I believe that joy helps healing and reduces pain. Planning my life to include things that give me joy is an important part of my healing lifestyle!
Last night I had the awesome opportunity to share an evening with old friends I haven't seen in a while, and revel in great discussions, laughter and wonderful food (especially the creative "build your own dessert" buffet seen above)
A few days ago I was caught up in stress and pain and actually considered canceling my weekend plans to stay at home and "rest up"... This may be a difficult balance, sometimes I really need rest, sometimes I just need more joy and different input. It can be a gamble to make the decision, but over time I've seen that actively choosing for joy has always been more beneficial for me than making room for the pain.
What things give you joy, what things make you laugh... and where in your schedule are you making room for them?
In my experience pain and stress are a really bad cycle, and I could understand this a lot better after learning more about what stress actually is.
Experiencing physical pain sets off a stress response, and that means among other things: shallow breathing, heated thinking, worse digestion, higher blood pressure and worse circulation. And unfortunately several of these things directly intensify my physical pain, the worse circulation especially.
So stress and chronic pain turn into a negative cycle, they both feed each other.
How can we break this cycle?
Thankfully, there's one simple tool that is really close at hand: Our breathing!
|from Hyperbole and a half|
But what if the threat is coming not from a wild bear, but from a full email inbox, a bunch of papers you have to sort through, an over-packed calendar ... or a painful back?
You can't run away from those, and you can't really fight them either, so your stress level just builds and builds...
Whatever the reason for the stress, the physical reaction is more or less the same. All these hormones are loose in your system, they are meant to be burnt off with physical exercise (like running away from the bear), and then followed by hormones that provide relief and relaxation. But if you don't have the physical exercise of running away, but are stuck in front of your computer with stress from deadlines, you don't get that relaxation unless you actively seek stress relief.
So, on a scale from 0-10 where 0 is no stress at all, 5 is slightly frantic and 10 is an ADHD duracell bunny on amphetamine... how is your stress level during a normal day?
What's it like in the morning, midday, afternoon and evening? What is particularly stressful to you?
What with the book launch, planning the new blog and buying an apartment all at the same time, it's no wonder my stress levels have been a bit through the roof lately. And that reminds me of the stress and pain connection, a topic I've been looking forward to discussing in this blog.
It was a big eye opener when I was told a little more about the over-used term "stress". People talk about "positive stress" and "negative stress", and everyone is just sooo stressed all the time... but... what is it, actually?
I talked to a doctor who explained to me that stress is actually just a chemical reaction in the body, a survival mechanism linked to the fight or flight response. When the brain interprets that the body is under attack or in danger (for example if you meet a wild bear in the forest) the endocrine system is activated and produces adrenalin, nor-adrenalin and cortisol.
These hormones have various wonderful effects, including making your heart beat faster and your blood flow thicker (in case the bear bites you, so you don't bleed to death). Blood is diverted from your stomach to your muscles so you can fight the bear or run really fast, the brain's cooling system is lowered so your brain heats up and you can think clearer - that way you're able to analyze the situation and come with a good response. All non-urgent functions, like reproduction and digestion, are put on hold so you can deal with the problem at hand: fighting the bear.
|My question is: How does this affect chronic pain?|
Don't be fooled by fancy words and good advertising. You are the expert on your own health!
A 15 minute consultation can't ever begin to cover the complexity of how your body functions, but you've lived in this body all your life, quite a few years longer than any medical education!! Doctors and all other health professionals have specific knowledge that may help you in your healing journey, but you are the one who knows best just how your body works.
So don't be shy. The next time some professional tries to tell you how things should be - based on some theory or other (they are constantly changing by the way) - and it doesn't match your experience: Claim your expertise!
If you're feeling creative: Print your own Phd certificate and post it on our wall to remind yourself.
It was when I had stopped fighting that I realized there must be another way to overcome my health problems. Strangely enough... when I quit trying to force my will on the circumstances around me to shape them the way I wanted, things actually moved along pretty smoothly. Maybe not always in the direction I was planning or expecting (moving to Arvika?!!!) but as things turned out, usually a lot better than what I could have come up with myself.
