This type of practice can be deep and quite healing when you have chronic pain and illness. I do highly recommend you only do this if you have strong grounding skills and preferably if you’ve done this type of practice before and/or are able to debrief this with a licensed mental health professional in your area. For other mindfulness practices, check out my YouTube channel.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. -William Berry
I think this is an absolutely beautiful poem for many reasons. Two main thoughts came to mind when I first heard it as I was attending a Compassion in Therapy summit in April (yes, I know I do a lot of these types of summits, they’re terrific). The first, is that it does remind me of self-compassion practices, and second, that nature has ultimate healing powers. While I’ve blogged about these topics before, I want to write about them in the context of this poem, as a way for me (and you) to remember why they are so important, especially if you have a chronic illness.
Self-compassion is comprised of 3 elements: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. In the poem, Berry describes mindfulness of his thoughts in the first part, and then just being present with full experiencing in the second part. “I come into the presence of still water” and “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” These are very mindful phrases and experiences. Then there is the phrase, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I see this as relating to common humanity as it suggests that all human “tax their lives” with these thoughts and feelings – in contrast to wild things, which (as far as we know) don’t have the cognitive abilities to have these thoughts that can consume us. Thinking is part of being human. What I think represents self-kindness in this poem is that (a) Berry doesn’t judge himself for having these thoughts, and (b) he makes the decision to take care of himself in the moment and give himself what he needs – a reprieve into nature. Now, I’m personally left to wonder, what can I do today that is self-compassionate? Maybe lay a kind hand on my chest, maybe imagining breathing in compassion for myself and out compassion for others, or maybe it is literally going outside into nature. What do you need?
Ecotherapy and forest bathing are totally a thing. I actually talked to a client of mine about this recently because they mentioned that they feel good in the forest, literally touching the trees. Me too. So much research supports being in nature. I recently listened to a podcast that suggested even just eating outside is good for us (which I immediately told my parents about because we ate el fresco all summer long when I was growing up). Near my apartment, there is an inlet with beautiful hiking trails along it and tons of big, beautiful trees that are ever-so-present in British Columbia. The air is so refreshing, especially if it’s recently rained. Everything about this trail (and really a lot of trails in this province) makes me feel good. Both physically and mentally. I had the same experience in Costa Rica. My friend and I would touch the trees and vines, really connecting with the beauty and nature, and all of the healing properties of it. When’s the last time you spent time outside? Is there a park near you that you can go to? Can you eat outside on your patio or deck?
Sometimes we can find inspiration to improve the quality of our lives (with these easy and gentle practices) in the most interesting places, like The Peace of the Wild Things. I hope this inspires you to 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.
How many times have you said, “I am sick” or “I am a Spoonie” or “I am in pain” or “I am depressed,” and so on? And how often do you feel that is really so? That is what you are? If your answers to one or both of those questions is “a lot,” then know you are likely not the only one answering that way. I rarely use those phrases for myself anymore because I find them unhelpful, but before you run away I want to explain why they are unhelpful. Not just from my perspective from my lived experience, but also what theories in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and related research suggests, particularly when it comes to chronic illness.
First I think I need to introduce you to a few terms. The first is event centrality. This can be described as the degree to which a person perceives an event (often traumatic but can also work for being diagnosed with an illness) as central to their identity. In other words, being a sick person is who you are because of your diagnosis. The second concept is the conceptualized self. This refers to who we think we are (in fancy ACT terms we call this self-as-content). The conceptualized self can take on all the identities we have such as being son or daughter, a parent, a spouse, a friend, and of course a sick person. It also includes our self-evaluations, so whether we describe ourselves as smart or dumb, happy or sad, fun or boring, and so on. What sometimes happens is that we get fused with one (or a few) of these aspects of our identity. In other words, we hold it tightly, are attached to it, and in the long-run doing so usually causes us more problems.
Now this attachment to the conceptualized self can happen to anyone, and we often see it in depression and anxiety as well as chronic illness and chronic pain. There has been some research suggesting that our illness self-concept is a predictor of our adjustment to chronic illness. When we are attached to the identity of being ill we tend to have a lower overall quality of life. I talked about the use of language once on the podcast, and you should listen to that episode if you haven’t already. I want you to think about these pairs of phrases:
“I am anxious” vs. “I am experiencing the feelings of anxiety.”
