Category Archives: Mental Health

Grieving the Body We Lost to Chronic Pain

Black and white image montage of ballet student's feet I used to dance.

From 4 years old right through college, my weeks were marked by a steady progression of dance classes. Ballet, tap, jazz – for a few years, baton twirling and competitions on the weekend.

I mark the years by the name of the teacher I was currently studying under. The Barbara years, the Jodi years, the Heather years.

During an adolescence marked by struggles with my weight and a steady onslaught of bullying and teasing, with all the self-loathing that combination always yields, my dance skills were a much-needed source of body pride for me.

I could do splits easily. Put my palms flat on the ground by my feet with straight legs. Pull my foot back up over my head and touch my nose with my toes.

And then chronic pain invaded the territory, planted flags, subdued the natives, and changed everything.

It didn’t really occur to me until a few years ago – over seven years into my new reality – that I’d lost something there.

I mean, sure, intellectually I grasped the concept that my days of pulling my foot over my head were probably over.

But the idea of having lost the body I used to have and enjoy eluded me. It just didn’t register, not until quite recently.

We all lost something when chronic pain became our new reality – something quite real: the body we used to know.

These new bodies we have aren’t at all similar. They refuse to cooperate. You want to go left, but the body has its own ideas. You want to get up and be active – it says “hell, no, this ass ain’t leaving the couch.” You want to stand straight and still at your best friend’s wedding – the body’s all “nah, I think I’m gonna feel dizzy now and lose my balance so you make a fool of yourself and upstage the bride.” You want to play ball with your kid – two pitches and the body goes “We’re done here.”

And then there’s the pain. Not just the pain you know – the all-too-familiar aches and cramps and buzzes and stabs. Also the new pains – the breakthrough pains, the unfamiliar sensations that happen suddenly after a movement you’ve done a million times before without a problem, the involuntary spasms in places that never felt pain before.

We’ve lost that body. And even though we can improve, get stronger, and even heal – we can’t get that body back. It’s gone – it’s forever been changed.

It’s a real loss, and it needs to be grieved.

When my mother died, I felt immediate grief. I did a lot of crying those first few days, and I felt the full force of the loss at her funeral.

But then a week or so later, something odd happened. It was like a switch got flipped. I felt nothing. Pure numbness, emotionally speaking.

Granted, I had a lot of shit going on about that same time.

Something about that whole series of events seemed to shut me down emotionally, and put a halt to the grieving process as matters of survival took precedence.

But a funny thing happened. After I went through that Category 5 shitstorm, and after I’d managed to get my feet back underneath myself, boom: the grief was right there again.  Insistent. Pervasive. It even invaded my dreams. I’d dream about Mom all the time, and every single time, though the dreams themselves varied, there’d be a point in each where I’d remember that she had died. And then the next moment, which was even worse, I’d wonder, “Which was the dream? Her death or her being alive?”

My point – and I do have one – is that grief will not be denied. One way or another, we’re going through whichever of those five stages we need to hack our way through.

Once we get through those stages, we can finally be free of that baggage, at least, and get serious about rebuilding our lives, and taking care of the bodies we have now.

Photo Credit: Mena Rota via photopin cc

Struggling to Find Your New Year Enthusiasm? You’re Not Alone

I rock beginnings.

I really do. I’m not bragging here. It’s just a fact. I have always excelled at the start. The re-do. The reboot. The reinvention. The changing over of the page on the calendar.

Especially at two key times during the year, I feel a natural surge of energy, a burgeoning recommitment to old goals, a surging influx of new ones, and a tidal wave of enthusiasm for them all.

Those two times: late August/early September, and the beginning of a new year in January.

That surge of “whoot!” came on schedule last fall.

But today, the second day of January, a day on which I am traditionally busily planning and plotting out my strategy to rule the world in the coming twelve months, I am feeling nothing but the strong desire to go back to bed.

Am I depressed? I don’t think so. I don’t feel sad, I don’t feel unmotivated. I just feel a keen lack of that usual turbo charge.