The back surgeons in Norway had given up on me, and when I gave up fighting, a Swedish surgeon turned up out of the blue and had the solution. I couldn't work because of my disability, but then I got a pension and was able to pursue my healing and writing full time. From there on it started getting better.
Some smart person proceeded to tell me that maybe there's a natural rhythm underlying all these things, and maybe I'm part of something bigger. She said that maybe if I relax and just follow the flow I'll get to where I'm going without bumping my head in all the rocks and driftwood along the riverbed. I won't have to fight to be on the "right" side of the stream, or spend all my strength trying to swim against the current. Maybe I'm always on the "right" side of the stream, all I have to do is accept my present circumstances?
Of course that sounded slightly over-zen to me, but at the same time it rang true!
In the spirit of creative solutions, I propose to be open for other options than the obvious ones. My health issues place a lot of obstacles in my path every day. For many years my solution to these obstacles was to keep fighting them. In the great river of denial, I kept fighting and fighting... until I just had no strength left at all.
The obstacles were still there.
That's when I had a flash of insight about non-violence. As long as I am fighting the disease that is part of my body... I am actually fighting myself. Wooooow. What a revelation!
And then I stopped fighting. Feeling very tao and zen about all of this for a while, I allowed myself to revel in the wonderful insight I had achieved. Then I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere.
Hm... I said to myself. Maybe instead of fighting the disability and denying it's consequences, I can be creative and find ways of minimizing their impact on my life? For each and every challenge and limitation my health issues are throwing me, I can find alternative ways to work around them?
That's when my life started getting a whole lot better...
...to be continued...
There are many detours on the road to a healthy life. Sometimes the road from A to B is not the shortest route, but who knows what valuabe tools you may pick up on the way if you are open to taking the scenic one? Or the one that stops in interesting places?
You can help the process along by focusing on your dream, setting smart goals, committing to constant improvement and ditching your perfectionism. As long as you feed your dream and allow yourself to envision a healthy and pain-free life, you are on your way.
Every pain-riddled night, every treatment and sham cure you try, every self-help book you read and every doctors appointment you go to are part of your process and part of your journey to wellness. Observe the scenery, enjoy the journey and know you are on your way somewhere you have never been before.
Worry increases pain. Just imagine the difference in how you experience a stomachache if you:
1. Have been told you might have stomach cancer and you're waiting for test results.
2. If you know it's because you have eaten too much ice cream.
Same stomachache, very different situation.
I read about a study where doctors induced stomachache in test subjects, by inflating a plastic tube in the gut. Separated into two groups, patients in one group were told "No problem, this is normal, you should be feeling better soon." and the other group were told things like "Oh. That does look strange. I don't know what that could be." Patients in the second group reported much stronger levels of pain than in the first group, under the exact same circumstances. That may be because negative emotions strongly increase pain perception.
Incessant worry drags us down, feeds negative emotions and thus fuels pain. We have a choice to do something about it. Resolving worries doesn't mean we need to fix our lives and make them perfect and worry-free, rather we need to change the way we think.
I recommend this book by dr. Marty Rossman, The Worry Solution. A pioneer in mind-body medicine, he has some good techniques on just how to overcome worry-thinking.
People say so many things, and many of them are true. When it comes to healing and overcoming chronic pain, I've found it a great benefit to practice selective hearing. Filter all incoming messages, and choose to overhear the ones that:
1. Bring you down
2. Say you can't get better
3. Say you should learn to live with your pain the way it is
4. Tell you you should get over it
5. Question your pain
I like to remind myself that as human beings we have waaaaay different perceptions of life. And just because I have found the answers that work for me, doesn't mean those answers are right for everyone else. I choose to believe that healing is possible. Another person who is in another stage of his process may need to focus on the chronic and incurable in his situation, in order to be able to accept it. The two of us should really not waste our time talking about health and healing, it's not beneficial to either of us right now.
So when meeting said person, I can put on my imaginary headphones, nod and say "yes, mhm, okay" without processing or accepting that person's truth or letting it sway my own conviction. Or I can simply avoid the topic altogether... and have some ice cream. Because I've managed to convince myself that it's good for me:)
Why keep doing what everybody else is doing, if it isn't working for you?
