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The Pain Companion

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  • Sarah Anne Shockley
  • January 23, 2016 11:40:55 AM
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Insights, wisdom, and practical tips for living better while living with chronic pain

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When I Lost My Sense of Self in Chronic Pain

During the worst of my pain, I no longer had a memory of my body without pain, even in my imagination, and I couldn’t envision a pain-free future, even though I desperately desired it. I had forgotten who I was without pain, and I was scared of who I was becoming from the experience.Pain had become so embedded in my body, my daily routines and my awareness, that this constant companion had become too familiar, like a terrorist and his hostage. Pain had been with me for so long that...

During the worst of my pain, I no longer had a memory of my body without pain, even in my imagination, and I couldn’t envision a pain-free future, even though I desperately desired it. I had forgotten who I was without pain, and I was scared of who I was becoming from the experience.

Pain had become so embedded in my body, my daily routines and my awareness, that this constant companion had become too familiar, like a terrorist and his hostage. Pain had been with me for so long that I wasn’t sure what would be left of me if and when it finally departed.

Would it take most of me with it? What would it mean about who I am if pain never left? Do I even know who I am anymore?

Rediscovering Myself After Pain

In order to find myself again and to re-engage with the “real” me (as opposed to seeing myself only as “the one in pain”), I had to disengage my self-image and feelings of self-worth from my experience of pain and my body’s limitations.

I worried that my injury, my pain, and my being in need of assistance had turned me into a weak and needy person. I had to realize that just because my body felt weak, it didn’t mean I was weak as a person. Just because my body was in pain, it didn’t mean I had become the pain.

I realized that because I had been in pain for a long time, I had been living almost entirely in reaction to pain. I had allowed pain to become the organizing principle in my life, the central power. I had shifted all my choice making onto pain’s shoulders. After all, it seemed to rule everything.

It seemed like the only choice there was, but there was a subtle but important shift that was necessary for my healing process, and that was to move the responsibility, power, and decision-making back onto my own shoulders. This became part of dis-identifying with pain and disentangling myself from it.

While pain was certainly the reason I couldn’t do many things, I needed to stop thinking of it as the director of my life.

Dis-Identifying with Pain

The process gradually unfolded something like this:

1. Pain Arrived: I resisted, did all the “right” things, including therapies and medications. Pain didn’t leave, so I tried harder to get rid of it, adding alternative therapies, prayer, more willpower, more and different medications etc.

2. Pain Stayed: It still wouldn’t leave. It even got worse. The longer I lived with pain, the more difficult it became to see myself clearly as a person with pain, rather than as the pain.

3. I Learned to Work With Pain: I eventually came to a place of honoring pain’s presence and its unusual gifts. I recognized pain as something that was trying to heal itself in and through me. I stopped resisting and fighting against pain (which seemed to only make it worse anyway) and begin to work with it and through it, regaining a sense of self that was not utterly beholden to pain as dictator and director.

4. I Realized Pain Was Only One Aspect of My Life, Not the Totality: I learned to work with pain differently, seeing both it and myself from a different perspective. Pain represents a very demanding part of my experience, but it was not who I was. It was a landscape I was walking through. My inner self was still intact.

By not fighting and resisting, my whole body became more relaxed. Pain was still with me, but not as acute, and I began to have a greater sense of well-being despite its presence.

My body began to heal because I was allowing myself to breathe more deeply, stop demanding pain to leave immediately, relax around the situation I was in and take my time. I was then able to ask myself who I wanted to become as a result of the incredibly challenging experience of living with pain. What have I learned from this experience? What can I share? What can I give others?


When I reconnected with my inner self while still in pain and didn’t wait for it to leave, I found a sense of renewal. It was a challenge at first, but I came to accept all of my experience with pain as part of a greater path, putting myself at the center rather than pain.

​This simple but profound shift allowed me to begin to live with more ease, grace, well-being and inner peace. Over time, this has led to greater healing and greater release of pain.
This article is also on The Mighty as When I Lost My Sense of Self Because of Chronic Pain


Listening to Chronic Pain

After one of those nights when I shift around trying to get comfortable, but each new position feels worse than the last, I ask myself, “What is this all for?”Which leads to a whole bunch of questions. What is pain’s ultimate purpose? I mean, sure, there’s a physiological reason for pain most of the time, but is there something beyond that, something with a deeper meaning or higher purpose that will help me make sense of why my pain won’t leave?What if pain...

After one of those nights when I shift around trying to get comfortable, but each new position feels worse than the last, I ask myself, “What is this all for?”

Which leads to a whole bunch of questions. What is pain’s ultimate purpose? I mean, sure, there’s a physiological reason for pain most of the time, but is there something beyond that, something with a deeper meaning or higher purpose that will help me make sense of why my pain won’t leave?

What if pain is the hand that pulled me back from some dangerous precipice? It’s uncomfortable, sudden and shocking even, but maybe it saved me from something worse. Maybe it kept me from going further down a path that would lead to even less health and well-being. What if pain is my body’s last resort to get my full attention?