Also, my back really hurts and it’s supercold out today, for the first time in weeks, and that always makes my fibro flare up a little bit.

So maybe that’s why I’m tempted to sweep this strange sensation of lack under the rug. To refuse to acknowledge it. To ignore it completely and just wait for it to go away.

But, see, I can’t. I’ve got this whole business thing to run. (Two businesses, actually, since last year I also launched a new blog called Pajama Productivity, aimed at helping creative workers and artists get their groove back and get back to creating stuff regularly, and I still do the whole WordPress/social media, copywriting, & marketing consulting gig digitally based here.)

And these businesses are in dire need of some serious CEO-level planning time and attention.

But since I usually tackle that project with the considerable assistance of that natural surge of energy and enthusiasm, which I now lack, I’m feeling somewhat adrift. The prospect of getting my ass in gear and engaging in that higher-level thinking and the initial push of activity which is all-important, if not critical, to getting a new project off the ground, is just daunting.

I don’t have any hard and fast answers here, so if this sounds painfully familiar to you, I’m truly sorry I can’t tell you exactly what will get you out of the funk we both find ourselves in.

I do have some ideas — that’s all they are, though, just ideas. I’m going to try them this week. I’ll let you know if they work, and how well, in a future post.

Here are the ideas I’ve come up with so far:

  • Better self-care: I’ve been sort of sloughing off on the self-care thing lately. Not sleeping as well or as much as I used to, not doing the daily yoga, skipping the longer warmer showers in favor of the quick in and out. These and a few dozen other little things make my pain manageable and simply make me feel better. So, it stands to reason, if I eliminate these blocks and feel better, maybe my mood and brain will perk up, too.
  • Going back to the purpose and the whys: Every major goal or project has behind it a huge “why” — the reason a change is necessary in our lives. Maybe going back to those whys, reviewing them, making sure they’re really as strong as they once seemed, adding more and better “why”s, getting clarity on my overall purpose in these endeavors — maybe that can trigger a better attitude.
  • Back to basics: The house isn’t a disaster — just a little on the messy side. I’m not eating crap — just a little less well than before. I haven’t made the bed in days. These little things do have an impact on mood and discipline, two things that need an immediate adjustment in my case.
  • Simplifying the List where possible: I started absolutely fresh with a brand-new Planner file (I use Circus Ponies Notebook for keeping track of all my to-dos and projects and goals). I deleted every single one of the 100+ “to-do”s on that list, because they’d been there for months, undone, and the world hadn’t ended in a fiery explosion of apocalyptic fireworks, so I figured I was safe. I have eight things on my list. And I’ve done four of them. EIGHT. And FOUR. This is mildly thrilling, I admit.

That last one — culling my List — produced an immediate sense of relief. And I’m finally starting to feel a little tingle of something that might be a precursor to the return of my usual enthusiasm and energy.  I’ve got a long way to go, mind you, and I can’t go too fast or too hard because – duh – that also triggers a fibromyalgia flare-up.

But, hey, it’s a start. And I can get a little enthusiastic about that.

 

Woman Meditating Against a Globe Backdrop

Meditation 101 for Chronic Pain Management

In previous posts, we looked at whether meditation works to relieve chronic pain as well as the science behind meditation’s efficacy as a pain treatment option. In this post, we’ll look at some simple ways to implement a meditation practice into your own pain treatment program.

Woman Meditating Against a Globe BackdropMeditation: How New Age Do You Want to Go?

You may well be relieved to discover that when it comes to meditation, there’s absolutely no need to go the whole “crystals, rainbows, unicorns” New Age route. I mean, you can, if you want to, but you don’t have to.

Personally, I find a few well-placed props that help set the mood to be a welcome addition. Soy candles and the occasional incense stick or powder in a darkened room with a little spa-type music playing in the background help my way-too-active  consciousness let go of its death-like grip on controlling my life and embrace relaxation.

Do be careful about using incense, though, especially if your respiratory system is in any way compromised.

