3 Ways to Reduce Rumination, Worry, and Attachment to Self Stories

Have you ever found yourself caught up in thoughts about the past? What life was like before your chronic illness/pain? Ruminating over and over about that old life… What about thoughts about the future? Worrying about what will happen to you and how your health will affect you, maybe even getting worse? Perhaps you are also really fused with the idea that you are just a sick person now and that is all your life will be. These are all common thought processes when you have a chronic illness or chronic pain. I’ve certainly dealt with these before. The problem with this dominance of the conceptualized past or future, or the conceptualized self, is that it often takes us away from living right now. It makes life worse. It increases suffering.

Rumination and worry are like the fog. Can you come back to the present?

I remember having the thought that I don’t want to suffer any longer. This was in the fall of 2016. My very recent ex blamed me for all the things that were wrong in the relationship because of WHO I was. What I quickly came to realize was that I was ruminating and worrying and fused with having an autoimmune disease. We didn’t break up because of who I was (trust me there were a lot of other issues that didn’t stem from me at all). However, the dominance of my thought processes wasn’t helping me at all. It was taking me away from the life I wanted to live and away from the person I wanted to be.

The Conceptualized Past & Future
I don’t think that being able to reflect on our pasts or contemplate our futures is inherently problematic. Our brains have evolved to be able to do this. Initially to keep us safe and alive. We just don’t run into as many instances of life-and-death situations anymore. When we excessively focus on the past, or ruminate, we tend to feel overwhelmed and depressed. When we excessively focus on the future, or worry, we tend to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Both anxiety and sadness can increase pain and set of flares for those of us with autoimmune disease, which in turn tends to lead to more sadness and/or anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.

The Conceptualized Self
We all have stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like who we are, where we came from, and why we act the ways we do, essentially why we are the way we are right now. Often being sick or in pain is a large part of this story. The problem with these stories is that while they do contains some objective facts, they are also chalk full of our own subjective interpretations. When we are really fused with these stories about ourselves, we forget that life is constantly changing, most of it is not predictable, and we can also create change for ourselves. And yep, I know this is really hard to grasp when you have a chronic illness.

Why we need to contact the present moment
We we are stuck in the past or future, and when we dwell on our stories about ourselves, we are definitely not experiencing the here-and-now. The benefits of being present are plentiful, including the ability to gain more self-knowledge and self-awareness, enjoying our experiences more, feeling less pain (emotional and physical), and being more flexible in our interpretations of ourselves and of life. I meditate daily because it helps me become more present (and it took me so long to get into a daily routine). I also notice myself being able to come back to the present much faster throughout the day, even when I notice physical pain.

How do we counteract rumination, worry, and attachment to our self stories?

  • Mindfulness – it can be meditation, but really mindfulness means contacting the present moment, being here-and-now. So it can also be yoga, or mindful walking or eating. It can be fully engaging in an activity. It can be noticing your thoughts/feelings/sensations and then coming back to the present by noticing your feet on the floor. It can be many, many things, but it is always: being curious, open and nonjudgmental about your present moment experiencing. Check this out.
  • Noticing Self – the idea that there is a part of us that can step back and notice. Like the sky and the weather. The sky always has room for the weather. Even when the weather is thunderstorms and hurricanes, the sky is not bothered by it because eventually the weather changes. We can use this same part of ourselves, to just step back and watch our experiences without being swept away. It’s a safe place that just notices. This is particularly helpful for attachment to our conceptualized self.
    Check this out.
  • Creating Distance Between Ourselves and Our Thoughts – we can’t stop our minds from thinking, but we can notice when our thoughts are unhelpful and learn to let them pass like leaves on a stream. The more distance we can create, the more psychological flexibility we can have in order to return to the present. Check this out.

I know that was a lot of information! I’m a big believer in seeking help from a mental health professional in your area if you are really struggling with your mental health. Many people with chronic illness, chronic pain, TBI, etc. find it hard to cope on their own. One of the best things I ever did was go to therapy. I learned a lot of skills to help me cope and felt I had nonjudgmental support as I continued down this path we call life. And on that note, keep making the most of it!

5 Easy Chronic Pain Self-Management Skills

Today I want to take a slice of Pete Moore’s Pain Toolkit and share it with you. Who is Pete Moore? He’s a chronic pain warrior who came up with this incredible Pain Toolkit to help others struggling with chronic pain. Here’s the website: https://www.paintoolkit.org/ . The truth is, we can learn to self-manage our chronic pain. Like Pete, I have also learned to do so to a point where, yes I have pain, but no it does not affect my day-to-day life (that’s not to say I don’t have bad days, heck I had bad pain the other night and had difficulty sleeping). One thing we want to do when we have chronic pain is cultivate resilience. Now, I’ve written about resilience before in the past, so I’m not going to go into detail here. For those who aren’t familiar with what resilience entails, here are a few things: optimism, self-belief, willingness, self-control, being able to adapt, psychological flexibility, problem-solving, emotional awareness, social support, and humour, to name a few. So, here are 5 ways we can learn to do this.

Doing these things helps me manage my chronic pain.
  1. Goal Setting and Action Planning I often set goals for myself, even on days that I’m not feeling great. In our third atmospheric river (basically several days of torrential downpour) since November in BC, Canada, I’m again feeling it in my body. But I know my body also needs to move. So I set a goal for how far I will walk in the rain (which is less than my goal would normally be but appropriate for the weather, my body at this moment, etc.). So, set your goals, and prepare for barriers to them. Here’s a podcast episode I recently did on that.
  2. Engaging in Activities of Daily Living – Getting out of bed, having a shower, eating breakfast, etc. All the regular stuff we do in our lives. It can be really hard to want to do them when you have an illness or pain, but doing them can also improve our overall well-being. Check out this episode of the podcast for more.
  3. Problem Solving – Problem solving can include a lot of different things. Pacing is important and I’ve done a post on that (December 1), prioritizing and planning your days, and really importantly, having a setback plan. What are you going to do when things don’t go the way you planned (in your goal setting and action planning stage). When I was recovering from hip surgery last year, I had to problem solve how to do all of my daily activities because I couldn’t put any weight on my left foot (for 6 weeks!) and I live alone. I still had to figure out how to cook, shower, dress, and even get to some appointments.
  4. Be Active – this will mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it really means to move your body. It could be walking, exercise/going to the gym, stretching, yoga. Exercise itself is an evidence-based treatment for chronic pain (here’s the podcast episode). It can be light movement, as long as it’s movement. I can’t go a day without moving my body. Even when I notice I’m having the thought that I don’t want to move or I’m in too much pain, I inevitably actually feel better if I go for a walk or do some restorative yoga.
  5. Be patient with yourself – offer yourself some compassion. Change is slow. Like it’s an average of 10 weeks for someone to start noticing differences (in their minds or bodies) when they start to make any changes. If you find you’re having difficulty being patient with yourself, try this mindfulness exercise. I’m definitely guilty of wanting change to occur quickly for myself. But interestingly, when I offer myself patience and compassion instead of criticism, change seems to actually occur more quickly than when I’m only hard on myself.
Remember, change is slow.

I hope this helps you with some pain management. I know it’s things that have helped me and many others. So, just keep making the most of it!