First off, the media’s portrayal of what is self-care is VERY different from what mental health care professionals think of as self-care. Self-care in the media is bubble baths and spa days and bottomless brunches. I am not against any of this! In fact it all sounds quite fabulous. Counsellors and therapists such as myself think of self-care more in terms of activities of daily living (ADLs) like getting showered and dress and eating meals, etc. And then there is this weird grey area of overlap. For example, I see meditation as a form of self-care. It’s not an ADL, and the media would categorize it as self-care, and yet it can be extremely beneficial for mental and physical health. So I see things like that really as acts of health care.
Here are some activities that I see as health care (that are sometimes categorized as self-care):
meditation and mindfulness – contacting the present moment to be here-and-now
self-compassion – taking a moment to be kind to yourself through touch or words
massage therapy – having a registered massage therapist do deeper work (than just purely going to the “spa”)
acupuncture – it has been around around for thousands of years and sessions are usually between 20-45 minutes
swimming and other forms of exercise – water therapy, strength, cardio
baths – more water therapy!
For all of these, research actually supports that they are important for health and mental health. Mindfulness and self-compassion can release tension in the body, make us feel calm and centred and present. Massages and acupuncture can reduce physical sensations of pain and also create relaxation in the body. Exercise reduces pain and increases strength. Baths, swimming and in general water therapy is supported for pain because of its strength, flexibility, heat and relaxation effects (depending on what you’re doing).
Thinking in terms of how these things will benefit my health, as opposed to just being things to enjoy (I mean, these are all things I do also enjoy) makes me more motivated to do them. It’s funny, because the idea for this topic came to me as I’m having a massage later today (I write these about a week before they’re posted). Getting a massage purely for pleasure hasn’t occurred to me in the longest time. Instead I always consider my massage therapist part of my healthcare team. I’m just like, hey, it’s time to take care of those muscles, especially because I have fibromyalgia and I’ve been neglecting them recently! And honestly, this type of health care is also self-care. I think we can get pulled into all these labels, rather than just going with what we need, regardless of whether it’s real self-care or media self-care or health care or anything else. What will make your mind, body and spirit feel better today? Do that, and keep making the most of it!
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.
Curiosity and nonjudgmental awareness are important tools for healing when you have a chronic illness. I’m not saying, cure the illness, but rather to increase our pain tolerance, decrease our stress levels, and heal from any associated wounds from our illness. This becomes even more important if you have a trauma background, which as we know from all the research on the subject, is very common when you have a chronic illness. Myself included in that statement, “little t” trauma that lasted for 5 years in elementary and junior high, something I initially scoffed at as possibly being considered trauma until I learned more about what trauma is, and how it has contributed to my current health. I didn’t process any of it until I was an adult, seeking psychotherapy for pain and stress, and it eventually came out because I was having difficulties in adult friendships… all stemming back to the “little t” trauma from my childhood (let me know if you want more information on little t and big t trauma, I’ve written about them before but can again).
What should we be curious and nonjudgmental about?
I mean a part of me just wants to say EVERYTHING! Because there are definitely huge advantages to approaching life this way. However, it is completely unrealistic to think we could experience life this way all the time. We’re human and it’s totally normal to make judgments (evolutionarily, it helped our species stay alive!) When it comes to chronic illness there are 4 things I think are really important to be curious and nonjudgmental about (this is, as always, based on my own lived experience as well as what I’ve seen in clinical practice).
Our Thoughts – even the ones that are “judging” in the first place. Can you notice your thoughts without thinking about them or getting swept away by them? I find it interesting to see not only the content of my thoughts but also how they come and go, with some being more sticky than others.
Our Emotions – like our thoughts, they tend to come and go, but typically can stick around for longer periods of time. Not only should we explore what we are feeling, but where we are feeling it in our bodies. All emotions have related sensations. What can we notice about them by just sticking to the facts?
Our Behaviours – why do we do the things we do? It’s fascinating to notice how I act in certain ways or do certain things and how that changes with time or on a different day. It’s equally as fascinating to observe how my behaviours change when my thoughts and feelings are in different states.
Our Sensations – not only the ones associated with our emotions, but all the sensations in our bodies – hunger, fatigue, pain. Noticing the quality, where it is, what it feels like, even what we imagine it looks like.
How can we become more curious and nonjudgmental?
There are a lot of ways we can learn to become curious and nonjudgmental. I think of myself as being a curious child, discovering something new for the first time, and approaching whatever it is – thought, emotion, behaviour or sensation – just in that way. But I’ll be more specific:
Describe it – using only facts, not your interpretations or judgments. Here is anxiety. Here is a sharp sensation in my leg. Here is a worry thought.
Notice and Name it – I am noticing the thought that… or I’m noticing the feeling of…
Send your breath into it – rather than judge the sensation or emotion as good or bad, see if you can just pause and send your breath to the area of you feel it the most, giving it some room.
Practice meditation – in meditation all you’re really doing is noticing your experience as it comes and goes. This can be a good way to learn to interact with your thoughts, feelings and behaviours nonjudgmentally because the whole point is to be open and nonjudgmental. Check this one out.
Do a body scan – this is another way to really be open to any feelings and sensations present in your body. We often notice that the intensities change and that sensations do often come and go. Find a short version here.
Offer yourself some kindness – it’s so easy to be harsh and judgmental about your experience. Kind self-talk or kind self-touch can be useful to counteract what our minds are doing. Check out this kind hand exercise.
It can be hard to think that things can get better, but I’ve had the first-hand experience of my life improving from doing these kinds of practices and really just changing my experience of life. I hope this helps you to keep making the most of it!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
Making room for our emotions (like our sensations) can be difficult to do, mostly because we spend most of our time doing the opposite – pushing them away. If you watched my video from January 9 on The Struggle Switch, I explain how doing the opposite – allowing/accepting/making room for difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations – actually makes them less powerful and have less control over us. This meditation is one way we can learn to do it.
Let me know how it goes and keep making the most of it!
Mindfulness is a skill we want to develop because it can help so much with chronic pain and a lot of mental health issues. Meditation is the best exercise for that muscle. Looking back, I wish I had started practicing meditation when I was much, much younger. However, I’m glad I did start because there have been so many improvements for my overall wellbeing.
This week’s mindfulness activity is a guided meditation that uses imagery of light to help us centre, ground, and sometimes it can even be relaxing. Notice what comes up for you while you do this practice. For more guided meditations, subscribe to my YouTube channel.
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