How pain affects your life can be different depending on your individual circumstances, but one thing is certain: chronic pain goes beyond just the physical to impact mental and emotional health and all the relationships around you. Here are just some of the way in which pain affects your life and how you can help yourself.
How pain affects your life: mental and emotional health
Chronic pain is strongly linked to a greatly increased risk of major mental conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A body in chronic pain continually sends stress signals to the brain, leading to a heightened perception of not only the pain itself but also the perceived level of threat.
This translates into some startling statistics. In fibromyalgia patients, over 62% will experience depression, and 56% have increased anxiety (as compared to 7% and 18%, respectively, in the general population of the U.S.).
Chronic pain actually changes the way the brain processes emotion and the pain itself. Patients with chronic pain are more likely to experience depression because the pain acts on the sense-data areas of the brain that regulate not only emotion but also sleep. When sleep becomes unsatisfying (too long, too short, poor quality, etc.), feelings of depression, anxiety, and pain become more intense. The brain also begins to anticipate pain, leading to anxiety and a hypervigilance that is normally associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Just as chronic pain can lead to depression, depression itself can lead to chronic pain. This is a vicious cycle that can be very difficult to break.
How you can help yourself
First of all, it’s important to recognize the facts about mental health, including the very important understanding that depression doesn’t just go away. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are real, treatable conditions that should not be ignored.
As a chronic pain patient experiencing depression or anxiety, it is important to reach out and find support, either in your local community or through an online forum.
There are also many highly effective therapies to seek out, and there are things you can start right now, at home, to improve your outlook. Get outside in nature, meditate, and connect with friends to get a quick mood boost.
You are not alone in your struggle. If you are feeling depression or anxiety, reach out and get help.
How pain affects your life: time, energy, and attention (TEA)
For those without chronic pain, there are a good many things taken for granted. Tying shoelaces, making breakfast, walking the dog, balancing the checkbook: there is a seemingly endless supply of time, energy, and attention (TEA) for these tasks.
With chronic pain, however, time, energy, and attention are often in limited supply. This means that decisions must be made and priorities set daily depending on the level of pain. This is often described using spoon theory. “Spoonies” are people with chronic pain who have a limited amount of TEA for daily tasks, represented by a number of spoons. Getting dressed in the morning might take up two of that day’s ten spoons, making the rest of the day instantly problematic.
How you can help yourself
Using spoon theory to explain to friends and family what it’s like to live with chronic pain can help them be more understanding of the daily struggles you face with the simplest of tasks. This can immediately help to set your mind at ease because you know they will understand better when it takes 30 minutes to button your shirt in the morning.
Evaluating your daily spoons every morning can also be a powerful tool for you to plan and prioritize your day. There may be activities that are non-negotiable, but there also may be ways around them. Feeding your family, for instance, cannot be ignored, but using a crockpot can make that much easier.
Reframing your chronic pain’s draw on your TEA as a gift that helps you realize what is truly important every day can result in a powerful shift in the way you approach your life.
How pain affects your life: relationships
Chronic pain touches every aspect of daily life, arguably none more powerfully so than in the area of relationships. Family and friends alike can be greatly affected by a loved one’s chronic pain in ways that can last long after the pain is diagnosed and treatment begins.
For chronic pain sufferers with a partner, chronic pain can be the cause of frustration with things like daily parenting and household chores. Partners of people in pain may resent the fact that they are often the primary breadwinner, main caretaker (or children and the pain patient), and head of household chores.
Financial strain is often the cause of conflict in any relationship, and chronic pain patients may incur more than their share of medical bills. Sexuality and intimacy may suffer as well, due to the pain itself and the frustrations experienced due to unequal distribution of responsibilities.
Parenting with chronic pain can be even more of a struggle, as young children don’t always understand a “boo-boo” that isn’t visible and doesn’t go away. Pain patients may not be as patient with their children as they would like. These difficult relationships with children can lead to feelings of inadequacy as a parent, which can then turn into depression or deep sadness or low self-esteem as a person and a parent.
At work, it can be difficult to feel comfortable in a setting where colleagues may resent frequent absences or what is perceived as special treatment for an invisible illness. When just getting to the job every day is a nearly insurmountable task, this resentment at work can make a chronic pain patient want to quit.
How you can help yourself
As with many things, communication is key when dealing with relationship issues that arise due to chronic illness. Negotiating with your partner for duties at home that are valuable but less taxing may help relieve your partner’s burden. Making regular time for intimacy, both physical and emotional, can also help strengthen the bond between partners. A spouse that is a caregiver should make plenty of time for self-care to prevent compassion fatigue as well.
With kids, being as open as is appropriate for their age can help them understand why Mommy or Daddy is not always able to play catch or go to the park. A parent with chronic pain presents children with an opportunity to develop tremendous compassion. Being patient and explaining can go a long way.
Finally, chronic pain patients can strengthen relationships at work by building in opportunities to work at home, taking breaks with their colleagues, and keeping open lines of communication with employers and colleagues. Because chronic pain can limit time on the job, many pain patients are extra efficient when they are at work. Taking time to touch base with others on the job can help them see the value you bring to the job, even when in pain.
From the emotional to the physical, how does chronic pain affect your life?