Inevitably there are times of stress in our lives. Stress, negative thinking, emotions, and pain are interconnected. Stress makes us feel anxious, short-tempered, and overwhelmed. When the stress is internal we feel out of balance. When stress is external and internal we experience our most difficult times with physical pain, we tend to tense our muscles, even if we aren’t aware of it, which can lead to more pain. When we are feeling relaxed or happy, we tend to have less muscle tension, which can lead to less pain. And when we are pain-free, it’s easier to feel relaxed and engaged in life. We feel emotionally better and are better able to be there for ourselves and those we love.
Your thoughts and behaviors are related to your feelings and can result in more positive or more negative moods. For example, if you spend time with friends during stressful periods, you tend to feel more balanced and peaceful in spite of your physical pain or life circumstances. Spend a whole day sitting by yourself at home and thinking about how hopeless and helpless you feel, you are much more likely to feel down or grumpy than if you are able to be active and distract your thinking. At the same time, it is normal and understandable that pain will sometimes make you feel stressed, unhappy, depressed, anxious, frustrated, or angry. The goal is not necessarily to avoid your feelings and thoughts, but to learn how to manage them, along with your pain. You have choices about how to stop the thoughts, emotions, and actions that lead to greater levels of emotional and physical pain. You may have experimented with compulsive or addictive behaviors to avoid or temporarily stop your pain. These temporary pain relievers do not solve the problem; they postponed it.
At the same time, physical pain can be your body’s way of letting you know when something is wrong, so it’s important to be able to tell the difference between injury and pain that doesn’t indicate damage. In addition, painful emotions can be our awakening to stop the thinking or behaviors we are doing that cause pain. For example, a backache could be caused by an injury, but it could also be caused by our thoughts and feelings leading to unnecessary stress or tension. Think of the saying, “ Ninety five percent of what I have worried about in my life has never happened.” Similarly, you might have back pain because of a damaged disc, or it could be an achy muscle from exercise. You know your body best, so it is important that you learn the differences between types of pain so that you can make good decisions about when you should try to distract yourself or change your thinking and when you need rest or medical care.
Self-care may not come easily during times of pain. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to take care of myself, what do I need emotionally?” One way to benefit by taking care of yourself is to do at least one or two activities a day that you enjoy or that make you feel good. These activities can be almost anything, from reading or watching TV to spending time with friends and family to taking a class or volunteering for a cause that makes you feel good about yourself. One activity that is known to reliably improve feelings and lower stress levels is exercise. Exercise activates endorphins in the brain, which are a natural painkiller and are 20 times stronger than any man-made pain medication. People who exercise regularly feel better, sleep better, and generally are happier. In addition, exercise improves muscle tone and strength, which contributes to reduced pain.
Tips for Improving Your Well-being
- Monitor your thinking, notice thoughts that make you feel bad, and make choices about how to counter or change those thoughts.
- Meditate everyday. Sit quietly for 10 minutes; think about how you can be a better person.
- Find positive meaning from your stress or disabling experience.
- Reduce thoughts that contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and increase thoughts that contribute to feelings of competence.
- Be an optimist, look for the lesson in your pain, and seek something good from your adversity.
- Deal with your emotions. Acknowledge stress, anger, hurt, and anxiety.
- Take a walk every day.
- Have regular scheduled events with close friends or family.
- Find time to be alone with your partner.
- Make time for laziness.
- Be healthy inside. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and good carbohydrates (e.g. whole wheat bread or pasta). Avoid junk food.
- Treat your senses. Light a scented candle, buy fresh-cut flowers, and indulge in a massage, or take a hot bath.
- Sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends
- Be creative. Spend time learning new things. Work in your garden, paint, or build something.
- Do something for someone else. Volunteer or do something nice for a loved one.
- Do something to make you feel the opposite of how you feel now. If you’re feeling frustrated and helpless, take a walk or watch a funny movie. If you’re feeling sad read positive affirmations.
- Put a mental wall up between yourself and the pain, thoughts, or the emotional distress. Detach and deny your pain, box it up and put it on a shelf.
Thank you for reading this article. My learning journey with chronic physical pain is a result of my experience with phantom limb pain. I was graced with the gift of self-acceptance upon realization that my forearm was amputated. Before my limb loss, I sacrificed my emotional and spiritual well-being for perfectionism and looked to others for approval at the cost of trusting my intuition and developing my self-worth. My drive for perfection was crushed along with my arm. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to put an end to self-created emotional pain. And, as I learn and grow, I teach self-compassion and give advice I use myself, in the hopes that it helps you to improve your own life.