Living well with pain and illness, introduction.
Hello and welcome to my latest blog on living well with pain and illness.
This is a huge area and so I am going to write a series of blogs with helpful ideas and exercises that may help you to develop a different relationship to your pain and your body. It is my firm belief that you can learn to live well and indeed flourish alongside your condition. This is why my private counselling practice is called Flourishing MK.
I am a qualified person centred counsellor with an interest in working with chronic pain and other long-term health conditions. This interest has developed from my own journey in working with my own chronic pain condition, pain which I have had for 10 years and continue to manage on a daily basis.
There are a range of ideas that influence my work with clients, in particular the work of Breathworks: https://www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk/. This is an organisation set up by a lady called Vidyamala. I am happy to say that I have had the privilege to meet Vidyamala, as she is one of my biggest role models. Her story and her work were instrumental in my recovery and transforming my chronic pain experience.
Vidyamala had a number of spinal injuries that led to her becoming a wheelchair user and she has been managing chronic pain for 40 years. Once Vidyamala learned that she could not push her body through the pain anymore whilst trying to ignore it, she learnt to work with her mind and used mindfulness to work with the pain. Along with the other founders of Breathworks she developed an eight week meditation course entitled Mindfulness for Health:
This book would be my number one recommendation in where to start in your journey of learning to live well with pain and illness. So this will be the focus for this introductory blog on learning to live well with chronic pain and illness.
I first heard about this book at a time in my life when I was bed-bound with pain and at a very low ebb. I was in my mid-twenties and felt that life was over. I had an audio version of the book and would listen to the book multiple times. Over time the program gradually taught me that I could be in pain, but I need not suffer. It enabled me to learn that the pain was one aspect of my experience and not the whole of me, it did not need to define me and stop me from living the life that I wanted to.
I hope that you too can experience the positive shift in your life and pain management that this book encourages.
As a brief outline, there is a theme for each week of the course with an associated meditation, which takes just 10 minutes. Then there are a number of daily habit releasers to practice, which work to gradually break negative ways of thinking and behaving. A habit releaser might involve going to the park and soaking up the sunshine. I find it very easy to do this particular habit releaser in the current sunny weather that we are experiencing in the UK.
If your condition would not allow you to get outside, you could adapt this habit releaser by sitting next to a window and looking outside at the view. Noticing what you see and allowing yourself to be present with the experience. These pleasant experiences and exercises are designed to rewire the brain so we can notice the positive aspects of experience once more.
I will go into more details about this in future blogs, however, as human beings our brains are naturally wired to seek out the negative and potential threats. This was an evolutionary adaptation that allowed us to survive, rather than being eaten by a predator that we did not notice!
When we are in pain and have been for a long time, our brains which are plastic and adapt and remodels itself becomes primed and on high alert to look out for the first hint of any pain and pain signals can become amplified in the brain. We may then experience pain, say after a surgery, or accident much longer following a 'typical' recovery time, where tissue healing has taken place, maybe even months, or years later.
A simple way to think about this situation is that our brains have become stuck in particular neural pathways for pain- much like a well trodden and familiar pathway:
The experience of having pain will no doubt prompt the person to think about the pain, maybe comparing the current experience of pain to experiences of pain in the past and worrying about the future.
> Will the pain get worse?
> Will the person end up in a wheelchair?
> Will the person lose their job?
> How will the person pay the mortgage and other bills?
> How will you be able to maintain relationships with friends and family when you are in pain and don't have the energy to go out and socialise.
> Will you be able to have a family if in pain?
There may be huge amounts of anxiety about the points mentioned above. There may also be grief and sadness about having a body that is in pain and doesn't function, or maybe doesn't look how you want it to. All of these emotional reactions will impact also on the physical pain experienced and the persons ability to cope.
A regular mindfulness practice, alongside personal counselling can enable you over time to develop more skills and ways of working with your pain and your emotional suffering. Working with the analogy above you can find more pathways around the well trodden pain path above, expanding your life and your potential for (re)engaging in life.
Here is an introduction to Breastworks by Vidyamala:
If you want to find out more about the Breastworks program, or personal counselling at Flourishing MK please don't hesitate to reach out to me.
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