Creative solutions and new ideas have an important part to play in healing. If you've tried the recommended treatments and they aren't working for you, don't just keep doing the same thing. Be creative!
Apart from having a new perspective on actual treatments, creativity is important in everyday life with chronic pain. All the ways pain limits us poses practical problems. Sometimes it's annoyingly small things, like being unable to tie your own shoelaces, or not being able to make the bed. It all adds up. Of course there is grief involved when you feel limited, and acknowledging the grief is also part of the process.
You can't do things the same way any more, but maybe you can find new ways? Unleashing some new ideas on how you can manage practical problems will put you back in control and give you power to minimize the impact of pain. Empowerment in it's very best form! By using your own creativity you may be able to reclaim the parts of your life that now are gone. To actively stimulate creativity I use tools like colors, music and new surroundings. Getting out a bunch of post-its, setting a timebox and having a brainstorming session is always a good way to get started.
I also try to switch off and tune down my rational and critical mind while stimulating new ideas. Negative thoughts kill creativity pretty fast, so I try to keep the processes separate; creativity first, then when I have a bunch of crazy ideas I can sit down and analyze them.
Your surroundings are important factors for health and well being, but few of us are in the position that we can look out a window to this kind of scenery every day.
Yet, a newly released study from John Hopkins University shows clearly that beautiful nature scenes, even if just on a photograph, have significant pain-reducing effect. The study was performed on cancer patients undergoing painful treatment, and showed that placing relaxing pictures of idyllic scenes and playing out relaxing nature sounds by a patient's bed was enough to reduce pain significantly for most patients.
Maybe bringing nature home, whether it be through pictures, movies, sounds or artwork can be part of a good pain preventive life-style:)
Did Beatles say it best? Maybe LOVE is all we need!
I always think it's funny when hugely expensive scientific studies prove things that we already know, but here goes: A new study done at Stanford University School of Medicine shows that passionate feelings of love can provide amazingly strong pain relief!!!
“It turns out that the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain,” said Arthur Aron, PhD, a professor of psychology at State University of New York and one of the study’s authors.
The hypothesis behind the study was that love affects the brain in the same way many addictive drugs do, by targeting the “feel good” chemical in the brain known as dopamine. This reward system has also been shown to be critical in pain management.
Sounds too good to be true... More love = Less pain.
So, even if it might not be the first thing on your mind when your back pain is throbbing - why not join a dating service or plan a romantic evening with your sweetheart?
I believe in God - and living in Sweden, which several studies have shown is the most atheist nation in the world - that is not a cool thing to say. I moved here from my native Norway, another mostly atheist nation - and one of the few western countries which even has a state church, thereby breaking one of the tenets of a healthy democracy by enlightenment standards. Needless to say, the whole issue of faith is a little complicated...
Personally, I don't think it matters what you believe in - as long as you believe.
I strongly believe that healing is possible, for example. Not by divine intervention or medical magic- but by dedicated effort and hard work. Some miraculous healing stories, like this one, can change the way you see health and the science of mind-body medicine forever, in a good way. It isn't God, or science or surgery that makes the difference - I believe the key to healing can be found in the human brain.
If belief can cure cancer, what can it do for your chronic pain?
The placebo effect works in 30% of cases. As a professional patient, I don't get why its given such a bad rep, we should use it for what it's worth!
That a harmless fake or sham treatment can work in one third of cases is a testament to the body's own healing mechanism, and the powerful connection between mind and body.
The original "Happy Pill" Prozac was apparently only 3% more successful than a placebo in countering depression when it was FDA approved in the seventies, and in a study released in 2008 it was shown to have no better effect than a placebo. And it then had 40 million users worldwide...
Depression and chronic pain are long time companions, and since chronic pain strongly affects the brain - imagine what the placebo effect can do to improve chronic pain conditions!
So the question is: if you absolutely convince yourself that a certain medical treatment will work - doesn't that mean you can have the effectiveness of the treatment PLUS the effect of your own placebo effect?
Double power, sounds like a win/win situation to me...
If only fixing pain had been as simple as putting on a band aid.... Yesterday I had to take two excedrin to stop the incoming migraine, so my experiment was blown at 5 and a half weeks completely med free. My boyfriend tells me that normal people use the occasional pill for headaches, so why shouldn't I? But... I don't want to take pills. And I feel it really helps my general well being to learn to prevent - instead of treating the pain when it's already there.
