Chronic pain is a strange thing, and it has a way of slowly convincing you that it's just another quirky part of life. Your sense of reality becomes warped, and you get used to hurting emotionally and physically. It's like a bird chirping at your subconscious, reminding you consistently that something isn't right.
With a degenerative condition like scoliosis, the mental struggle isn't just about dealing with daily pain but knowing that it's a lifelong pain management journey. You may dedicate your life to keeping that minor ache or wringing pain at bay, and learning to love your body. This was the only thing that made me feel hopeless and lost for a long time.
However, weeks leading up to spinal fusion to correct my scoliosis curvature with a rod and screws, my state of mind was anything but hopeless. Ten years of living with chronic pain have been challenging, but I realize how much my pain has taught me. Ahead, find the valuable lessons I've learned along the way.
Meet the Expert
- Michael A. Mazius, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist based in Waukesha, Wisconsin specializing in stress and mood disorders.
- Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a practicing licensed neuropsychologist in New York City. She's the founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in Manhattan and Queens and an active member of Byrdie's review board.
How to Accept
"Humans enjoy control," says Dr. Mazius, a licensed psychotherapist. "When one lives with chronic pain, that control often becomes elusive and may cause anxiety or depression."
While being out of control of our bodies can cause suffering, I've found that it only does when we tell ourselves peace requires control. When we tell ourselves this, we struggle against our reality instead of accepting it, and that’s where suffering thrives. Trying to reject reality can be scary, and it's something we've all experienced in different forms. Maybe it's the loss of a loved one or a breakup, but the sharpest pain comes in the moments we desperately try to deny the truth.
I've learned that the first step in coping with chronic pain is to make peace with it. It sounds like it should be a zen breakthrough, but it's an ongoing journey. When I feel pain starting, I try to welcome the pain and acknowledge it instead of having an emotional reaction. This way, I can deal with the physical pain without added emotional suffering.
Dr. Mazius says accepting reality isn't about giving up, even though it can be confused as such. "Acceptance fosters serenity and creates space for the change," he says. "When we accept our limitations, we also find space to evolve in other important ways." While you can't always control the cards you are dealt, you can control empowered healing, which starts with acceptance.
How to Be Optimistic
When faced with chronic pain, it's normal to have pessimistic thoughts. Still, chronic pain has taught me that optimism isn't always something that comes naturally. I've learned that optimism is less an ideological concept and more of a muscle you strengthen over time.
For me, practicing optimism means responding to doom thoughts with truth. When my pain says: This will only worsen with age, I can counter that: You're in charge of your healing and always will be. I've found that pinpointing my reoccurring negative thoughts and writing down a list of positive statements to actively counter them has been helpful.
While having supportive friends and family members is also essential in your journey of managing chronic pain, Dr. Mazius says that you are your biggest cheerleader. "These thoughts, beliefs, sentiments, and affirmations must come from within," he says of chronic pain, a deeply personal struggle. It may be tough to believe the power of your optimistic statements at first, but the more you practice, the more effortless and real the words become.
How to Actively Listen to My Body
Long-term healing requires stillness and intuition, which are components of actively listening to your body. With scoliosis, I'm always listening to my pain. Did I walk too far? Slouch too much or skip out on yoga? How does my back feel after swimming? I've had to pay attention to consuming foods that affect my pain levels, how often I drink alcohol, and even the ways I am sexually intimate. Every part of my life has to be monitored and organized based on my pain scale. Not only have I figured out what works for pain management, but I’ve learned how to figure it out. I’ve learned how to communicate with the parts of my body that cannot speak with words. While it is exhausting, it's also an opportunity to connect with myself, and I've gotten to know my body in ways I probably wouldn't have otherwise. I've learned how to manage my pain and nurture myself.
Dr. Hafeez says that studies show incorporating relaxation techniques into your routine can be beneficial in managing chronic pain. "Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, and guided visual imagery are all proven to mitigate the experience of pain," she says. "Comorbid anxiety and depression worsen the experience of pain and thus, cognitive behavioral therapy can be a very effective tool at managing the emotional distress and the perception of pain."
How to Appreciate My Journey
After surgery, what works will become what worked, and I will have to relearn everything. However, that is okay. My chronic pain has taught me it's okay to relearn your body, and now I know how to. While it doesn't erase the emotional journey of undergoing surgery, the feelings of insecurity and body dysmorphia, more than anything I still feel a strong sense of gratitude. Through all these years, my curvy spine has held me up. For over twenty years, I've loved, fought, ran, and walked with this spine. My scoliosis and chronic pain have given me wisdom that I can't imagine living without. Ultimately, it has shown me how resilient I am. For that, I wouldn't change a thing.
Roditi D, Robinson ME. The role of psychological interventions in the management of patients with chronic pain. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2011;4:41-49.