Maybe pain is the only way I’d slow down enough to take a good look at myself and my life. Maybe being in pain was the only way I was ever going to really change.

If I look at what pain has demanded of me, it makes some sense. Pain asks me to look inward, to be in my body, to live in the moment, to take stock, to re-prioritize, to slow down, to let go, to simplify. I resent the fact that pain forced me to do these things, and I would prefer to have chosen them on my own, but I didn’t.

So is pain pointing me toward a renewal of spirit, a renewal of life? If so, then pain has become a major course adjustment in my life when I needed it most.

It seems that part of my healing is learning the messages pain brings with it. I’m learning to re-engage with life on different terms, more health-giving terms, more self-honoring terms, more going-at-the-speed-of-well-being terms.

So the questions become: How is pain asking me to change so I can heal? What is it pointing toward? How might it be pointing toward a different life that, for reasons I may not fully understand, could not be possible without having gone down this painful path in the first place?

And to find that new life, I have to listen to myself, listen to my body and yes, even listen to my pain.


This article also appears on The Mighty as "Answering the Questions my Chronic Pain Asks"


Using Anger as a Positive Force in Life with Chronic Pain

We run through the gamut of emotions when we’re in chronic pain, sometimes all in one day. We may experience loss, sadness, overwhelm, fear, anxiety, shame, isolation and anger to name a few.Anger can be used to perpetuate resentment and blame, or anger can be used for healing.Here’s how I have found ways to use it for greater well-being.Step One: Acknowledge anger and feel it.There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling angry about what happened in our lives to cause...

We run through the gamut of emotions when we’re in chronic pain, sometimes all in one day. We may experience loss, sadness, overwhelm, fear, anxiety, shame, isolation and anger to name a few.
Anger can be used to perpetuate resentment and blame, or anger can be used for healing.
Here’s how I have found ways to use it for greater well-being.

Step One: Acknowledge anger and feel it.
There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling angry about what happened in our lives to cause our pain and suffering. In fact, for people stuck in depression and sadness, anger can be a very liberating force.

Anger is a natural response to living with pain. Let’s just acknowledge that as a given. We feel angry at pain because it is so insistent and faceless, a force that can’t be reasoned with or bribed or cajoled or bargained with.

We can be angry with the medical system for not having the answers, and we may wrongly blame ourselves for having unwittingly made choices that somehow led to this pain. And we’re angry for not being able to find our way out again.

So the first step is to acknowledge any anger you may be carrying. Just don’t stay in it so long it becomes bitterness and resentment. Move on to Step Two.

Step Two: Release resentment and blame.
Resentment and blame is anger that has festered and become bitter. I have not found them to be compatible with healing. Rather, they seem only to serve to keep pain in place.

It is easy to fall into the pattern of looking for something to blame our pain on (including ourselves), but it really isn’t a useful strategy for healing. I recommend deciding to relieve everyone and everything from the burden of blame, even if we feel it is deserved.

The point isn’t whether or not we’re right and justified, which may well be the case, the point is that holding onto blame and resentment is stressful and counterproductive.

The energy of blame is always looking backward and we need to marshal our resources in the present so we can heal and have a better future. Best to leave the past to the past as much as possible.

Step Three: Use anger as fuel for healing.
Anger has a lot of energy in it. Rather than sitting still and feeling powerless, anger wants to move and change things, so it can be a very helpful emotion when harnessed for good. It can move us out of the doldrums and into positive action.

We can use the moving energy of anger to motivate ourselves. We can put all that energy and attention on healing, on opening up our options, on being creative about combining traditional and alternative approaches to wellness.

Anger that has festered serves to close us down. It limits our thinking and we don’t see opportunities when they present themselves. It also has negative physiological effects. When we’re constantly revisiting how bad things are, we breathe more shallowly, we contract more, we don’t sleep well.

Anger used for fuel can open us up as we release its energy into anticipation of positive movement. Our minds are more open to new ideas, we breathe more deeply and naturally, we get more restful sleep because we are more hopeful.

We had no choice about getting sick or becoming injured or disabled. But we always have a choice in how we are going to respond to our situation, every moment of every day.

Who are we being while we are on this journey through pain?

We can’t expect ourselves to be happy and perky every moment, not at all, but we can begin to let go of some of the detrimental affects of holding onto anger. Instead we can acknowledge it, feel it and then use it. We can recognize how much energy it holds and harness it into positive choices and positive actions to support a journey toward greater well-being.
(This article also appears on The Mighty)


What I Do When I Feel Lost in Pain

Sometimes it feels like pain has taken over my whole life. I feel as if I'm lost at sea, alone and adrift, with no safe haven in sight. This video is about how I get my bearings again when all seems hopeless. [...]...