What if I had just taken some precautions this week? Like... taking the car anyway and paying the extra money for parking? I'd be 150 kroner poorer, but would maybe have had another pain-free day.
It's funny, because it's often so obvious but still really simple: Which activities do you know increases your pain? What precautions can you take to prevent your pain from flaring?
I keep forgetting this simple little fact: it's easier to prevent than to cure.
After my three pain-free weeks I was feeling pretty good about myself, and yesterday I thought it was a good idea to save parking money by taking the subway around Oslo and carrying my stuff in a backpack. Then I woke up to a surprise visit from good old flaming neck pain, which had already invited his friends migraine and queasy to come have a party at our place.
Ok. So I invite deep breathing, yoga, bed of nails, ice packs, cold shower, hot bath, happy thoughts and smiles (slightly forced ones) into the party, and now we're battling it out. Two hours before my deadline for today's book project application and the interview with one of Norway's largest daily newspapers. Yay!
Hot water + being weightless + massage = really good pain relief.
This kind of old fashioned jacuzzi is nice enough, but many of the flashy hot tubs being made today have therapeutic massage systems that can give really great relief, especially if you suffer from muscle or back pain.
They are very expensive to buy, and I'm afraid this wouldn't fit in our new apartment (and the neighbors would probably complain about the water everywhere...), so private ownership may not be an option for most of us. And that's where it's time to get creative! Where else can you get access too a good hot tub? Any local fitness centers, spas or swimming pools have one? Any sports clubs or other places where you can become a member? Do you have friends, family members or acquaintances who could have one, and might be inclined to invite you over every now and again? Don't be afraid to ask for help, it's your pain relief and life quality we're talking about!
Many expensive hotels have a spa section with a good jacuzzi, and it's not too expensive to buy a day ticket. They also often have offers if you pay for several visits at a time, like coupons. That sort of thing is also the perfect Christmas present for a friend who suffers from chronic muscle pain or back pain, so spread the link to this post to your loved ones to let them know!
The road to healing is lined with many pit stops. And pill jars. And disappointments.
While marveling about my 5 pill free (and 3 pain-free!!) weeks I took a moment to consider my pharmaceutical biography. Which medications have I been on, when, and for how long? It all started with a small box of Ibuprofen, back in 1993 when I was struggling with a bad tendinitis that just wouldn't go away. My chiropractor actually advised me to take those pills, when after several weeks his treatment wasn't helping. I thought that was a bad sign, but I tried the ibuprofen for a week or two before ditching both the pills and the chiropractor. Turned out later that the tendinitis was the onset of my RA, which meant that my pharmaceutical biography was about to get a LOT more complicated.
Then came chemo, cortisone and a bunch of other stuff that I'd rather not think about. I think every doctor or specialist I've ever seen has prescribed me at least one new kind of medication. I must have been prescribed at least 30-40 different kinds, and I haven't tried half of them. Half of them give me stomachaches, half of them make me queasy. And the other half;) ?
Eerily enough, 17 years and a wheelbarrow of prescriptions later, what was the last kind of pill I was still using? Exactly, Ibuprofen. 400 mg 1-3 times a week. And now I've stopped. Funny, it's like I've gone full circle in a way...
Whether you're new or old in the chronic pain game, I advice you to keep a record for yourself of which medications you use and how you react to them. Keep a health journal, where you take note of your pain levels and also your medication and treatment. One day that information may well be the key to your healing.
You know that feeling, when something has changed, but you can't tell what it is? It started sneaking up on me last week. I was having breakfast - something was different. I was brushing my teeth - something was different. Then Sunday night I opened my bathroom drawer and saw them.
My pain pills.
I haven't taken any in five -5- whole weeks.
Remember my little straight edge experiment? I cut prescription meds four years ago, but have been taking ibuprofen and tylenol regularly the last two years. This last year my pain has been getting a lot worse again, and I went to my doctor who sent me home with a bunch of prescriptions. I sat looking at them and they sat looking at me. I thought, hmm, I don't want to start taking daily medication again. What if I postpone getting these from the pharmacy for a month, try taking absolutely nothing, implement all my other pain relief strategies (that you can read about in this blog) and see what happens? As I've described, I had some pretty heavy flares the first two weeks, but .... the last three weeks...? Absolutely nothing.