“I am depressed” vs. “I am experiencing the feelings of sadness”
“I am sick” vs. “I am experiencing the symptoms of lupus” (or whatever illness you have)
“I am in pain” vs. “I am experiencing uncomfortable sensations”
You’ll likely notice that you attachment to that identity changes. And when we aren’t overly attached we actually can take better care of ourselves (health behaviours, self-caring, etc.) and our quality of life improves because we find we are able to do more values-based activities that we enjoy (yep, even with illness and pain). When we remove the attachment to our conceptualized self we are more willing to allow our experiences and see them as passing.
There’s a few ways we can learn to do this. First, we can just start to notice and name are thoughts and feelings – “I notice I’m having the feeling of an uncomfortable shooting sensation in my hip” or “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m always in pain.” There are tons of ways to create some space between us and our thoughts and feelings when we are attached to them. This is just one way. The other process we can use to change this attachment to the conceptualized self is to develop self-as-context. This is what is also referred to as the noticing self. The part of us that just watches and notices all our experiences: what see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think, feel, do, etc. It’s a part of us that never changes. It’s like the sky and all of the thoughts and feelings and sensations are like the weather. The sky sees the weather but the weather cannot hurt the sky. And if you go above the clouds, the sky is still there, even when it can’t be seen. I’m going to encourage you to follow along with the video below to get an idea of what it is like to experience the noticing self.
I personally find this really helpful (and so do many of my clients) in creating a new relationship with my thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and forging out new identity, where I’m not limited by any of these things because I can notice them. They are not me. I am not chronically ill, I have the experience of having a chronic illness.
Grounding practices can be so helpful, for pain, for intense emotions. I personally love them and use them all the time with my clients. This grounding practice uses visualization. For more meditations and mindfulness practices, check out my YouTube channel.
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.
If you’re just tuning in this week, we’re halfway through a 4-part series on some of my favourite pain coping skills. Why are they my favourites? Well, for one, they all have worked for me so direct experience is useful. Two, they are all evidence-based – there has been scientific research on them (and yes, I’m nerdy enough to spend the time reading the articles published in scientific journals). Third, I see them work with my clients in my counselling practice. And as such, I thought it was about time I shared them all with you. This week we’re talking about self-talk and changing that from the harsh inner critic to something a lot more compassionate.
Recently I wrote a post about being kinder to ourselves, which seems to be quite popular, so we can think of this as an extension of that. Most people have a harsh inner critic, or voice in their heads, telling them that they aren’t good enough, or shouldn’t have done this or that, etc. The voice is there for evolutionary purposes (see the video below on the caveman mind) but it unfortunately isn’t too helpful in our modern world. When we have chronic pain, the voice often shows up as “you’ll never be able to do anything again,” “this is what your life is now,” “no one will ever love you if you’re like this,” etc. Sound familiar? If it does, know that you’re not alone. This is extremely common. But what if we could combat this voice somehow?
The great thing is, we can learn to respond to it with a compassionate voice. No, that inner critic voice probably won’t just go away (remember, we evolved to have it). But we can learn to respond to it differently. We don’t have to just listen to it, give into it, get hooked by it. This takes some practice though.
I recently went through the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. In it there is an exercise on developing your compassionate voice. You are supported to think about a behaviour you’re struggling with. Then notice what your inner critic is saying. So example, with chronic pain this might be getting up to go for a walk or clean the house, etc. Your inner critic might be saying “you’re never going to be able to do these things again.” Then you are to try out a few self-compassionate phrases. Such as “I am here for you, and will take care of you.” or “I know you are suffering. I love you.” And so on. It should be something you really need to hear. Then when that critical voice appears, we can use our new phrases to respond to it.
What does this do for us? Well for one, it greatly improves our mood. The relationship between low mood and chronic pain has well been documented (low mood creates more pain, more pain creates lower mood). So by improving our mood, we may actually have less pain (I find this is very true for me). It is also more motivating to respond this way. Yes, it may be hard to engage in the behaviour, but by being here for yourself, supporting yourself, you may be able to take some steps (however small) toward doing that behaviour.
