A Multitude of Truths – Living with Chronic Pain
By Anne-Marie Sylvester, RCC, Psychotherapist
Living with a chronic condition is unideal, to say the very least. Most of us don’t choose this. Most of us would be willing to give up something we really care about if it meant that we could be rid of our persistent symptoms. Chronic conditions can add suffering to one’s life – often on several levels: physical, mental, and emotional.
It is true that chronic conditions can make an already challenging life that much more challenging to navigate. But I think there are other truths that are also worth considering. I would like to propose the following perspective: people can experience multiple truths at the same time.
In other words, although our chronic condition can be very good at driving a lot of our experiences and taking up a lot of mental space, one encouraging option we have is to find ways to take some space away from our chronic conditions by tuning in to other experiences.
For instance, one truth is that my chronic pain felt rather intense yesterday. Another truth about yesterday is that we had beautiful weather. I was able to spend time with my partner. I was able to spend some time in nature, and I had a delicious dinner.
There are a lot of truths embedded in that last paragraph. However, there are times when I catch myself focusing on just one of the truths – my pain. Our minds have the tendency to filter out so much information and focus on one or two things instead. In the case of chronic conditions, usually the subject matter is pain. The truth of being in pain is louder. It is only natural that it would do that. However, by practicing noticing the other truths in the picture, then the pain may not feel as loud.
The thing is, as uncomfortable and painful our bodies can be at times, there are always other experiences, other truths, that we can tap into. By practicing mindfulness, we can essentially expand our inner narrative beyond just the pain by tuning into the other details around us. This can not only slightly change our inner narrative, but it can also allow us to expand our experience in the moment so we are not just encountering the pain. The pain will still be there, but now we have invited other experiences into the picture as well.
It is true that you are in pain, but it is also true that you can enjoy listening to your favorite song. It is true that you are exhausted, but it is also true that you were able to stand outside for 30 seconds and soak in the warm sun and feel the breeze on your skin. It may be harder to enjoy these other truths on a day where we are in pain, but there is something else out there for our senses to tune into and for the mind to experience.
It is not to suggest that pain shouldn’t demand our focus most of the time. Of course it will, particularly on bad days. But there is something to be said about actively looking for the other truths that are also around us. By introducing something else for your mind to notice, you are taking a break away from the pain. Think of the process of diffusion… our biases towards our chronic condition can naturally diffuse across our minds and take up a lot of space, and in doing so it can dampen most of our experiences. If we insert something else into that space – such as “I get to sleep in fresh sheets tonight” – our pain is taking up less space in our mental experience.
Exercising ways in which we can introduce other mental experiences to tune into can change how we feel. Although this doesn’t eliminate our pain, it can change our mental and emotional experience by actively giving our minds other content to also experience. What we can do is help our brain to notice the other, safer, and more beautiful truths that also exist alongside the ugly truth of pain. So, let’s practice reminding ourselves that even though our brain is convinced that pain is all we have, we can have enjoyable moments too.
You get more of what you look for. If you look for truths other than “I am in pain today,” there will be more for you to experience outside of that initial ugly truth.
So, other than your pain, what are some other things that are true about your day?