You are not the illness!

By Patti Koblewski, M.S., and Larry Lynch, M.S.S.W., L.C.S.W.

Chronic pain touches every aspect of your life which makes it critical to surround ourselves with others who are supportive and understanding of our pain.

Healthy self-esteem enables us to accept, respect, trust and believe in ourselves. Having opportunities to develop confidence and problem solving skills early in life are important. Self-esteem comes from our genetics, environment and other life experiences. Genetics accounts for things like our temperament and a predisposition to physical disability or chronic depression. Environmental factors include poor parenting practices (being overprotective, overindulgent), abuse and/or neglect, and enabling behaviors. Life experiences with our teachers, coaches and friends impact our self- esteem as well.

Chronic pain has a way of radically changing a person’s life; even those with strong self- esteem and coping skills can struggle. For some, the most difficult blow comes when they can no longer do things connected to their identity (loss of a job, not being able to participate in sports or hobbies). For others, using a cane or walker or having to use a handicapped placard is devastating. Many have difficulty adapting to changing roles in their family, feeling guilty that they are not contributing as much as they “should.”

It’s a vicious cycle. Pain increases negative emotions such as anger, worry, depression and not having your feelings validated by others. Conversely, an increase in our negative emotions and other added stressors can cause our pain to increase. Some lose the desire to keep fighting their pain and fear their future. Pain distorts their overall perception of their life, their contributions and past accomplishments. They have trouble asking for help and can even convince themselves that their loved ones would be better off if they were no longer a “burden.”

But there is good news. Due to the prevalence of chronic pain and good research, we are able to present a plan of action to help, and they are based on two simple principles.

Care For Yourself

Treat yourself with the same respect you would give others. Get in touch with your needs. What would help and encourage you? Often just being listened to and validated is a powerful first step. Allow time for yourself. Get creative and explore new hobbies and interests that could decrease your pain through distraction.
Allow yourself to have fun and laugh. Rent a funny movie, walk in the sunshine, take a bubble bath, listen to music, relax and meditate. Find things that are practical, affordable and available to you on a regular basis. Many patients find that they can exercise with their physician’s approval. The benefits are tremendous:

• Your body releases endorphins more powerful than morphine that decrease pain and elevate positive moods
• Sleep often improves (we fall asleep faster and at deeper levels)
• Our circulation and immune systems are enhanced
• If we feel and look healthier we often see a boost in self-esteem

Good nutrition is also important. Learn about helpful foods. For example, curry powder can help with muscle and joint pain, and cherries and almonds have anti-inflammatory properties. Limiting certain foods and stopping destructive habits can help decrease pain, improve mood and give you a sense of accomplishment.

It is normal to get frustrated and to feel like we’ve done something wrong, and we often beat ourselves up because we feel like we should be doing more. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches us not to fall into “catastrophic thinking” and other negative self-talk. We need to challenge our distorted thoughts and learn to be grateful for what we have.

• Remind yourself that you are worthwhile — you are valuable not because of what you can do but because of who you are

• Stop com