I hope this helps with your chronic pain coping. As always, keep making the most of it!
It’s common to get overwhelmed by your emotions, and equally common to get overwhelmed by sensations when you have chronic pain or chronic illness. I know, because I’ve been there with you. Today I’m giving some psychoeducation on these storms and one way you can learn to deal with them so you don’t get swept away.
I’ve heard from two camps when it comes to pets and pain/illness. One, is people (like me) saying that it has been really helpful for them. The other says that its too hard to take care of a pet (particularly dogs) and they want to (or do) give their pets up. So I thought we could look at some of the research on pets and pain this week so you can decide for yourself if it’s good. While I will state up front that I always found it good for me (I had to put my little guy down in September 2020 and I’ve been without a pet since), I am happy to look at some of the challenges that can come from having a pet as well. I’ll link the main article I’m referencing at the bottom if you want to read it (it’s a scholarly journal article so it’s not for everyone) but I also got a lot of this information from the research summarized at the World Pain Summit I attended last fall. Most of the information between the two overlaps, which makes sense because, again, it’s based on research.
I want to look at the benefits of having a pet, particularly a dog (though a cat or other small mammal usually provides most of the benefits) into two categories: physical benefits, and emotional benefits. Let’s start with the physical.
a lot of pet owners report having lower levels of overall pain. This could be for a variety of reasons, but some stated include distraction from the pain and less pain catastrophizing (if you haven’t read the post I did on that basically it means constant thinking about being in pain).
It helps promote healthy behaviours such as physical activity. This means that you may have to get up and take the dog for a walk (even a short one), and we know from other research that exercise reduces pain. You may also do other physical activity such as cleaning a cage or litter box or cleaning up the yard, and again, movement is good.
Better sleep. A lot of pet owners who let their pet sleep with them find that they get better sleep because it soothes them, they feel a sense of security, and they have better sleep routines/sleep hygiene. Anyone with a dog knows that they get into a habit of a bed time much better than we do, and they also have good wake up time habits.
The second area of benefits comes in the form of emotional ones, so let’s look at them.
They can give us purpose in life. This can also be viewed as “behavioural activation” which means we are motivated to go to the thing (in this case get up and take care of the pet or go outside).
Less psychological distress. This means less depression, and lower levels of anxiety.
More relaxation. Cuddling a dog or cat literally releases oxytocin in our brain which has a calming effect on us. Pets in general promote relaxation, as well as comfort, patience, and protection.
Support. Pets are extremely good nonjudgmental listeners. People who talk to their pets about their problems and pain feel supported and comforted by them, and then often don’t feel as strong a need to talk about it with their friends and families, which can sometimes improve those relationships.
Social connectedness. This especially works for dog owners who will often socialize with other dog owners when out for walks or at the dog park. If you have a dog you may be aware of how many people stop to chat with you and your pup.
So if those are all the benefits, what are the downsides? Because we know there are always going to be some.
Increased worry. This is in regards to your pet. If you can find someone to look after it if you are unable to (i.e., hospital visits, etc.). If you have the money to care for your pet, etc.
Anticipatory grief. I find this one interesting because I didn’t think of it, but yes, our pets don’t live long and I remember the grief I experienced when I put down Spike (and I still get waves of it). So that can be difficult.
Fear of injury or strain. To yourself, because you’re already in pain and those “what if” thoughts can come up when playing with your pet, walking it, carrying it, etc.
Sleep interruptions. Though most people report pets improve their sleep, some notice that it can get interrupted (especially if your pet is sick or has to go out to pee).
Overall, it seems that most of the research so far supports having a pet if you have chronic pain. The benefits seems to outweigh the costs (which not every pet owner experiences). I’m sticking with my thoughts that pets are helpful for pain. Again, I’ve always found that for me. I hope that I’m able to get a new dog in the next 6 months or so, because I’m ready for those positive benefits (even if the challenges creep in).
Comment to let me know your thoughts, and keep making the most of it!