How can you handle the pain in your life?
This blog is to help you with the pain in your life. Both pain and suffering are related and can be interchangeable. This blog will focus on helping you with physical pain and suggest three practices which you can begin to help you to manage your pain well and to see a way forward.
Please note: I am not a medical professional and do not claim to be. Always seek a trained medical professional when making any important lifestyle changes.
My pain story
When March 2021 came this year, I realised that with taking my business online and staying inside for over a year because of COVID, I had actually sat down all day most days for an entire year. Previous to that, I had always been on the go, keeping very fit, and enjoying an active lifestyle, whilst running a business. And although I managed to keep fit and well throughout the various lockdowns of the year, my body had reached a point where it had had enough….
Over years of wear and tear involving lifting weights, Jiu Jitsu and CrossFit, my lower back had taken quite a hammering. I had problems with it on and off for over 10 years, resulting in me getting an MRI Scan at one point. This only revealed wear and tear in one of my lower lumbar, something normal for someone of my age – which was a relief. The issue persisted for over 10 more years, but it had never been this bad before. For over two months of this year, I had to take anti-inflammatory medicines and painkillers every day 3-4 times a day. If I lay down, it hurt. If I sat down, it hurt. The whole area was inflamed, and I was in a lot of pain. More importantly, it had gotten into my head.
Have you ever had pain that carried on for so long that you began to think, is it ever going to stop? Is this just how it is for me from now on?
I began not being able to see myself doing normal everyday movements such as walking, jumping, or running, pain free again. And that is not a good place to be in. Chronic pain – when you are in pain regularly due to an ongoing condition – is a huge problem for a lot of people. And I had become one of them. I began to realise just how fortunate I had been up unto this point, to usually wake up and not be in pain from when I got up to when I went to sleep. For a lot of people, they do not have that luxury.
Here are some recent statistics on chronic pain
• Over 8 million people in the UK say they are in chronic pain
• 19.5 million people in the UK are in pain at least once a day
You can read more about chronic pain in the UK here.
38% of UK Adults are in Pain Daily – Chronic Pain Statistics 2020
And here are some statistics about chronic pain worldwide
• Between 11% and 40% of US adults are living with chronic pain.
• Lower back pain is the most common type of chronic pain.
• At least 10% of the world’s population is affected by chronic pain.
So, if you are reading this, as one of these people, or you would like to know how I was able to find a way forward, there are 3 habits and practices that you can bring into your life to help you.
1. Use a weekly pain chart
This changed everything. I had become so frustrated by the seemingly random arrival and departure of the pain, that I felt that I was not in control of my body anymore. So, I did what all good business owners and teachers did – I wrote a list! More specifically, I logged when I felt pain and when I did not. A full day is a long time to be in pain, and I knew that logically the pain could not be a 10/10 all day, there had to be moments of relief. (By the way, my pain never reached a 10/10 on the pain scale used by medical professionals, as this is up there with torture and other life-threatening conditions.)
This is what I suggest that you do to create your weekly pain chart.
Take a blank piece of paper and divide it into 7 vertical columns and 4 horizontal columns. You are basically dividing the paper into the 7 days of the week and 3 sections for morning, afternoon, and evening. There is also a column at the bottom included for notes on each day. Then take 3 coloured pens and choose a colour to represent bad pain, ok and no pain. I chose green for no pain, yellow for ok and blue for bad pain. Then fill it in for an entire week. You can also add notes regarding what pain relief you may have taken or notes on what may have made it worse or helped.
This will give you several positive benefits. Firstly, it is reminding you that you are in charge of your days and your weeks, you can provide structure to your day, and are not at the mercy of pain. Secondly, by dividing your day into 3 parts, gives you 3 opportunities to have green moments. So, you may have had a blue morning and afternoon, but a yellow or green evening. This is a win! It demonstrates that you are not in pain all day, every day. This is an important mental shift. After doing this for a few weeks, what I noticed was that I was not logging as much blue or yellow, but more green. Then I began to focus on having green moments, then I had my first fully green day – it was an incredible moment! Now, I am actively focusing on how I can have regular green moments, and hopefully green days. If there are moments of pain or I must take pain relief, I know that these may be only 3 or 4 moments out of 21 in a week. This can provide you with a massive positive shift, from overwhelmed by pain, to actively logging and managing your pain, to enjoying moments where you have none and are looking for how you can get a good positive momentum going.
When I showed this to my physio, she exclaimed, “What a great idea! I wish all of my patients did this…”
Here is a link to a free template you can use to do this. It is originally for tracking your moods, but you can simply change the focus to tracking your pain.
2. Move from generic and forever to temporary and specific
The second habit that I would suggest that you begin in your pain management, is to stop thinking that you pain has lasted forever and will do so. It is so common, to hear a conversation like this, when speaking with an unhappy friend:
I am going to say to myself each day,
“Hey, how are you?”
“Oh, things are terrible!”
“I am so sorry to hear that, what is wrong?”
“And how long has it been like this?”
We have all been here when we are in pain haven’t we? We think that our pain, whatever it is, is the worst kind in the world. And similarly, it can confuse our perceptions, so we cannot imagine a time before when it began, or equally, beyond when it could end; despite the fact it may only have lasted for hours, minutes or even a few seconds. I am not, in any way, saying that physical pain is easy to handle, it is incredibly difficult. Some of my worst involved back and full body spasms, that would shock me down onto my knees. I would dread sneezing, because of the painful spasms it would be bring on. And for nearly a month, it would often take me 2-3 attempts to get out of a chair.
