As I sit writing this, I am in a moderate amount of pain. Like millions of people around the world, I suffer from chronic musculoskeletal (back and hip) problems, so most days come with either a small or large dose of pain, depending on how well I am looking after myself, my level of stress, how much sitting I do that day, plus various other factors.
Having been in some degree of daily pain for almost ten years now, I have learned a few things about the relationship between physical pain and mental suffering:
- It’s important to distinguish between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ pain. I learned this from Vidyamala Burch, founder of Breathworks. This organisation provides the Mindfulness-based Pain Management programme, which has a strong research base behind it and helps many people in the UK deal with chronic pain and illness.
- Burch also co-wrote Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing with Danny Penman. In this superb book, the authors explain that primary pain is the actual sensation caused by, say, a protruding disc in your back. Intriguingly, the majority of the pain you end up experiencing is secondary – the pain created by your brain as it amplifies that pain sensation, depending on the way you think about and respond to your primary pain.
- This only became clear to me in 2015, when I visited a new physiotherapist, feeling down and hopeless about resolving my problems. She told me the words I was desperate to hear; ‘Eileen I believe you will get over this.’ She also advised me that it was crucial to remain as positive as possible because my negative thoughts (‘I will never get over this’; ‘Nothing will help’; ‘I can’t stand the pain any more’) were undoubtedly making the pain worse.
Managing the pain
I think it’s important to note here just how hard it is to maintain a positive, optimistic mood in the face of chronic pain or illness. As anyone with a long-term condition knows, it grinds you down, especially when it flares up or your symptoms get worse for whatever reason. Please don’t think I am implying that your pain is all in your head, I am most definitely not. However, I cannot underestimate the impact of physical ailments on your mood – it is a struggle and gets everyone down from time to time, as well as causing stress and worry/anxiety about the future. Once, you understand the relationship between pain in the body and the way that your brain either amplifies or minimises those physical sensations, it seems crucial to me that you do all you can to use your brain/mind to help your body.
When I first hurt my back and was really struggling, Vidyamala Burch’s guided meditations really helped pull me through. Turning towards my pain rather than constantly pushing it away was transformative. And if you are dealing with chronic pain or illness, please reach out to me because I work with people like you every day. I will empower you to get back into the driving seat of your life once again.