I even forgot about the experiment!!!
It had been over a month when I realized what has happened: It's autumn - usually a really tough time for me pain-wise, it's been several weeks and I've slept through every single night and not had to cancel a single appointment. I haven't had pain above the "discomfort" level since the middle of September!
So tell me, has anybody seen any flying pigs lately?
Healthy people may say to "follow your dream" and be all positive about it, but if you're homebound, maybe wheelchair-bound and suffering from intense chronic pain that just feels like a slap in the face. But us chronic patients are entitled to dream too. Maybe we can't follow them all, right here and right now, but we can still nourish them and keep them alive.
When we are healthy, its normal to have dreams of traveling, getting an education, career successes, maybe having a family. After we become seriously injured or chronically ill, these dreams are still with us, but may seem impossible to reach, and so become a source of sadness instead of motivation and a spur to action. That's when it's easy to give up entirely, and become entrenched in a passive patient mentality where you are your diagnosis and little else.
Today I keep my dreams alive by feeding them little tidbits of hope and inspiration, even in the darkest times. That trip to the mountains that I was too weak for the last time? It's going to happen! In the meantime I'm feeding my dream with cut outs from hiking magazines and recipes for blister remedies.
I can't help feeling like I'm caught in a TV-series when I'm walking through the streets of this little town. Everything is so available, nothing is a problem, everybody knows someone who knows someone who knows each other and everyone's friendly.
The other day I was strolling through the main street when I saw Jan, Jan is the editor in chief of the local newspaper, this being right after I received some really good news, here is our conversation:
Me: "Jan! I have news!"
Jan: "Well come on over to the office and tell me all about it!"
Me: "No, don't have time, I'm having Fika with Anna Karin,"
Jan: "Well stop by later then,"
So I stopped by his office after fika and the newspaper did an interview about my book and the new grant.
Jan says "Don't tell anyone else now, you promise," with a big smile
Me: "Of course not, you have Swedish exclusivity!" as if anyone else were interested...
Life is just less stressful here. When I have problems with my internet bank I stroll down to Kyrkogatan and throw snowballs at my bank adviser, Henrik's office window "I couldn't log on to the bank today!" I shout.
Henrik answers "You're just using the wrong pin code, remember you got a new one!"
I collect my mittens and look at him "Oh, uhm, that's right... sorry about the snowballs..."
"That's okay" he says.
At church coffee last Sunday, Samuel's father introduced me to a friendly woman, by saying "Anna here is publishing a book about health" and in about 2 minutes I proceeded to tell her exactly what I thought about the health care system and where they could stuff what, whereupon she says "Oh, and by the way I'm a doctor, I work at the local hospital here" after which we sit and have the most amazing conversation I've had in months, about chronic disease, pain, doctors, patients and health care politics... until the coffee is cold, the tables are cleared and the church warden has to sweep us through the door to close up.
Maybe people accept my everyday craziness because I'm Norwegian, and they just don't expect more from us weird people... or maybe I'm just being part of the small town charm. Either way I can't imagine having better quality of life, or anywhere that would be easier to stay healthy and happy. I only hope Gothenburg will prove to be just as friendly!
|T-shirt by CafePress|
The rules are constantly changing, especially in the medical field. What everyone agreed to as "true" ten years ago is obsolete today. According to medical research there is no cure for cancer, yet every day in every part of the world countless patients make "miraculous" recoveries. But they say that doesn't count - because our current health paradigm can't explain those stories.
Does the current medical paradigm say that you can never get well? That you will have to keep eating pharmaceutical drugs every day for the rest of your life? Then I have two questions for you:
1: Who is earning money on your continued suffering?
2: Why don't you choose your own reality instead of accepting theirs?
I've been awarded a grant from a Norwegian Freedom of Speech Foundation, Fritt Ord, to start a new blog about the Norwegian health care system!
