Mood boosters: Five strategies to feel better emotionally when living with pain

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By Lisa Davis

Therapist Rebecca Rengo LCSW, author of Beyond Chronic Pain: A get-well guidebook to soothe the body, mind & spirit, knows firsthand what it is like to be in pain. Her own pain journey started at age 16 when she dealt with multiple chronic conditions, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder and TMD, which developed into migraines. Then in her twenties, she was in three car accidents resulting in severe whiplash, damage to her vertebrae and broken bones. Add neuropathy, diverticulitis and food and environmental allergies to the list. “I know excruciating pain, constant pain, the hide it at work and smile when you don’t want to show the pain,” says Rengo, who lives in St. Charles, MO. “I also know the guilt, the shame and being misunderstood, and alone.”

Rengo hasn’t let her pain define her. She is married. She loves to scuba dive. And she has devoted her 30-plus-year career to counseling others who live with pain. She also is on the adjunct faculty at St. Louis University, Washington University and the University of Missouri St. Louis Schools of Social Work.

Below she shares five strategies to improve your mood and outlook on life when you battle chronic pain.

1. Dig deep into your belief system. What do you believe is possible? What kinds of evidence do you have to support this? Does your current way of thinking support your healing/health/quality of life? If not, how ready are you to make small steps that will start to lift you up with hope?

2. Find a good support system. It can be very hard to find your way out of despair and hopelessness. If you feel stuck, you need a guide to help lead you in a personalized approach. Find a well trained and knowledgeable pain relief coach, counselor, support group, spiritual leader or provider who will direct you to more options educate you, help you change what’s not working and identify what is worth your precious focus. As much as possible, surround yourself with people who care. It’s important to receive respect and love from others and from yourself. Love feeds hope.

3. Feel pleasure in the “now.” No matter what your situation, you can find something to enjoy with the senses that you have. For example, laugh every day by watching comedy movies, reading comics, and watching funny YouTube videos, observing a cat or dog at play or children.

4. Give to others. Living with pain makes loneliness even more painful. One of the best ways to decrease loneliness is to give to others in whatever way you can. It may be formal like volunteering. If it’s hard to leave the house, find a volunteer gig where you phone those in need, like an elderly person or a veteran. Or could you write sympathy cards for a hospice patient. When you volunteer, you are also connecting with a staff coordinator or other volunteers in a positive way. Another option is to give back informally. Smile even if you don’t feel like it. Your brain and body think you are happier when you smile. Say a kind word to the cashier or service rep on the phone. Giving, however small or insignificant it may seem to you can make a difference for someone else and you will be receiving the gift of connection. (A volunteer vacation is a way to experience the healing benefits of volunteering and see some great places along the way. Check out our story, Volunteer Vacations Can Help Relieve Pain.

5. Break the downward spiral. Pain is frequently experienced through a number of symptoms: impaired functioning, low energy, poor sleep, stressful relationships and/or loneliness and depressive feelings. At some point, you are forced to give in. When this happens, you rest more because you can no longer fight the decline. After a period of increased rest, you tend to feel a little better, or even quite a bit better causing you to want to catch up on all the things you have missed – errands, time with family and friends, etc. You overdo it and the downward spiral restarts. But it can be broken.

The key is to stay in front of the pain. What can you do on a bad day? Start there and very slowly build your activity, always stopping before the pain is aggravated. Go by your personal history and your instincts. It’s very individual for each person and each activity. When I started with this, I could only walk five minutes at a time; I didn’t want to stop but I did. I gradually added a minute. One time I tried adding five minutes and couldn’t do it. You can also over schedule how much time you think an activity will take. If unexpected things come up, or you need to slow down, time for it is built in. Trying to accomplish too much and not allowing for pacing increases stress levels and is a sure way to aggravate pain.

To learn more ways to improve your mental health when living with chronic pain, visit Rengo’s website, www.beyondchronicpain.com.

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