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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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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. 


Navigating the Tight Rope of Chronic Pain

(This article also appears on The Mighty) ​I teared up when I watched the video “Headway” by Access Oneness, because it is so like life, and particularly, so like living with pain. I highly recommend taking a moment to watch it.A man starts walking along a tightrope suspended over a river and loses his balance. It looks like he’ll fall into the river, but he catches himself.Then something absolutely wonderful happens.He uses the place of falling, the place that...

(This article also appears on The Mighty)
​I teared up when I watched the video “Headway” by Access Oneness, because it is so like life, and particularly, so like living with pain. I highly recommend taking a moment to watch it.

A man starts walking along a tightrope suspended over a river and loses his balance. It looks like he’ll fall into the river, but he catches himself.

Then something absolutely wonderful happens.

He uses the place of falling, the place that starts to look like a mistake, starts to look like failure, and makes something new from it – something completely unexpected and creative. It’s remarkably beautiful.

Making the Journey

I found watching this video to be a very visceral and emotional experience. Yes! I thought, this is exactly how we can be with our pain. We can cling to it, we can hang ourselves from it, we can twist ourselves up inside it and stay stuck and caught in it, hanging over an abyss, or we can use it to create beauty.

Both the tightrope and pain set parameters around experience, but they can not fully determine who we are. They do not determine our response. We may be living with severe limits, but we can create something new in that, through that, with that, and beyond that.

The tightrope limits, yes, but it is also a way across.

Pain limits, yes, but, somehow, it is also a way to something.

We may have to live with pain for a long time – we may have to keep coming back to it, just as the tightrope walker keeps bouncing off and coming back to the rope – but we can also create a kind of awesome flexibility and resilience within that.

The Space Above and Around Pain

This video could have depicted a stressful walk with the man focusing almost exclusively on his footing and the tightrope itself, trying to control every aspect of the experience, the way we often focus on and try to control our pain experience.

Instead, through the looseness engendered by his fall, his relationship to the tightrope becomes meaningful, alive, exuberant and full of freedom. He shifts his focus to the spaces above and around it and uses it to propel him into places he never would have gone before.

And this is the way we can be with our pain, I feel. Yes, we are in it, yes, it defines a lot about our lives, but we have choices within that and around that.

We can choose to focus on the pain itself as something to be overcome or eradicated or fought against. We can look down at it, metaphorically speaking, and hate it. We can stand in one place, our feet aching, our body tense, trying to hold our balance in one stuck position, whatever that may mean for us.
Or we can create.

Even with the pain, we can create. Even if our creativity is more internal than external, we can breathe, flex, adjust. We can re-learn to believe in ourselves and to dream.

Unexpected Beauty

Imagine if the tightrope walker had chosen to fight the rope, or cut it, or simply sit down and hang onto it. These are all options open to him, but look what he would have lost!

When you watch, notice how he completely changes his relationship not only to the rope but to the space around it – he becomes  more engaged with the air, with gravity, with his own body, and the music, and through this engagement he allows himself more freedom, and allows whatever happens to simply and elegantly inform his next move.

This is so much how we want to be with our pain, I believe.

I think it bears watching Headway repeatedly, for those of us walking the tightrope of pain. We can imagine ourselves moving more freely, practicing inner agility and creating a relationship with pain that is fluid, has breath and may even propel us into unexpected places of freedom and beauty.


Why I Won't Let Pain Put My Life on Hold

Consciously or unconsciously, we often push our “real” lives to the side when we’re in chronic physical pain. We think we have to.We imagine that we just have to get through this one thing, this present phase, this latest difficulty, and then we can return to our lives, or be returned to our true selves. Only then can we re-engage again.Of course, there are things we  have to give up when we’re in deep pain, that goes without saying, but we often stop...

Consciously or unconsciously, we often push our “real” lives to the side when we’re in chronic physical pain. We think we have to.

We imagine that we just have to get through this one thing, this present phase, this latest difficulty, and then we can return to our lives, or be returned to our true selves. Only then can we re-engage again.

Of course, there are things we  have to give up when we’re in deep pain, that goes without saying, but we often stop interacting with others and participating in events and activities almost entirely because we can only do them minimally or from the sidelines. And, in that way, we put our lives on hold.

Re-Including Ourselves

Again, there are absolutely legitimate times when we feel we have to withdraw from others for awhile in order to heal. We need more rest and less stimulation than normal, and we often need to pull away from group situations in order to give ourselves that space.

But it’s also important to find ways to step back into life, to re-include activities we enjoy and people we enjoy in whatever capacity we can, even while we are still living with pain.

When we’re in pain, we may not remember that we are still important to others.  We still have an impact on the people who love us. They miss being with us, they still care for us, and they are part of our overall connection with life.

When we feel terrible, it’s easy to forget that we are still lovable and still loved.  Withdrawing because we assume that people don’t want us around, or because we feel we don’t have anything to offer, cuts off opportunities for loving engagement with life. It’s not entirely healthy, and it’s often not happy either.

Allowing Love

We may not be able to be with others or participate in life in the same capacity as before, nevertheless, our ability to love is still present and we must never allow that to be shut down by pain. When we withdraw completely, we aren’t necessarily being abandoned by others, we are then the ones who are pulling away.

When we’re in pain for a long time, it’s true, some of our friends and acquaintances will no longer be part of our lives, they will move on without us. But others will want to stay connected, and others may show up in unexpected ways if we’re open to that. I think it’s important to find out who is still there for us, who tries to understand, who tries to hear, who offers to help in whatever way they can.

More Than Getting Through

And it’s important  to reach out, not just for help (which is, in itself, a very important skill to learn), but to reach toward life itself and toward engagement. It’s important not to wait for pain to stop before we can carry on with life.

It’s so important to find ways to reach out in love, and to express love. To let dear ones know that, even in pain, we care about them. No loving gesture is too small. A phone call, an email, a cup of tea, a short visit, a meetup, an update. I’m still here. I still love you.

We may choose to put our life on hold while we’re in pain, but it doesn’t wait for us. It keeps flowing on. That can become a great sadness if we wake up a few years later and realize we’ve disconnected ourselves from the stream of life.

It’s sad, and it’s frightening. Best to find ways, however small, to remain connected with others, connected with life, even as we’re on this challenging and often lonely journey through pain. Especially while we’re on this challenging and lonely journey.

And I’ve found that to be the strongest and most positive path of healing.


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