Chronic pain and limiting beliefs

2013, newly diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, 14 years into my relationship with chronic pain affecting my back, arms, knees, and feet.

Living with chronic pain is challenging. Everyday tasks are difficult, sleep is disturbed, days once filled with satisfying work and hobbies are now organised around medical appointments interspersed with isolation. The definition of chronic pain is that it hurts. It hurts all the time. Or most of the time. It hurts more than it doesn’t hurt and you don’t always know why.

But worse than the pain you can point to in your body (low back, hip, neck) is the pain of living with pain. The mental-emotional burden of living with chronic physical pain is what tips the scales from workable to unworkable. It’s pain on top of pain, and it can result in serious mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

There are three limiting beliefs that contribute to the mental-emotional burden of living with chronic pain. These are known as the three P’s: personal, permanent, and pervasive. Whether you are experiencing chronic pain or supporting a loved one who is, it’s important to recognize these beliefs and deconstruct them before they become fixed and harmful.

1) Personal

It’s common for people with chronic pain to feel as though they are being punished or that they have done something to deserve their pain. They see others living without pain and think “Why me? What have I done?”. It’s important to focus on the fact that pain isn’t personal. Everyone experiences pain at some point in their life, and everyone is dealing with something, even if it isn’t apparent from the outside. Deconstruct this belief by meeting others living with pain. Seek out support groups either locally or virtually, or read stories about people with chronic pain.

2) Permanent

It’s common for people with chronic pain to feel as though their pain situation is permanent. This causes them to lose hope for a pain-free or pain-reduced future. It’s important to focus on the fact that few things are truly permanent. Pain for most people comes and goes, can be managed, and once the right treatment/exercise program is found, they can return to normal activities. This can take time, but it doesn’t mean it’s permanent. Deconstruct this belief by keeping a pain journal. Take note of the severity of the pain (perhaps on a scale of 1-10). Note the quality of the pain (burning, aching, pins & needles, etc.). After a period of time, observe how the pain has changed from day to day or moment to moment.

3) Pervasive

It’s common for people with chronic pain to feel as though the pain is all-pervasive in their life, that it casts a shadow on everything they do and everyone they love. If, for example, someone has built an identity around being a bread-winner and can no longer go to work, they may have an identity crisis and feel their self-worth diminished. They may see family members taking on roles they used to play and wonder if their family might not be better off without them. In this case, highlight the important roles the person can still play despite being in pain. A person with chronic pain may not be able to do physically-demanding chores around the home, but they can still give emotional support to family members by asking about their day, listening to their concerns, and offering physical touch. Deconstruct this belief by talking openly about shifting household roles and emphasizing the importance of each person’s contributions. Seek out and focus on activities the person in pain can still do.

The mental-emotional burden of living with chronic pain is often more crippling than physical pain alone. Limiting beliefs, such as the three P’s, contribute to that burden exponentially and can result in depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. By deconstructing these limiting beliefs, we can lighten this load for ourselves and our loved ones.

If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, please reach out. Someone is always listening.

Image © 2013 Bruno Schlumberger

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