But if that makes you uncomfortable, or merely roll your eyes mightily, then rest assured: no New Age props are required. Neither is chanting “Om” or anything else.

Meditation is simply the act of focusing your thoughts, or alternatively letting go of the need to obsess — the act of utter relaxation, tuning in to your body and mind, and allowing yourself simply to be in the moment. Sometimes props help with that, but if you find yourself uncomfortable at the thought of all the trappings, then don’t go that route. Just wear comfortable clothing, unplug the phone (and turn off the cell), get quiet and sit.

How to Meditate

Meditation is not some weird, scary thing. It’s something you already know how to do, but in a possibly new context.

You can meditate in any number of ways:

  • Visualizing some desired outcome or a peaceful natural setting
  • Counting your breaths
  • Focusing mentally on one phrase or word
  • Simply sitting and allowing your thoughts to float away like butterflies

There are also more advanced techniques you can pick up from traditions like yoga or Transcendental Meditation, or other practices. But for our purposes, we’re going to outline a simple breath-focused practice that I use to help manage my pain.

What You’ll Need to Get Started

  • Comfortable clothing
  • A comfy place to sit that supports your back (lying down isn’t advisable, at least at first, as it can signal the body it’s time to sleep — and since chronic pain patients are often sleep-deprived, this will be counterproductive to meditating; however, you can practice a form of this meditation lying down in bed before you sleep, and it should improve the quality of your rest)
  • Silence — no interruptions of the human or electronic kind
  • If you like, you can use New Age or spa background music. I advise against candles at first – you might find yourself worried about a fire starting, especially with your eyes closed

The Practice

Get comfortable – either cross-legged, perhaps with pillows supporting your knees, or with your feet on the floor. Cover yourself with a blanket if you’re the least bit cool. Place your hands in your lap, palms up, left hand on top of the right, so that your hands are basically right in front of your pelvis.

Close your eyes, and:

  1. Phase One: Breathe. Just breathe. In and out, without trying to control the breath. Turn your awareness to your scalp, and check in with your body there. How does it feel? Don’t try to change it, just observe. Then slowly scan your body, moving from the scalp to the forehead, to the eyes, the chin, the neck, the shoulders, etc. – all the way down to your toes. This doesn’t have to take a long time — just check in briefly, observe, and move on.
  2. Phase Two: Focus on the Hurting Parts. Find the part that hurts the most from your body scan in Phase One. Settle your awareness on this spot. Talk to it silently — not the way you usually do (“God, I hate you! Why do you HURT all the time?!”) but as if that body part were a small child in pain. What would you say to that child? You wouldn’t tell her you hate her! You’d comfort her. You’d tell her how much you love her. You’d say how sorry you are that she hurts. You’d tell her how proud of her you are. So say that to your in-pain body part. Offer it love and compassion.
  3. Phase Three: Rinse, Repeat. Do the same for any other intensely pained parts of your body.
  4. Phase Four: Envision Health. Now, bring your awareness back to the center of your self — somewhere around your solar plexus, usually, but wherever feels “right” to you. Allow an image of perfect health — your perfect health — to come to mind. See yourself doing the things you long to do, feeling great, moving easily. Try to bring as much sensory awareness into it as possible — not just sight but scents, the sensation of touch, sounds, tastes. Make it as real as you can. Stay with this image for as long as you can, up to ten minutes or so. When you’re ready, imagine that scene in your mind being enveloped in a glowing golden-pink bubble, and floating up to the universe where it will start to gather energy and begin to manifest. (Or if that’s too “whoo-whoo” for you, then just let it fade.)
  5. Phase Five: Coming Out. Don’t rush the re-entry! Once you’ve let go of the vision of health, slowly bring your awareness to what’s going on around you — but don’t open your eyes just yet. Take a minute or two to become aware of your surroundings. Then slowly open your eyes. You might find it helpful to shake your hands vigorously for a few seconds to ground yourself again. Drink some water, get up and move around — basically, reconnect to your body.

That’s it.

