5 Steps to Cope with (Not Avoid) Physical Pain
I’ve been living with pain from disc narrowing in my neck (degenerative disc disease) for years. As time went by, I learned to live with the pain and tried as much as possible to avoid taxing my neck. The result was more tightness and tension, but the same level of pain.
Last week I went to a chiropractor for the first time in my life. After the visit I felt more pain than I have felt in a very long time. The chiropractor awakened the sleeping numb muscles. It took my body a couple of days to adjust.
I had my second visit a couple of days ago and as I’m writing these words, I am in excruciating pain. I can’t sit straight for more than 10 minutes before I feel the need to get up. It feels like there are little gremlins gnawing on my muscle tissue and nerves.
What gives? Instead of feeling better, I’m feeling worse.
The reason is quite simple. Because I neglected the issue for so long, my body needs to wake up and deal with it (just like one feels sore after exercising for the first time after an extended period of inactivity).
Today I’d like to share with you some of the things I learned from this experience and other strategies I’m trying to incorporate to feel better and make peace with physical pain.
If you have suffered from a condition that is somewhat similar, I hope you find my experience useful to you. If you’re healthy and feel good, please read this article as a cautionary tale that may prevent the same thing from happening to you in the future.
The main thing is not to avoid the pain, but to deal with it as peacefully and proactively as possible. Here are the steps I’m working with right now.
1- Accepting that the damage is done
While I accepted that I had disc damage from long hours hunched over a computer screen, part of me always thought that I could fix it—on my own.
Unfortunately that’s not the case and I’m learning to accept this truth as the days go by. The damage is done. I can’t reverse it. Maybe with better care and more awareness I can maintain what’s not damaged. And that’s the best that I can do.
Accepting that something is gone is the first step in coping with a new reality. It can be hard and scary, which brings me to my next point.
2- Coping with fear
OMG! I have permanent disc damage in my neck. What is going to happen to me? Am I going to need painful surgery? Is this going to spread to other parts of my spine? Will I be able to move and live my life?
Fear is our instinctive and protective response. Interestingly, fear will only surface when we accept our condition. I didn’t feel afraid in the past not because I was brave, but because I was in denial. I thought I could fix the damage.
I admit that part of me is scared. But I’m comforted by the feeling that my body is strong enough to handle it. I have been dealing with the pain for years and yet here I am.
Dealing with fear requires the following:
Accepting that we can’t undo what’s done. We need to move forward.
Addressing the fear by finding answers to the questions our protective mind conjures up.
Taking action and moving forward in small, gradual steps, in spite of fear and resistance.
3- Seeking help and trusting
Instead of trying to deal with everything on our own, we can ask others for guidance or seek professional help.
I spoke to my doctor when I was first diagnosed (almost 5 years ago), but didn’t do anything else. I tried to do things on my own, ignoring my doctor’s advice to go for massage therapy, or a chiropractor and doing low impact exercises like yoga or swimming.
I didn’t trust the advice and decided to do my own thing.
The result: nothing.
Luckily for me I don’t think I did more damage. But the pain I’m feeling right now, could’ve been much less if I didn’t allow my muscles to tighten as much as I did and I got into a healthier maintenance routine.
Also I didn’t trust my body. In the past when I felt pain sitting up, I’d go lay down and grab my laptop and continue on the couch. This eased the pain in my neck but didn’t relax or strengthen the muscles. It caused lower back pain (another issue to deal with). That’s avoidance.
Now I’m learning to listen to my body and to the advice I’m given more. Here is what I do:
- Sit upright for no more than 20 to 40 minutes.
- Move my neck, gently and frequently, to make sure the muscles don’t tighten up.
- Perform the exercises recommended by the chiropractor.
- Listen to my body for any other signals, without judgment or avoidance.
- Move my entire body as much as I can.
4- Meditating on pain and body awareness
One thing I’ve discovered in the past week as my body was awakened back to life is how much tolerance I’ve developed and how I managed to avoid the pain as much as possible.
Now I’m trying to meditate on the pain. I close my eyes for a few minutes and inhale deeply imaging the energy of life massaging my neck and shoulders. As I exhale I imagine the tension and pain leaving my body.
Paying more attention to the area of pain helps us in facing the pain instead of ignoring (or worse fighting) it.
If you can’t close your eyes and meditate, draw your attention to the area of your body that hurts and keep it there for as long as you can before it diverts to another thought. Just feel without the need for commentary or explanation.
The more we pay attention to the pain, the more we become aware of the body and how it communicates with us.
5- Being grateful and appreciating life
One thing I don’t think we can overdo is gratitude. If I spent the rest of my life being thankful for the body and abilities I have, it won’t be enough.
Of course you might say that I’m more appreciative now because of the pain. And that might be true. But it’s better to feel thankful for what we have than resentful for what we don’t have—especially if it’s not going to happen.
As I write these words, my head feels like it weighs a ton on my weak neck. I can barely sit. But I am sitting and that’s a good thing. I’m typing, thinking, communicating, moving, and doing so many things because of the gift that is my body and mind.
No matter where you’re at when it comes to health, it doesn’t hurt to take a few moments to give thanks for what you have. This is not about wanting things to be better, but about accepting what is and rolling with it.
Pain is selfish and tends to take our attention and energy to areas of discomfort and what’s not right. But it can be an opportunity to awaken and appreciate. Gratitude opens up our hearts to all the good in our lives, and puts things in perspective—things can get worse.
The human body is an intricate miracle of creation. It is a work of art and perfect function. We tend to take it for granted until we’re jolted by pain or illness. Whatever the case may be, let’s treat the human body with love and give it the respect it deserves. For without it, we wouldn’t be here.
P.S. If you have a healthy neck and back, please continue to pay attention to your posture. Try to sit straight without leaning your neck forward too much or hunching your back and shoulders. Your body will thank you for it.