But what I am saying, is that the pain is one thing, how we think about it is another. So, try this now. Write down all the things that are currently causing you physical pain and have a good look at them. There may be 1 or 2 things, or even 5 or 6. But there will not be an infinite amount, therefore, they are manageable. You can make a massive positive shift from thinking you have EVERYTHING causing you pain, to 2 or 3 things.
Then the next thing to write down is this, how long have these issues been causing you pain? And similarly, how long do the pain episodes last? Be as specific as possible. This shift from generic thinking about your pain to specific, will help reduce its size down in your mind, into a more manageable thing, rather than an overwhelming emotional weight.
For me, I had severe lower back stiffness, combined with shooting pains and spasms on my lower left side. The stiffness could last for hours, and the spasms would be excruciating but only seconds. Remember, the acuteness and sharpness of the pain, such as muscle spasms, can make you fearful and think that they last longer than they usually do.
So, you now have begun the mental shift from thinking everything causes you pain to several things, or one thing cause you pain. And you have also made the important mental shift to thinking it has been like this – and will continue to be like this – forever, to a more specific time period. Here is a nice thought for you. The healing and curing process can often be a lot shorter than the time it took to cause an injury or pain, depending on what it is. For example, my back caused a lot of pain after a year of excess sitting, and now has begun to heal well in less than 3 months. Always remain hopeful about your pain, no pain lasts forever!
3. Create a plan for your pain
You are now tracking your pain, and have begun the mental shift towards seeing it as temporary and specific. This is wonderful! The last step now is to create a plan to help you to deal with your pain going forward.
Tim Ferrris delivered a fantastic talk about defining your fears, and having a plan to manage them. You can watch it here:
I suggest a similar approach in helping you to manage your pain, with two parts to it. Firstly, define what you do not want to happen, and then create a plan based around minimalising these things. And secondly, write a list of activities and actions that you can take to heal, and to move forward with your pain. Make sure to include a quick note on what this will do to help you. These are just suggestions based on my own experience with a painful back, feel free to take what you find useful and add your own.
Here is an example below:
Minimalising my pain
• I want to avoid back spasms – avoid quick twisting or jerking movements.
• Log pain with weekly pain chart – shift focus to self-empowerment, creates perspective.
• Do not sit down for more than 30 minutes at a time – movement will create less pressure on joints.
• Avoid heavy lifting for now until body feels ready – avoid further injury.
• Avoid long periods standing in one spot – as this can exaggerate pain – become more aware of what hurts my body at the moment.
• Use deep breathing when in moments of pain – to keep the mind focused away from overwhelm.
• Take pain relief as needed – treat the symptoms.
Healing my pain and moving forward
• Visit a physio – receive a diagnosis and information from a trained medical professional.
• Have a regular massage – promotes blood flow around the body and problem areas.
• Lose weight – creates less stress on my lower back.
• Daily walks several times a day – lubricates the joints and gets the spinal fluid moving freely.
• Take pain relief when necessary – becomes a normal part of my day, not a big deal.
• Create some positive self-talk phrases about my body healing and say them to myself regularly – such as “my back is strong and healing well”- helps mental health.
• Enjoy moments with no pain – appreciate them – record them and focus on them – trains mind and body towards a pain free future.
Final thoughts – being proactive with pain
I would like to tell you a story that demonstrates just how much you can be in control of your pain, your mind, and your life, when you set your intentions properly and have a plan in place for your pain.
I was delivering a workshop for 16–18-year-olds at a local college. We were taking part in an exercise to encourage creative thinking. I had thrown a pen into the middle of the room and asked the young people to pick it up… but they were not allowed to use their hands. Initially, many were nervous, and no one came forward. But after one person managed it using their elbows, many others thought of ideas and successfully managed it. I will never forget one young man, who jumped to his feet, and came forward on crutches. He managed to entangle the pen between his crutches by his feet, and flipped it up, catching it in mid-air! Not only was this impressive, but it was also even more so when I knew his story.
He had come into the room on crutches, and I asked him what had happened to him. I thought he might have been involved in an accident. He told me, quite proudly, that no, it was because of a neurological condition that he had. He was happy to tell me that he was consistently in acute nerve pain. The young man was so at ease with his condition that he was happy to talk openly about it. I asked him how bad it was. He told me that he had gone to a hospital as a child and they had shown him a pain chart, which they used to help him to understand how strong his pain was. Low levels were things like broken bones, then further up the pain scale was childbirth, and above that, torture. I asked him when his nerve pain ranked on the scale, “Oh, it’s above torture…” he replied quite casually. I could not believe it.
This young man was not only consistently in acute nerve pain which ranked above torture regularly, but he had wasted no time in our session, in jumping to the front to get involved. And I never heard him moan or complain once. That particular session was for a small group of the highest achievers from the college, so he had applied himself to a very high standard in life already. I was amazed by him, and I still remember him, whenever I lose perspective on the pain I am feeling in my life.
No matter where you are, or what pain you are currently experiencing, there is always a way forward for you – like there was for this young man. Remember him, pass on his story, and I hope that his example is a source of great inspiration for you.