This metaphor works for any thoughts, feelings and sensations, but I personally find it effective when think about chronic pain and illness. Of course, we don’t want to injure ourselves or forget about pacing. That doesn’t mean we can’t engage in any values-based activities. I hope this helps bring some perspective and hope.
Only do this practice if it is safe for you to do so (as determined by a physician). If you are already feeling dizzy, you don’t have to engage in the steps to make yourself feel dizzy, engage with how to be more okay with the sensations.
Sometimes we can’t control the sensations in our body (as we warriors know), and yet it causes us less suffering to just let the sensations be than to try to push them away or get upset that they are happening. That’s where I find these willingness exercises to be helpful.
Also, please note the disclaimer at the beginning of the video.
We all know that the majority of the research says exercise = less pain. Honestly, I’m a supporter of this idea. Why? Because it has literally worked for me. I’ve managed to get off one medication, which happened when the only major lifestyle changes I had made were daily exercise (strength and cardio/waling) and daily meditation (plus yoga 2-3x/week). No more Lyrica for me! Now that doesn’t mean that I no longer have pain. It’s just more manageable. I notice that when I don’t exercise, my pain actually increases. Of course, this all seems totally backwards to our brains., mine included. When exercise was initially presented to me as an option for reducing pain, I was like “no way I’m going to do that! I’ll be in more pain.” Then I tried it and the rest is history.
The thing is, even if you believe that exercise will help (and I’m aware that some of you don’t believe it, and that’s okay)the problem becomes, how do we reframe our minds so that we can actually start to engage in some physical activity? There are a way different ways we can approach this (or use all of these ways, depending on what you need). The very first thing I do is connect with my values. Why is this important to me? What values will I be living by? For me, when it comes to exercise this is often aligning with values of health, self-care, and independence. They might be the same for you, or totally different. The second thing I do is to just looking at my thoughts. I ask myself, are these thoughts helpful or unhelpful? Are they taking me toward the life I want to live or away from it? Then it’s helpful to create some distance from them. This can be anything from naming the story I’m telling myself, to speaking the thought aloud with the phrase “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that…”, to placing the thought on a leaf in my mind and watching it float down a stream.
At this point if I notice any sensations of anxiety or another emotion, I try to make some room for those. Maybe I send my breath into that area, or remember it’s normal to have anxiety, or drop an anchor which involves allowing my emotions to be there. By this point, I can usually do whatever activity it is I’ve decided I need to do (so in this case, exercise). While exercising there are a few more things I do so that I can improve my attitude. Firstly, I make sure my movement is mindful. I stay with the sensations of the movement, the smells in the air around me, what I can see and hear, all while exercising. This can be done on a walk or while doing strength training. You could also try yoga as a form of mindful movement that allows for stretching and exercise as added benefits. All my stretching in general is also done mindfully. I also make room for sensations while exercising. DO NOT exercise if it’s actually causing you extra physical pain. A little discomfort though is completely normal. I might do a quick body scan to check in with myself and make room for physical discomfort. I definitely use my noticing self to step back and just notice if it’s actually pain I’m feeling or if it is just discomfort that comes from exercise.
Lastly, I commit. I started out just going to the gym 3x/week. During the pandemic I built it up to strength training at home and going for walks to get fresh air and yoga a few times a week. The point is, you can start slow. And it’s probably better to if it’s a big change. You can also work with a physio/physical therapist, kinesiologist, occupational therapist, or personal trainer to help you get started (I worked with my physiotherapist, chiropractor and a personal trainer when I started). Here’s a podcast episode about exercise for chronic pain. So hopefully, this gives you some ideas on how to improve your attitude toward fitness with chronic pain. Until next week, keep making the most of it!
Learning to make room for physical pain sensations has really helped me lead a more fulfilling life and has enabled me to do more of the things I want to do. A big part of this was utilizing my mindfulness practice to make room for these sensations. If you have chronic pain or a chronic illness that causes you sensations you don’t like, starting these types of practices can be very helpful for many people. That way you too can keep making the most of it!
This is a metaphor I often use when explaining anger. It has a specific purpose and function for us, but there is almost always something beneath anger. I hope this piece of psychoeducation helps you to understand yourself better. Remember, the content on this blog does not replace seeking help from a licensed mental or other healthcare professional in your area.
For a meditation on working with anger, click this link.
When we learn to make room for our difficult emotions, we give ourselves the opportunity to react in different ways. Often with anger we yell, swear, throw things (including punches), etc. and typically don’t act in ways that align with our values. When we make space for anger we can clearly communicate that we are upset without doing any of those things.
This may seem like an odd topic for a blog about chronic illness and pain, but trust me it’s relevant. The same way you survive quicksand is the same way you can learn to thrive with chronic pain. And no, it’s not an easy process, nor is it something you can learn to do in a few days or weeks, but take it from one warrior that it is possible.
The metaphor and skills are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Option A: you never have to feel pain again. No physical pain. No sadness. No anxiety. No guilt, fear, or anger. But… you can also never feel physical relaxation. No joy. No happiness. No love, pride, or serenity.
Option B: you still have to feel pain, both physical and emotion. But you also get to feel relaxation, joy, happiness, love, pride, serenity, etc.