I've been longing to dive into political debate and provoke the health&disease industry in Norway (if you've read my story you may understand why) and wow, this is just amazing, I'm being paid to blog!!! The grant is big enough that I can spend 40-50% of my available work hours for one year to do this project. I plan to be really obnoxious and say all the things they don't want to hear, spread good laughs and inspiration and also have a lot of fun in the process....
If you understand Norwegian, you can read the press release here.
One simple way of instantly reducing negativity and start feeling better, is to do an alphabetized gratitude inventory. I often do this as I'm going to bed, it's excellent to clear my mind of all the stress and practical issues of the day and also to reclaim a positive focus.
This mental exercise is really simple, just start repeating the alphabet and for each letter you think of one thing in your life that you are grateful for.
A: my Apartment
B: Blue sky today
Phew!! We got through negativity week in only three days, time to snap out of it!! Bye bye Muppet hosts! It's Saturday morning and I am shaking all the gremlins out of my head.
In order to shake off negative thought patterns I don't know any better way than Cognitive behavioural Therapy. Through talking with a therapist or counselor who is trained in CBT you can learn to change any negative thought patterns that are holding you back or reinforcing your negative pain behavior. It usually doesn't take more than a few sessions to get really good effect, and if you suffer from chronic pain and your situation is stable it can be a life saver. Talk to your doctor or check with a local patient organization to find a good counselor in your area.
Some people view life as a cosmic balance scale wherein they expect sacrifices and self-denial to pay off in some positive way. They may see their problem with chronic pain as some kind of cosmic bad luck or retribution: "Why do I have to suffer like this?" or "What good is going to come from having to deal with this pain?" With this kind of thinking, people begin to lose a realistic perspective on their problems.
(Warning: This entry is part of Negativity Week!)
Chronic pain can be limiting. Rather than learning to focus on what they can still do, some people regularly tell themselves that they "should" do tasks that are problems for them. For example "I should work in the garden, because the weeds are growing" or "I should really dust all those shelves" or "I should go to that function". People stuck in the "shoulds" continually make mental lists of what activities they ought to accomplish rather than making a reasonable list of activities that they really want to do.
(Warning: This entry is part of Negativity Week!)
A pain sufferer might believe he knows how others are feeling and why they act as they do - especially towards him. He can say "My family think I complain too much" but his family may not think this at all.
(Warning: This entry is part of Negativity Week!)
This is "What if..." thinking in negative form, "making a mountain out of a molehill". A person with chronic pain might say to herself, "I can't go out with my friends because if my pain acts up, everything will be ruined." As a result, she stops going out.
(Warning: This entry is part of Negativity Week!)
A person with this thought pattern might say to himself, "My pain ruined my last social event, so all social activities will be miserable for me." By learning how to look at such events more rationally, he would see that while there are times when his pain limits him, there are other times when it doesn't. He could also learn to recognize when his pain would spoil a particular activity and when it actually wouldn't.
(Warning: This entry is part of Negativity Week!)
With this thought pattern people see the world in absolutes: everything is either all good or all bad, positive or negative. For example, a person with leg pain that prevents her from walking very much might say to herself, "Well, I can't walk my normal amount, so I won't walk at all." This way her health deteriorates further. Taking a more moderate or balanced view of her life would allow her to set intermediate goals and work towards gradually improving her situation.
(Warning: This entry is part of Negativity Week!)
With this thinking pattern, people tend to focus only on the negative aspects of their lives while filtering out positive aspects. A person with chronic low back pain may say to himself, in effect, "When my back hurts, there's nothing in my life that's positive" That's filtering because obviously there are some aspects of his life that are positive. He has a loving family, he can still do some of his favorite activities, but he is actually choosing to not recognize those positive aspects.
(Warning: This entry is part of Negativity Week!)
Samuel and I have been through an intense week with apartment hunting, and all of a sudden things started happening fast. We found a really nice place, got a great deal and signed the contract for our new home yesterday. Today we drove home to Arvika for the fun stuff: signing our mortgage agreement with the bank :D And all this has happened right in the middle of Negativity Week and blown my blog schedule off track!
Sorry folks, that means Negativity Week is extended... watch out for more Gremlins on this blog!
Posted by Anna at 10/01/2010 09:50:00 PM