Effective Ways to Challenge Chronicity Thoughts

How much time do you spend thinking about your pain or illness? Does it consume most of your day? Just a little bit? I remember the time when I was spending a lot of time thinking about being in pain, and wondering “why me” or what my life would be like going forward etc. These are often referred to as chronicity thoughts. Happily, this was the past for me and is not my experience anymore. I know that many of you may be having this as your current experience though, so I wanted to take sometime to talk about it.

As human beings, we spend a lot of time thinking.

First of all, I want to say that this is a totally normal experience for anyone with chronic pain or a chronic illness. Our minds are literally trying to help us (or they think they are trying to help us, which is what they evolved to do). The problem is, this kind of constant thinking about pain makes our lives worse, not better. There are three types of common chronicity thoughts: (1) ruminating about being in pain/sick – I keep thinking about it, it’s all I can think about because it hurts; (2) magnifying our pain/illness – it will get worse, something terrible is going to happen; and (3) thoughts of helplessness – nothing I do makes it better, nothing I can do will ever make it better.

Are your thoughts making your life better, worse, or the same?

If you went to a doctor (Western or functional) or a therapist, they’d likely assess this with a tool called The Pain Catastrophizing Scale (PCS). My commentary is that I don’t like the name because “catastrophizing” sometimes has the connotation that it’s all in your head, but that’s not what it means in this case – it’s really referring to chronicity thoughts. The questions on the scale include:

  • I worry all the time about whether the pain will end
  • I feel I can’t go on
  • It’s terrible and I never think it’s going to get any better.
  • I wonder whether something serious will happen.
  • and so (there are 13 questions total, and you self-report on a scale of 0-4 for each question, with 0 meaning not at all and 4 meaning all the time.)

So what can we do about all these chronicity thoughts? First, I will always suggest that working with a therapist is the way to go. Remember this blog is educational and not mental health/medical advice. We all have unique situations and unique thoughts, so having someone you can work with one-on-one (or in a small group) is always the way to go. I will let you know about a few different approaches. First, let’s talk about classic Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approach, where we challenge thoughts.

  • Notice and name the thought: I’m having the thought that “It’s terrible and I never think it’s going to get any better.”
  • Review evidence for and against the thought: For might include things like, it occurs frequently, has high intensity, a doctor’s prognosis, etc. Against might be things like, there are times of day when I don’t notice it or it’s less intense or my doctor said with this medication or these lifestyle changes it will improve
  • Replace the thought with a more accurate one: This doesn’t mean being optimistic or denying anything that’s true. Instead it’s incorporating the evidence against the thought (not just for the thought which is what we tend to do). So a different thought might be: “It’s really unpleasant right now, but it might not always be this bad/constant.” (You choose a thought that works for you, this is just what might work for me.)

As a therapist, I am well-trained in CBT but I prefer to use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) on myself and with clients, especially those with chronic pain/illness. There is no step-by-step way to challenge thoughts in ACT because we don’t challenge them, but here’s now I might work with them.

  • Contact the present moment: ground myself my noticing and acknowledging my thoughts and feelings, while noticing what I can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see. (Here’s a guided version of this).
  • Use my noticing self: the part of me that notices everything and even notices my noticing. And the similar part of me that can put myself in my shoes on the days when my pain is less. (Here’s a guided version of how to learn to do this).
  • Creating distance between myself and my thoughts: This might be noticing and naming the thought. It might be reminding myself that my brain is just trying to help me and saying “thank you mind.” This might be just watching my thoughts come and stay and go in their own time (guided version of this one is here).
  • Accepting my experiences: particularly physical and emotional pain that I might be going through. This could be actual sensations or emotions such as sadness or anxiety. For this I often just observe what the sensation/emotion looks like, where it is in my body, and so on. Then I send my breathe into the part of my body I feel it most intensely. Then I make some room for it, noticing that my body is bigger than it. Finally, I just allow it to be there without consuming me. (Guided version here).
  • I connect with my values: what qualities of being are important to me? I know that compassion (for myself and others) is a big one that is often helpful in moments of pain, sadness, anxiety, etc. (Here’s an exercise on connecting with your values.)
  • Taking an action to live by my values: So if we’re going with my above example/value than it might be doing some self-compassion work. (Here’s a guided practice). It could also be setting goals to make some of those lifestyle changes that might help. It doesn’t matter what the action is as long as it is rooted in your values. (podcast episode on how to do this available here).

So that’s it. A bunch of different ways to work with your chronicity thoughts so that hopefully you can improve your life and keep making the most of it!

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Lessons from Mindfulness

If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that I’m quite into mindfulness practices. I’ve found them to be quite helpful. Whether you’re dealing with a chronic physical illness, mental illness, or just daily life stresses, mindfulness can be amazingly helpful to get yourself centred and present. Just doing 10-15 minutes of meditation a day, or going for a mindful walk (especially if that gets you out in nature) can reduce anxiety and increase focus and attention. There has been tons of research done on the subject if you don’t want to take my word for it.

I was introduced to mindfulness first by my naturopath, who suggested downloading an app (such as Headspace or Calm) and trying to do some meditations through there. My psychotherapist was not far behind to recommend it as well. I started slow and progressed as I became more comfortable doing the practices. 5 minutes turned into 10 which turned into 15. This is basically how I suggest starting if you haven’t done so yet.

Animals are the best at mindfulness.

So what are these lessons from mindfulness. I have three for you today.

  1. Distinguishing “future problems” from “today problems” – I used to worry a lot more and have a lot more anxiety about the future than I do now. One of the best lessons mindfulness taught me was how to stay present enough to focus on today, rather than worry about tomorrow. As I just moved across the country, this has been very helpful. Many people have asked if I will stay out here after practicum. “I don’t know” is my answer. Why? Because that’s a future problem. A today problem is setting up my apartment or another is getting prepared for practicum (which starts tomorrow!). I no longer worry about future problems until that future is right around the corner. There’s enough on my mind as it is. Mindfulness can help you develop this skill.
  2. Appreciating the moment – this totally ties into being present as the above lesson does. In the past few days when I have been stressed because there is so much to get done, I’ve gone outside for a moment and appreciated that I am literally in the middle of the gorgeous Rocky Mountains. The Okanagan valley is surrounded by stunning nature and I’ve found that to be instantly calming. Even if you don’t live somewhere quite as visually pleasing, mindfulness can help you appreciate the things that you do enjoy. When I lived in Toronto (which is literally the opposite of where I am now), I was able to appreciate the liveliness of downtown (pre-pandemic) and the closeness of Lake Ontario. When I lived in LA, I could appreciate the constant sunlight and beautiful whether. The point is, there is always something to appreciate, whether in nature or in your life, and staying present can help you do that.
  3. The final lesson is non-judgment – I used to be way more judgmental, of myself, of others. Of course, it’s completely human nature to judge and I don’t think it’s possible to be nonjudgmental 100% of the time. However, mindfulness can help with non-judgment more often than not, and it can help you catch yourself when you are being judgmental. I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect, no one is perfect. Hell, my mindfulness aren’t perfect, and they aren’t supposed to be. By letting that judgment go, you can feel more at peace (at least I do), and that is a really good lesson.
Penticton, BC – Day 2

I hope you have some takeaways from today, especially if you haven’t tried mindfulness. I’m not saying that it’s a cure for anything or that it works for everyone. And it definitely requires patience (you might need to practice consistently for a month or more to see any results). What it can do is help you lead a better life and make the most of it (if you give it and yourself the chance).