What do you choose?
I know Option A is super tempting, but I’ve found that most people choose option B, because no one wants to permanently get rid of the things that make us feel “good.”
When it comes to pain – and throughout this post when I refer to pain, I mean both physical and emotional – we tend to try to block it or avoid it at all costs. Literally, people will drink alcohol, take illicit drugs, take prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs, mindlessly scroll on their phones for hours, and so on, just to avoid or get rid of the uncomfortable things we really don’t like to feel. Here’s the problem: when we do this it tends to make all the pain much, much worse. (And yes, there has been a TON of research done on this).
PAIN X RESISTANCE = SUFFERING
This formula has been said by meditation teachers, such as Shinzen Young, psychologists, such as Tara Brach (who is also a meditation teacher), and researchers, such as Kristin Neff. And I’ve found both personally and through my work as a therapist, that it’s true. I’m literally in more pain when I resist it, avoid it, distract from it, push it away. And when I just let it be, I’m okay. This morning I woke up with so much anxiety. Anxiety about finances, anxiety about work, anxiety about my life and things I could have done. At first I did try to resist it. I instinctively grabbed my phone and scrolled. I decided I wasn’t going to have a workout and that I’d eat an extra waffle for breakfast while I watched YouTube videos about horror movies. But none of that made my anxiety go away…
Here’s the thing about emotional pain specifically, it can actually lead to several additional problems (or increase the intensity of them if you already have them):
Increase risk of heart disease
Autoimmune Disease Flares
We experience all types of pain for a reason. If we didn’t need our emotions (both the ones we like and dislike) and if we didn’t need physical pain, then we would have evolved without them. Our ancient ancestors needed them to stay alive. To protect us from life and death danger. To keep us safe. Instinctually, our brain and bodies still try to keep us alive the same way, it’s just that we encounter a lot less life and death situations now. And yes, all this applies to chronic pain too. Our bodies are telling us something is wrong, it’s just often not what we think. We think it’s telling us to stay in bed and not move and give in or up on all that’s important to us. In reality, it’s often telling us that we might need to stretch and move our bodies. To do something meaningful with our day – not as distraction but as a way to bring meaning and value to our lives.
…This morning when I decided that I was done resisting my emotional pain, I sat down to meditate. I did my full 20 minutes (meaningful activity) and then I went for an hour walk (moving my body, and a meaningful activity). Then I did my workout that I had put off from the morning. I didn’t do all of this with the intention of distracting myself from my pain (emotional or physical) but to make room for it. I used some practices that I help my clients use to: like observing my pain, breathing into it, expanding around it, and just allowing it to be there WHILE I did things that were important to me. Guess what happened? Not only did it no longer control me, but it actually lessened a lot – to the point where it’s barely noticeable. I also noticed that my drive and creativity and all these things that I’ve been lacking lately came back full force. My suggestion to all of you is to make room for your pain, just to help you make the most of it.
Pain – both physical and emotional – are parts of life. They are also inevitable with chronic illness and chronic pain syndromes. The more we try to fight or resist our pain, the more it comes at us. So, let’s talk about why that is and what to do about it. Because, really, we can’t keep making the most of it if we struggle. Check out this podcast episode for more about this.
Aesop’s Fable: The Wind and the Sun The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said, “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak around him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
“Kindness effects more than severity.” This is the moral of the fable. How does this apply to chronic illness, chronic pain, health and mental health more generally? So many of us have harsh, relentless inner critics. The voice in our heads that tells us we didn’t do a good enough job, or we aren’t good enough or smart enough, etc. In terms of pain and illness it may tell us we are being punished or we can’t have a good life, that our life is over and ruined. Our mind thinks it’s helping us and protecting us when it does this, but like the Wind in Aesop’s fable, all this does is demotivate us. It makes us struggle more and more against the difficulties in our lives. Vast amounts of research show that struggling makes it worse – yes, even symptoms of pain and illness are worse with struggle (struggle can include avoidance and distraction).
The alternative is kindness. You may recall my fairly recent post called “Why Aren’t We Kinder To Ourselves?” where I explain why this all happens. When we are kind to ourselves we are actually more motivated to make our life better. We struggle less and are more accepting and open to our experiences. This isn’t necessarily an easy change to make. After so long of the Wind of our minds doing its thing, we need to learn to respond like the Sun. Maybe it’s offering kind words. Maybe it’s doing a self-compassion journal at the end of every day. Maybe it’s doing compassionate meditations, like the one below. There are many ways to cultivate the kindness of the Sun toward ourselves and it will also make our symptoms – both physical and mental health – a lot better. And by the way, I use this all on myself as well.
The same goes if we are motivating others. Have you ever tried to tell your partner or children to do something in a harsh and demanding way, like the Wind? What was the result? Probably not great, and even if you got what you wanted, you may have inadvertently hurt the relationship. What if you responded with kindness, like the Sun? It’s like the result was what you wanted and you may have even improved the relationship. Just some things to consider.
So this week, see if you can be more like the Sun to yourself when you’re struggling with the difficult sensations, emotions, and thoughts that come up. This is all in service of making the most it.