Using Mindfulness and Acceptance to Mentally Cope with Chronic Pain
By Joe Tatta, PT, DPT, CNS
Over the last century, a belief has developed that people living with chronic pain are broken, they need to be fixed, and pain must be completely eliminated in order to achieve a sense of freedom and vitality.
Things that are broken require fixing. When you view pain as a problem, it will naturally require a solution that promises to fix it. But what if the ways you’ve tried to mend or fix your pain are actually making things worse? Consider that possibility for a moment. Struggling to control pain can place a tremendous amount of strain on your body and your life. Each failed fix or promise of a solution to stop, control, or eliminate pain takes a toll. It lets you down, shattering your expectations into a thousand pieces, leaving you spent and drained of energy.
An Alternate Path: Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
A modern exploration of human suffering suggests chronic pain isn’t the enemy and that it doesn’t need to be stopped, eliminated or controlled to live a rich, meaningful and active life. Rather than focusing on changing physical or psychological pain directly, approaches such as mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy seek to change the function of those events and the individual’s relationship to them.
The following metaphor will help you recognize how ineffective the struggle with pain control really is. It also shows you a surprising alternate path out of the struggle—a path that can help you return to an active life.
Activity: Letting Go of the Rope
Fighting to control or eliminate pain is like being in a tug-of-war with a huge pain monster. In between you and this big, ugly monster is a deep, bottomless pit. Losing this tug-of-war means falling into the pit, where you’ll be trapped forever.
Imagine grasping the rope tightly with both hands and beginning to pull. The harder you pull, the harder the pain monster pulls back. You tighten your grip further until your knuckles are white. Your elbows contract and your shoulders rise with tension. Your back braces as you dig your heels into the ground and begin to pull.
As the struggle continues you become more and more exhausted and begin to feel the pain in your body. Your arms are tired, your face is red and you’re sweating as you continue in this fight for your life. As the struggle continues, you edge closer and closer to the pit. The pain monster is winning.
Finally, you are pulled to the very edge of the pit where you stare into the depths of darkness. Your mind searches for solutions—telling you to pull harder and not to give in until you’ve won the struggle. Yet, there is an option you probably haven’t considered; You don’t need to win this tug-of-war.
What if you decide to let go of the rope and give up the fight?
Imagine yourself dropping the rope right now.
Notice how your body feels as you drop the rope.
Does the tension in your body increase or decrease? Does your energy level go up or down? You’re now free to use your hands, feet, your entire body, and your mind for something other than fighting pain. The pain monster hasn’t gone away just because you stopped tugging. He may still be holding one end hoping that you grab hold for another round. There may be times when you re-engage in this battle simply out of habit, even without the pain monster taunting you.
Focus on the Important Things You Care About
Dropping the rope will allow you to save your energy to focus on the important things you care about—relationships and activities that are waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. Goals and dreams that you have put on hold because you were busy in the battle with the pain monster. Take a moment and think about all the people and activities that have been waiting while you’ve been involved in the tug-of-war. What projects have you put on hold? What vacations have you canceled or put off planning? Is there a friend you no longer see or a child who needs your support? Start a list or simply visualize the people and places that make you feel excited about life again. How would dropping the rope give you more time, energy, and space to connect with who and what is important to you?
Letting go creates space for something new to take its place, or for something you once cherished to return. When you shift your focus from trying to control pain, worrying about when pain will return, or whether or not activities will cause more pain, you create space and energy to move toward the full and active life you desire. You are free to create the life you want.