Sometimes it feels like pain has taken over my whole life. I feel as if I'm lost at sea, alone and adrift, with no safe haven in sight. This video is about how I get my bearings again when all seems hopeless.


What You Need to Know Before Giving Me Advice on Chronic Pain

(This article also appears on The Mighty) How many times has someone assumed they know more about your chronic pain than you do? Countless?I can’t tell you how often some random person has offered unsolicited advice before even finding out what my condition is, what I’ve already done, what I am doing now or even if I need or want their help.Medical professionals and alternative healers I just met in a social setting have assured me they can make me...

(This article also appears on The Mighty)
How many times has someone assumed they know more about your chronic pain than you do? Countless?

I can’t tell you how often some random person has offered unsolicited advice before even finding out what my condition is, what I’ve already done, what I am doing now or even if I need or want their help.

Medical professionals and alternative healers I just met in a social setting have assured me they can make me pain-free if I will just come to their office for one session. Seriously? Then, it’s implied I don’t want to heal if I don’t hire them.

Sigh. Has this happened to you?

Thanks, But, No Thanks

Here’s some thoughts about what to say to these probably well-meaning, but misguided, people:

Thank you so much for caring. Truly.

I see you want to help me get better, and you may even be an expert in your area. Please respect and honor that I am also an expert — an expert in living with my specific condition and pain — and please respect my response if I already know what you have to offer won’t help me right now.

You probably don’t know that people take the opportunity to tell me how to get better all the time. And that puts me in the position of having to constantly say no, of having to justify not taking their advice or hiring all those healers who want to massage, balance or realign me or fill me full of some miracle supplement.

You see, when you sincerely offer your advice, I don’t want to just blow you off, which puts me in the position of feeling like I have to explain myself to you and I really don’t want to have to do that. It’s exhausting.

I have to tell you about all the things I’ve already done, how chronic pain is different, not straightforward and not easy to deal with. This puts me in the very strange and uncomfortable position of constantly having to defend the reason I’m still in pain, which you might hear as if I’m resisting healing (which isn’t the case). This is a really unpleasant feeling; it’s not one I enjoy.

Help That Is Not Helpful

Can you imagine? You’re walking around with a broken leg in a cast and people keep coming up to you, giving you advice on how to treat smelly feet or what to do for a hangnail. You have to keep explaining over and over again that a broken leg is much worse than that, it takes a lot longer to heal, that you’re already doing everything you know how to do, and, thanks very much, but that advice isn’t really applicable. Over and over and over and over and over...

Can you imagine how exhausting that is, especially if the person offering the hangnail treatment is insulted you aren’t as excited about it as they are?

As either helpful friends or healing professionals, when you start the conversation by telling me I shouldn’t be in pain (presumably because you’ve now turned up to make it all better), you’re making me wrong for still experiencing pain, and putting yourself in the position of savior.

I’m sure it’s entirely unintentional, but it’s an insult to my intelligence and my motivations and minimizes the incredible challenges I face every day, as well as the long road I’m walking, trying to actually come out the other side of pain permanently.

Being in pain is not where I want to be, I can assure you, and it is not a deficiency in my character. If I could be out of pain, I would. If any of us could be out of pain, we would. We are not resisting healing. We are in chronic pain. That’s the definition of the word. It won’t go away easily.

Please, Do This Instead

Here’s what I would most prefer you do when we meet:

1. If I haven’t sought you or your advice out, ask my permission to talk with me about my chronic pain. Please don’t start the conversation by asking me if I’ve tried XYZ, or telling me what I should be doing.

2. If I’m open to talking about it, find out what my specific condition is, how it affects me (don’t assume you know), how extensive it is, how long I’ve had it and what I’ve done already.

3. If you still feel you have something to offer, ask my permission to present whatever piece of advice or healing modality that may be. Please don’t be offended if I simply say, thanks, but no thanks.

4. Be honest. If you’ve helped other people with my specific challenge, great — I may want to hear about it. Don’t make wild claims about how you can heal me almost instantly when no one else has been able to in years.

5. Be gracious if, after hearing what you have to say, I decline to work with you or take your advice. Don’t assume it means I don’t want to heal. I’m sure you believe your method, supplement, diet or exercise is the right one, but so does everyone else. Pushing it on me makes me as uncomfortable as someone pushing their religious beliefs or their multi-level marketing program on me.

If I do decide to work with you or take your advice, know it will be one layer of a multilayered approach to healing. This means it is unlikely that one thing will completely heal my chronic condition. It’s a group effort. Don’t keep asking me if I’m all better now. And if I don’t improve, or if I get worse, let’s agree it’s not your fault, but it’s not mine either.

In summary, know I appreciate your caring, but please give me a break with all the advice. Don’t feel bad if I decline to call your favorite massage therapist or book a session with you as a healer. I’m already working full-time on healing as it is, and may have limited resources.

Thank you for your concern. Really. And the best advice I can give you in regard to offering your unsolicited services or advice?  Don’t. Just don’t. 


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