“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” –Bob Dylan
Naming the Pain
This week’s Mid-Week Balance was full of stories of breast cancer, specifically metastatic breast cancer. It was inspired by a Twitter chat in the #bcsm (breast cancer and social media) community that focused on metastatic breast cancer. The voices in that chat were full of pain, passion, hope, and heartache. At the end of the chat, there was a mention of a community member, a mother with young children, who has begun hospice care this week. In the comments on the Mid-Week Balance post, another community member talked about hearing, immediately after chat, of another friend with young children whose health has taken a dramatic downturn. As I read that comment, as I listened to the voices in the chat (transcript here, if you want to read more), I was struck once again by the intensity of the pain that surrounds us, the pain that is part and parcel of our human experience.
I have written about pain before–pain is a central reason that people seek out therapy. Pain is the central topic in my post “Be Kind,” when I recognize that we are all carrying at least one broken part of ourselves; or in my post on the “Invisible Pain” faced by many with chronic illness and mental health struggles; or in “Life is Pain, So Then What?” where I explored our efforts to dodge pain, and the important lessons pain brings. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that some of those posts are the most popular in the blog. They’ve been commented on the most, shared the most, and referenced by clients in session the most. My guess about this is that pain is a universal experience, and we are all looking for acknowledgement of our pain, permission to experience pain in our own way, and tools to help us manage the pain.
There are times, however, when the pain seems overwhelming. When a child dies, or parents of young kids are in hospice. When the voice of depression is very loud. When things appear so clearly unfair, when we keep waiting for the nightmare to end. Sometimes, those are the moments that people connect with me, or another support person. But too often, we feel trapped in the pain. We feel overwhelmed, paralyzed, heartbroken, furious. This post is in honor of those moments. When it all feels too sad, too big, too much. I often get asked how I can sit with the pain my patients bring. In this post, I wanted to explore some steps to take when you feel like there is so much pain facing you that you don’t know a way forward.
“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
Coping with the Pain
I don’t know if this is true for you, but when I am hurting, it feels as though I am so much more sensitive to the other pain in the world. Stories of loss cut more deeply. It’s easy to feel raw and vulnerable. Here are a few of the strategies for reconnecting with hope and coping with pain that I recommend to my patients:
- Ground yourself. Pain is an intense emotional experience, and it is easy to get swept away. Focus on your breathing, find something to touch–just give yourself a place to stand.
- Focus on the basics. Make sure that you are doing as much as you can to manage your basic self-care. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Drink your water. Try to eat some real food (a little protein or some veggies won’t hurt anything). Try to give your body enough sleep. Get the support you need.
- Set limits. Whenever you can, take a break from engaging with the pain. I’m not talking about denying–just making some space. For more about this, you can check out “The Box.”
- Express yourself. Sometimes, we try to “power through” our pain, and deny its existence. That can often mean that we carry it longer, so take some time to express yourself. Write a journal or blog entry, create some artwork, or just have a good cry. Processing our pain is how we get through it.
- Get physical. This could be taking a walk, doing some yoga, or just deep cleaning a room in your home. Doing some sort of activity reminds us that we are still present in our bodies, and that the pain is not the complete definition.
- Take a break from the guilt. When we are facing pain, guilt is often a component. Guilt that the pain is lowering our capacity to parent or do housework, or engage on the job. Guilt that our pain is “less than” that faced by someone else. Try to give yourself a guilt holiday–even if it just lasts a few minutes.
- Try to engage with positive experiences. During your guilt holiday, maybe you can reconnect with something you enjoy. A hobby, a pet, something funny, something tender–reach out for those things that can help you remember that the pain will change, and become more survivable.
- Remember that you don’t have to do it alone. Connect with friends, family, a loved one, a therapist, a pastor, or a support group. Sharing our pain does make it easier to carry.
And finally, please share your own wisdom and pain survival tips. This is an experience that we all share, so sharing the coping is a good strategy too.
Photo Credit: Photo by ben