My Ultimate Pain Coping Skills Part 4: Connection

Welcome to the fourth part of my 4-part series on coping skills for chronic pain! Of course, there are way more than these ones out there. The reasons I’ve been focusing on these is because I have personally used them, and there is a ton of research supporting them. This week we’re talking about connection. By connection, I mean social connection – spending time with others. I know this is a tough one for many warriors for a variety of reasons. Many of you may not have a good support network, you may have pulled away from friends or had friends pull away from you because of your pain. You may not be close with your family or they may not understand. This happens to a lot of people with chronic pain and illness. It is important for us to find ways to connect with others, so let’s talk about why that is.

I find it important and helpful to connect socially with my friends, even if I don’t see all of them often.

There is a surprising amount of research in this area. I did a search on Google Scholar and got a lot of results. One area the research has focused on is the actual neural pathways in our brains and there seems to be a connected between physical pain and social pain. What I take from this is that when we experience emotional pain – such as through the loss of social connections – our physical pain gets worse. I’ve touched in previous posts about the connections between physical and emotional pain (mind-body) and how that works. You can also listen to this podcast episode. Other research has found that people with chronic pain tend to perceive others as being hostile toward them. Because it’s perception it’s hard to determine if the others are actually being hostile, but this could be another reason for the increased physical pain when there is “social” pain.

Sometimes pain can make us want to bail on social outings, and yet having that connection can actually decrease our pain.

Okay so if that explains the connection between our minds and bodies in general, what are some of the things social connection does for us that are helpful?

  • Improves our self-esteem and self-confident
  • Increases our sense of control and empowerment
  • Improves our emotional wellbeing.
  • Decreases anxiety and improve mood
  • Changes our pain perception
  • Improves coping skills
I’m lucky to have great support systems, but sometimes we can look outside the box to find social conections.

How that we’ve settled what it does for us, what are some of the actions we can take? How do I get more socially connected when I have pain and illness and all the struggles that come with it?

  • Cognitive reframing, emotional expression, problem-solving, and distancing oneself from pain – this is literally what I work with clients on in therapy, and there are studies that show it increases satisfaction with your support systems, whether those are friends, family or your healthcare team.
  • Accessing pain resources – we’ve all heard the phrase, “knowledge is power” and even by just reading this blog, you may feel more socially connected with others, like myself, who experience pain.
  • Online support groups – even if you can’t find an in-person support group, having an online community is often very helpful for people. I’ve done a post on the pros and cons of these, but in general, if this is the only way you can socially connect with others, it can be enough.
  • Volunteering – if you are physically capable of doing any kind of volunteer work, I highly recommend it. There has been so much research showing that volunteering is good for all humans as it actually increases our happiness because we are helping others. And of course, we are interacting with others too!
  • Lovingkindness Meditation – the idea of this meditation is that we send out kindness to others, as well as ourselves. The others include people we care about, neutral people, people we don’t like, and all of humanity. Some of the benefits include stress reduction, being more compassionate, and better perspective-taking. You can find a version of this here.

I hope this helps you on your journey to be more socially connected and that it helps with your pain tolerance. Keep making the most of it everyone!

Why Aren’t You Kinder To Yourself?

I’m going to be right upfront and say it, we do not treat ourselves as kindly as we treat other people. I’ll also admit that as much as I’ve worked on self-compassion over 4 years of going to therapy, and a 2.5 year master’s program to become a therapist, I still have moments where I don’t talk to myself kindly. But it has dramatically improved for me. People with chronic illness and/or chronic pain tend to be even less kind to themselves than other people, and those other people struggle a lot too. Think about your latest self-judgment or self-criticism. Just take a moment to get it. Now imagine you have this friend, Friend A, and he/she/they started to call you that judgment or criticism or label and said you’ll never change that’s just who you are. Now imagine Friend B, and this friend says to you, hey, I noticed you’re having a really hard time right now and going through all this difficult/painful stuff, and I just want to be here for you. Which friend would you rather have? I’m guessing you said Friend B, so think about whether or not you’re friend B to yourself.

If that brought up some emotion I’m not surprised. So let’s talk about self-compassion (or just kindness or friendliness if you don’t like the term self-compassion). According to Kristin Neff, the world’s leading researcher on it, self-compassion is made up of three parts.

  1. Mindfulness, which includes being present with our thoughts and feelings.
  2. Kindness, or acting with care and understanding opposed to judgment.
  3. Common Humanity, or acknowledging that all human suffer.

Kristin Neff also talks about some common blocks to self-compassion. And that’s what I want to talk about here. Because asking you, why aren’t you kinder to yourself, probably brought up something from this list, or a general, “I don’t know.” So let’s just address these now, in the context of chronic pain/illness.

Block 1: “It’s a sign of being weak.”
I can see how you got there, especially if you’re a male (because let’s faced it boys are socialized to believe emotions and compassion make them weak or girly). The research actually shows that people who are kind to themselves have more internal strength, better coping, and are more resilience. This includes if you have chronic illness or pain. This is so important for being able to live a good life when you have chronic illness/pain.

My internal resources also make it easier for me to do the things I love.

Block 2: “I’m being selfish.”
I’ve actually had a client say this to me before as a reason not to engage in self-kindness. This is another thought that isn’t compatible with the research, because what the research shows is that people who are self-compassionate are more compassionate to other, are more supportive of others, engage in more forgiveness, and are better at taking the perspectives of others. This is especially important if you have a chronic illness/pain and are also a partner or parent or caregiver. I have to say that as a therapist, practicing self-compassion has made me so good at building rapport with my clients because they feel more compassion coming from me.

More compassion for others.

Block 3: “I’m being self-indulgent.”
This implies that you’re using it as an excuse not to do hard things. And yet, what does the research show? People who are self-compassionate actually engage in more healthy behaviours. For chronic illness/pain this means they exercise more, have better nutrition, and regularly attend doctor’s appointments and follow doctor’s advice (podcast on that here). All of this has been shown time and time again to improve people’s lives when they have an illness.

Healthy behaviours like exercise.

Block 4: “I won’t be as motivated.”
I think this goes hand-in-hand with the last one, where you think you’ll just sit back and chill if you’re kind to yourself. Notice I said kind and not easy, because there’s a difference. Regardless, what does the research show this time? It increases our motivation. Why? Because we have less fear of failure AND get less upset when we do fail, and we take more responsibility when it comes to repairing our mistakes. Which means if you’ve struggled with certain parts of your illness before, you will be more motivated to fix them/do better in the future.

Increased motivation

Where do we start with self-compassion? I’m going to leave these three meditations: lovingkindness, kind hand, and compassion with equanimity here. But if you don’t like meditation, that’s okay it’s not necessary. My favourite way to easily engage it in is to just take one of my hand, imagine it’s filled with kindness, the same that I’d give a loved one, and place it on the part of my body (usually my chest) that needs it the most. And I just hold myself kindly (sometimes with a half smile). That’s it.

I hope you’re kinder to yourself and keep making the most of it.

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