7 things that have helped me cope with chronic pain
The first time my doctor brought up chronic pain, I was eleven. I was in sixth grade, and was having five migraines a week; once they were triggered, I was nonfunctioning for the of the rest of the day. This meant missing a lot of class, and trying everything I could think of to stop the pain-- long showers, heating pads, ice packs, over the counter pain medication, restricting random foods from pineapple to chocolate, you name it. Everyone I talked to had something else that worked for them (or their grandmother/ twice removed third aunt/ etc) that I just had to try. Most of the time, this was something that I had already heard of, and that hadn’t worked for me. However, through trial and error, I did find some things that helped me in my journey of pain management. Here are a few that stood out:
1. chronic ≠ forever
When my doctor first brought up the word “chronic” my brain immediately turned to a life sentence. While some people do suffer from pain for a lifetime, many people are able to find coping mechanisms that work for them to stop their pain cycle and live generally pain- free lives. Chronic simply means long lasting, but doesn't always mean a life sentence. This realization has been vital to my mental health, and to helping me keep hope in mind during treatment.
2. Not rejecting medication
I was initially very resistant in medically related treatment. I have always had a huge fear of needles, and in more general terms doctor’s offices, and was not super enthusiastic when my doctor whipped out her notepad and started to write down prescriptions. I was scared-- I felt naive of what I was putting in my body and wasn’t quite sure how to react.
3. Asking questions
This applied to me particularly with medication, but also applied more generally. I believe that humans are inherently curious, and that we oftentimes react firstly with fear when we don’t have enough of the right information. I found that my doctors were, although they sometimes seemed like they were in a rush, very happy to answer questions at appointments, you just had to ask. I personally found it helpful to ask questions to get more information about possible side effects I might have from the medication, and to even do some personal research on the medication I was taking. Google scholar became a good friend of mine, and I found comfort in being able to read studies about the medicine I was taking by myself, and to bring up any questions or concerns I had with my doctor at our next application or through a messaging service, when it was available.
My freshman year psychology teacher had us do a self- experiment in which we meditated for twenty minutes a day for two weeks, and to write an essay about both our experience doing it as well as the research we found around mindfulness. I struggled with meditation during the self experiment, but through my light research for the paper I found research done on mindfulness, which doesn't necessarily have to be a traditional meditation practice. According to dictionary.com, mindfulness is “a technique in which one focuses their full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” With this definition, you can do many tasks throughout your day mindfully. I found that practicing mindfulness while showering in the morning before starting my day made a big improvement in my patience and calmness throughout the day. There is extensive research to show a positive correlation between mindfulness practice and a decrease in suffering from chronic pain, which I found to apply to my own chronic pain.
5. Writing it down
I was extremely lucky to have the resources to have access to trained medical professionals who (every couple of months or so) would meet with me and one of my parents to form a plan of my medications, food plan, sleeping habits, and stress coping mechanisms for the period before we saw each other again. I would do my best to stick to this plan, and record what I noticed in my pain levels each and every day so that I could present this to my doctor to create a more efficient strategy to deal with pain.
I also found a lot of peace with journaling, something that I've really become more dedicated to in the past ear or so. Being able to write my thought on paper has been hugely beneficial to my mental health, and has helped me process my thoughts much more efficiently.
6. The little things
Black out curtains, hot pacs, sunglasses, earplugs, long showers, and even longer naps often helped save the day when it came to my headaches. My migraines were heavily triggered by stimuli-- bring around too bright of a light or too loud of a speaker for long enough would trigger a migraine that could put me out for the rest of the day, if not longer than that. I got black out curtains for my bedroom, so that I could block out sunlight when I was in intense pain during the day. I kept a pair of sunglasses and earplugs with me almost everywhere I went. These simple things, when used together, helped me heavily with my everyday pain management.
7. Paying attention to my mental health
Chronic pain can take a huge toll on one’s spirits, as it did mine. Paying attention to all pain, not just the “physical” pain, made a huge difference in my levels of suffering. Talking with friends, and eventually a therapist, helped me work through both the mental and the physical pain that often comes with chronic migraines. Putting time into my mental health was vital to my pain management.
My five years of strict pain management plans have generally paid off, with myself suffering far less than before. I now get a couple migraines a month, with a few more less intense headaches thrown in the mix. Although not perfect, my decreased levels of pain have made a huge difference in my quality of life. I now make plans with less worry that I’m going to have to cancel them, and am more likely to enter stimuli heavy environments without thinking about the possible migraine that could pop up. These tips aren’t universal-- different techniques affect some individuals differently than others, and I hope that this blog helps to shine light on that.