to move on. You move through stages like anger and denial before moving into phases of acceptance. Questioning the facts leads nowhere. You can’t change them. So, how can you make the process easier and life better?

Even if your pain might be unavoidable, your suffering is not. The first thing I would do is validate your pain: while there is no explanation for what happened to you, I am sorry that it did. But your past doesn’t need you anymore. Your future is yet to come. You are here, now, in the present. How can you respond?

Positive thinking

The Harvard Medical School recommends positive thinking to help you put your energy on things that you can do, instead of thinking of all the things that you cannot do.

That’s a very common thought pattern in those that suffer from chronic pain: oh, but I used to play football, used to go to the gym, I used to go out and play with my children… They focus a lot on what they cannot do anymore and that creates a very negative frame of mind and saps their energy. Focus instead on what can you do now. Can you take pleasure from the small things in your daily life? Keep a gratitude journal so you remind yourself of everything you can do.

Again, follow proper medical advice, know your boundaries and then work with them. A physiotherapist can help you adapt. It’s important to take a flexible psychological approach where you’re open to what can be done, rather than limiting yourself.

Put a plan in place – with support

Putting in place SMART actions is important: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Plan to milestones. You’re still alive, so what future would you like to have? What is your true love in life? Tap into those core values and create small steps based on SMART goals to attain that.

In all of this, having support around you is crucial. Pain management doesn’t just affect one person; it affects the whole family. Most of the suffering that I have encountered with pain clinic patients stems from them enduring a type of invisibility. They feel that they are being misunderstood and not recognised for what has happened to them. So, we encourage them to have open communication that starts with “I”. Rather than shutting people off or losing your social network, explain your situation in clear terms: I said that we would go for lunch, but I woke up in too much pain and I feel that I can’t go. I’m sorry about that.

You should find the other person understands and wants to share in that with you, working towards solutions and strengthening the relationship. So, staying social is important. In all of this, the idea is to avoid shutting down and remain open. With that mindset, you will start seeing plenty of promise: ways to deal with pain, remove suffering and clear path to a more fulfilling life ahead.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately. For immediate support from trained volunteers, you can speak to Samaritans Ireland at any time, free-of-charge. Call their 24-hour helpline on 116 123 or click here for more information.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Micheli Romano

Micheli Romao

Vhi Health Coach

Psychologist & Psychotherapist