10 Lessons I Learned from Chronic Pain

October 17th, 2013 at 10:10 am
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10 Lessons I've Learned from Chronic Pain

I can’t express how grateful I am that my back pain has been significantly reduced since I started working with my physical therapist. Most days I’m about 90% pain-free now, give or take a few bad days every now and then. Healing has never felt so good!

I’ve started adding some mild exercise back into my life, but I take each day as it comes and listen to my body in a whole new way now. Twinges of discomfort every now and then remind me that I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m close. And I don’t want anything to jeopardize my progress.

This problem has been present in my life for about 3 months. That may not sound long, but I’m sure that many of you can relate to the fact that when you’re in pain, 3 months may as well be 3 years! There’s no doubt about it: chronic pain takes a major toll on the body, mind, and spirit.

That said, I’ve learned so many lessons through these past 3 months. Lessons I didn’t even know that I needed to learn. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but now that I can look back on the worst of it (knock on wood…), I’m actually grateful for this experience. I truly believe that it has changed my life.

The lessons I’ve learned these past few months are countless, but I thought I’d share 10 of them with you today. Maybe they can ring true with you as well.

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1. When the going gets tough, sometimes it’s okay not to get going.

You don’t always have to grit through it, tough it out, pick up the pace, or pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Sometimes it’s perfectly okay—and even beneficial—to have a good long cry. (Trust me, I’ve had many!) Instead of forcing yourself to swallow adversity with a smile and slog through the pain with a heart of steel, I found that it actually helped me more to let the emotions run their course instead of stuffing them deeper inside.

How I’ve changed: I now believe that when the going gets tough, sometimes it’s okay to get the tissues out and just let the water works do their thing.

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2. Never underestimate the power of a kind word.

There were days when literally all I wanted to do was lie on the couch and be miserable. (And some days I did.) When I was out and about—struggling to get in and out of my car without grimacing or shopping for groceries when the last thing I felt like doing was cooking—the kind word or friendly smile of a stranger was more uplifting than ever.

How I’ve changed: I’ve realized that no matter how bad I think my day is going, there’s always someone who has it worse. You never know what’s going on underneath someone’s “grin and bear it” facade. I try to make extra effort now to be more appreciative, patient, and kind to sales clerks, bank tellers, other people waiting in line, and other drivers on the road. I know firsthand how it can completely change a person’s day.

10 Lessons I've Learned from Chronic Pain

3. Sometimes the only way out of a tough situation is to go through it.

There’s no easy way out of chronic pain. It took me a while to understand this. I kept waiting for my chiropractor to turn into a magician and my turmeric pills to suddenly relieve every ache and pain in my body. Nada. It doesn’t work that way most of the time. You can’t skirt around pain. You can try to manage it, yes, but ultimately you have to keep on living life and moving forward, no matter how difficult the situation is.

How I’ve changed: I’m still working on this one, but I think this lesson is one that can be applied to my life in a much broader sense. Tough situations will come and go like seasons all throughout my life, whether they include physical pain or not. While it’s okay to look for alternatives and ways out, there’s also a time and place for looking the circumstance in the eye and getting through it with as much calm as possible, one day at a time.

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4. If you look up the definition of “worry wart” in the dictionary, it probably says my name.

This experience has confirmed what already knew to be true: I’m an expert worry wart! In the early stages of this problem, there was a time where over the course of about 7 days, I had at some point diagnosed myself with one or several of the following: stress fractures, bone cancer, emotionally inflicted pain, a bulging disc, a ruptured disc, and a rare disorder of the spine that I don’t remember how to spell. I’m not kidding.

Worrying goes beyond physical circumstances for me and spills over into all aspects of my life. Work, personal, emotional, relational—you name it. And it’s got to stop. Guess how much improvement I gained from worrying about my back problem? Zero. Zilch. Goose egg.

How I’ve changed: I’m still a worrier. It’s not something that will disappear overnight and I doubt I will ever fully overcome it this side of heaven. But on a daily basis, I’m making much more of an effort to seize my worrisome thoughts whenever they pop up and cast them out of my head by thinking about something else. I’m replacing thoughts of worry with thoughts of empowerment and positivity.

Concern is okay. Worry is not. I want to write a whole separate post about this because I think it’s something many of us struggle with all too often. Worry is a dream crusher and joy suppressant, and it deserves no place in our lives!

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5. Real joy should not be dependent on my circumstances.

Newsflash: If one bad thing happens and you’re suddenly in the dumps (I’m talking to myself here…), your joy is shallow and rooted in fluff. Real, lasting, life-changing, heart-healing joy cannot be snuffed out by tough circumstances. We all have days when we’re tired, worn out, and feeling frustrated, but joy is the undercurrent that—instead of waning during stressful times—should actually be what carries us through them. It’s what we can bank our hope on. It’s what illuminates an otherwise shadowy path.