This practice can take as little as ten minutes or as much as an hour – it’s totally up to you. Better to do it for a few minutes every day, than for an hour once a week, though. Set your schedule, ease into it if you must, but try to do it daily.

The Benefits

What can you expect from a regular meditation practice? It varies from person to person, of course, because we’re all different, but basically you can expect:

  • Heightened sense of connection to your body
  • Lessened pain
  • More restorative sleep
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased ability to deal with flareups of pain and stress

That’s worth giving meditation a good trial run, isn’t it?

Photo Credit: AlicePopkorn via photopin cc

Woman in White Meditating Outside

Does Meditation Work to Relieve Chronic Pain?

In this series of posts we’re going to examine meditation in detail — what it is, how it helps, why it works, and how to do it.

Woman in White Meditating Outside

No, It’s Not “All in Your Head” … But Quieting Your Mind Can Help

For a lot of us, any suggestion of remedy that even sniffs of “it’s all in your head” is automatically suspect. For some of us, meditation falls into that category.

Look, I’m as anti-head-caser as anyone (being a fibromite, it comes with the territory) but I’m here to tell you: this meditation stuff works.

Let me make this point clear, though: I’m no guru. I hate the word and think it’s overused both as an honorific and as a criticism.  What I am is someone who’s tried a lot of coping mechanisms and treatment options – someone with a pretty clear understanding of which of those options worked for me and which didn’t.

I’ve also done a fair bit of (OK, extensive) study on the subject, and while there’s absolutely no treatment for chronic pain that will work across the board — even for a particular illness — it seems that more and more evidence is piling up that meditation works. Specifically, it helps someone in pain cope with the pain by removing the suffering component. For me, it also goes beyond that and actually helps reduce the pain.

The Difference Between Pain and Suffering

First, we need to establish what we mean when we say “pain” and “suffering.” Interestingly tidbit: I used to be a lawyer, as most readers know. In preparing a complaint (the document that starts a lawsuit) for personal injury, lawyers will frequently use the phrase “pain and suffering.” Some of us in first-year torts class in law school wondered why use both? We chalked it up to typical lawyer-speak.

Fact is, though, they aren’t the same thing at all. The lawyers were right!

Pain is the unpleasant sensory perception we’re all too familiar with. It’s the biochemical response to certain stimuli — or, in our cases, the mere state of being alive with a chronic pain condition.

Suffering, however, is something very different. While pain is a physical phenomenon, suffering is entirely emotional and mental. It does, in fact, lie completely in your mind.  Suffering, put simply, is the emotional resistance to the pain that we throw up, consciously or subconsciously, and it’s usually based on fear or anger, or both.

Suffering is what makes us think:

  • Why me?!
  • This will NEVER go away.
  • I’ll feel like this until the day I die.
  • What the hell is WRONG with me?!
  • OhGodohGodohGodohGod…

You get the drift.

There’s one more key difference: pain is a fact of life for the chronically pained. Suffering, however, is completely optional.

The Impact of Meditation on Suffering

Meditation works to relieve the suffering component of the chronic pain experience in several ways.

  1. It quiets the mind.
  2. It brings you out of the future-based fear you’re experiencing and grounds you back in the present.
  3. It reduces the physical stress caused by the experience of pain.
  4. It steadies and slows your breathing, which further reduces physical stress.
  5. It fosters a stronger sense of well-being.
  6. It moves you gently out of the “freak-out” mode into a more objective perspective.
  7. It improves your mood.

Why There’s No Contradiction Between Meditation’s Effectiveness and the Biological Reality of Chronic Pain

So, this is the part of the post where I tell you why those jerks who insist that it’s all in your mind are still bone-crushingly wrong and meditation works, anyway, and these two things are not the contradiction that they might appear to be initially.

Let’s say it again, just to make it clear: it is not all in your head.  But meditation can help you reduce the suffering that accompanies your pain. And that can make it all just a little bit easier to bear.

This is true because — again — there’s a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is the biological response; suffering is the entirely emotional/mental response that accompanies the pain.

In future posts, we’ll look at how to start a meditating practice for chronic pain relief.

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