How I’ve changed: Joy through suffering has always been something I’ve struggled with, ever since I was a little girl. But I truly feel like this problem with my back is helping me overcome this obstacle in a way I never thought possible. I’ve learned that gratitude is fuel for my joy. When I’m having a bad day or my pain is higher than usual, there is still never a lack of things I can be grateful for. When I consider all that I’ve been blessed with and thank God for enriching my life in so many ways, the negative is crushed by the positive and joy kicks negativity right off the throne.

Breathe

6. Slowing down is one of the best things I can do for myself.

Earlier this summer (I’d say around mid June), I felt like I could just never shut my brain off. One thought was always tumbling into another. Meditation on a pillow in the quiet of the living room? Forget it. There’s no way this brain could take it. When I began dealing with the back problem in mid July, my racing mind only picked up the pace. I felt like it was doing cartwheels, somersaults, and jumping jacks when what I wanted it to do was a nice yoga flow with some downward dogs, cat-cows, and pigeons.

Over time, as the problem persisted and I started softening to the power of pain’s instructive hand, my brain quieted. I didn’t even realize it at first. It wasn’t until last week that I noticed just how much more “space” I feel like I have in my head. Ideas are still plentiful and thoughts continue to flow, but the pace is slower and I feel like I’ve learned when to say “enough is a enough” and turn my brain off (so to speak) for a respite.

How I’ve changed: I believe that two things have been instrumental to my progress with slowing my brain down. The first one is simple: walking. It’s something I try to do almost every day, even if it’s only for 10 or 20 minutes. It’s my favorite way to decompress. In the presence of the great outdoors, my mind feels like it can expand and release the tension of too many thoughts.

The second one is even simpler: breathing. We carry our breath with us everywhere we go. We can’t escape it, hide from it, or live without it. So why not use it to our advantage? When I feel the somersaults and cartwheels coming on, I look away from whatever it is I’m doing (unless I’m driving!) and fill up my lungs with a few healing breaths. It breaks the thought pattern immediately and works just about every time. Hello, brain space!

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7. Pain is inevitable, but complaining is optional.

I want to give a public apology to anyone who had to bear to the brunt of my crabbiness during the past few months. I’m not a peach when I’m in pain. But here’s the thing I’ve learned: Pain is bound to happen to the best of us in some way, shape, or form during our lives. And it will probably happen more often than we’d like. But complaining about it, and making our own lives and other people’s lives miserable in the process, is a choice.

How I’ve changed: I try to shut down complacency with gratitude. Expressing gratitude and appreciation turns what we have into enough. Even when I’m feeling like my life is on the rocks and my pain is overwhelming, there’s always someone who is in a more difficult circumstance than I am and whose heart is singing with gratitude despite it.

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8. I must rest when I am tired.

Sounds simple enough, right? But in this world of go more! see more! do more!, it’s flat out hard to do less. Our bodies thrive on activity, but only when it’s counterbalanced with rest. Whether that applies to your fitness routine, work schedule, or something else, finding time to take breaks and give your body and soul a rest is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It might be uncomfortable and foreign at first, but I promise you’ll get the hang of it after I while. I did.

How I’ve changed: I used to plan my workouts days in advance, mostly because I was excited to try new exercises (and also because I am about as much of a planner as they come). Now I don’t plan a thing. I’ve been easing back into gentle exercise the past week or two, but even so it’s made me sore. Instead of waking up and banging out a quick intense workout (my favorite kind) because that’s what it says on the plan, I now wake up and do whatever I feel like doing. Sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s something. I listen to my body and rest when it tells me I need it, which right now is pretty often.

Courage

9. Circumstances can be used to supersize my courage.

“Dreaming big” doesn’t come easily to me. People talk about it like it’s this fun, liberating thing that’s supposed to make you feel all strong and capable. If I’m being honest, dreaming big scares the daylights out of me and makes me feel intimidated, worried, and fearful. That said, I know it’s important to push outside of my comfort zone and stretch my wings from time to time. Which is precisely the reason why I need a hefty dose of courage to get me through.

How I’ve changed: I’m working on using my circumstances—whether they’re good, bad, or somewhere in the middle—to bolster my courage. For example, my back pain gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking, reflecting, brainstorming, and soul searching. It also gave me extra downtime to work on affirming my abilities and muster up the courage to face scary things in my life with a better attitude. I’d encourage you to look at your circumstances right now and figure out how they can help you maximize the courage and strength of spirit in your life, and minimize the negative self talk and worries.

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10. There’s more to life than what we can see and do physically.

Being so physically limited these past few months has caused me to focus much more on the spiritual side of my life, something I’ll be forever grateful for. We can often get so easily swept up in the tangible, here-and-now element of life on this planet that we ignore what’s truly going on in our hearts and spirits. What we can’t see (our thoughts, motives, fears, dreams, and desires) is the very stuff that determines future outcomes of decisions we make and it should not be swept under the carpet.

How I’ve changed: Before anything else gets set in place (relationships, food, fitness, etc.), I’ve learned that the condition of my heart and the health of my spirit are what matters most. Instead of ignoring what goes on inside of me (the invisible), I’m moving towards it through reflection and honesty with myself. If you’re reading this and you feel like there might be some areas of your spiritual life that are neglected because they’re being crowded out my a packed schedule, too many irons in the fire, a vigorous fitness routine, or something else, don’t let it go on any longer! Take steps—even if they’re small—to work your way back to the heart of who you are. Drop what’s not necessary and embrace the freedom that it will bring you.

We’re human beings, not human doings. If you’re looking for a “sign” to nudge you towards doing less and being more, maybe this is it.

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Physical limitations like an injury have a profound effect on the way we live. Like I said, I’m not out of the woods yet with my back problem, but regardless of what happens in the future, I’m so grateful for every single lesson I’ve learned.

I could write about twenty more of them here, but you’ve stuck with me long enough! Thank you so much for reading. This space and this community have been a bright spot in my life on some days that were pretty tough to get through. Thanks for being here.

Comments

  1. These are so true and can definitely be applied in many situations, including for those with a chronic illness (as pain usually goes along with it). I agree, somehow when you get through it all, you feel grateful. It is so interesting how even our worst experiences teach us new lessons. Thank you for such a thoughtful post and I will be sharing it with my readers as well.

  2. I love this post. You have learned and passed on to us some great lessons. I especially like lesson #3 and would like to add that it applies to emotional pain as much as to physical. I have encountered many people who do everything they can to avoid facing and dealing with the pain from issues like childhood abuse. It doesn’t work. That stuff will haunt you until you face it directly. The thing about going through what is affecting you negatively instead of trying to go around it, is that once you are through, you are through, and you don’t have to deal with it again (I’m speaking specifically to emotional issues here).

    I also really like the lesson about slowing down. My brain is like yours and I have great difficulty in slowing it down. Hopefully I can learn something from your lesson and slow mine down, too. Thank you for sharing these lessons with us, and I hope your pain really is history now.

  3. Thank you for sharing such personal thoughts. You are doing so much just making this information available to us all. You are special and I appreciate all your efforts.

  4. Brianna Tittel said on October 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing what you have learned Hallie. It’s good food for though, even for those who are not in any pain (much less chronic pain). I think #3 really hits the mark on many levels…that’s a great way to put it.

  5. I’m glad that you are having more good days than bad now Hallie! I’ve shared a bit of my own back problems with you before but I have been amazed how much better it’s been since I eliminated processed sugar – I didn’t realize it caused inflammation that much! I concur with all of your thoughtful insights. I still gingerly get out of bed in the mornings and then I say a prayer of gratitude for being pain-free. I’ve had a few tweaks but so much better. I hope you also will be pain-free soon.

  6. Thanks so much Hallie, great post. I have been reading your blog since it started and never commented on how much I appreciate it. Im 3 weeks out of a double mastectomy and having many of the same feelings you expressed. I need to use this time more to work on my relationship with God and letter others do things for me. But its very hard with 2 small kids and being a planner and doer. Your post was just what I needed to read today. Thanks for the encouragement! Glad your feeling better.

  7. Stephanie said on October 22, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Hallie,
    I have been wanting to make time to read this post for days now…..so glad I did. This is very well written! I, too, am 90% better in regards to the back pain I was having. I cannot attribute one specific thing I did, but probably a combination of things. I can still tell that something “is not quite right” in my back, but most days I have no pain at all.
    You know something that will always prove to be true? It is not the circumstances in our life that make us who we are, but how we respond to them that does. Every trial in my life I look at head on, praising God for a new challenge so I have another opportunity to respond in a way that will bring glory to Him. He uses the most those who He bruises the most!
    I am rejoicing with you on how you are feeling! Hope you have plans to visit soon!!!
    Stephanie

    • Stephanie: I’m so glad your pain is getting less and that you are feeling better, too! I get what you mean by the “not quite right feeling.” I have it many days still, but it’s not as acute. I think it’s just part of the healing process. (Hopefully!)

      I love your perspective on circumstances and how we respond to them. It’s the truth for sure. I am still learning more every day about how important it is to stay tethered to the Lord no matter what I’m going through. Sometimes we have to search for joy like it’s a hidden treasure on the difficult days. But finding it is so rewarding!

  8. This is a great post!! So sorry about your back pain – I know how ouchy that can be – and am thankful you not only looked for the positives in your circumstances, but shared them with us. Praying for a complete recovery

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