Chronic pain can rule your life, if you let it. Some days, it’ll rule your life whether you like it or not.
I know this, intimately – both as a therapist, and as a person with an autoimmune disease. Two, actually. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Big words, huh? Big diseases.
One of the criteria for being diagnosed with a mental health disorder is that it must disrupt your daily life – it has to bother you, fundamentally – cause impairments in social occupational, or other areas of functioning – and it can’t be due to substance use or another medical condition. This sounds simple enough, right? But it isn’t. Because what people without chronic pain fail to consider is the mind body connection.
Well, what’s that? The mind body connection. It’s what it sounds like. The mind and the body are connected. What impacts your physical body has an impact on your mental health, and when your mental health is impacted, so is your body. Think about it. When you get sick, or hurt, what happens to your mental health? It suffers. Your mind slows down, you get sad, frustrated, irritable. This is normal. But so often we are told it is not. When we are sick or injured, fatigued, or in pain, we have this attitude where we tell ourselves to feel guilty for being unwell. When our bodies force us to take a break, our minds suffer. We think to ourselves, “I should be doing more.” “Why am I so lazy?” “I’m not good enough.”
We carry around this burden of guilt when our body is doing something totally natural – resting. But instead of allowing our minds to rest too, we shift into this mode where we heap an unnatural pile of guilt and blame and just pile it on until we can’t see anything else. And does our body heal? Do we absorb any rest? No. We don’t. Because when our minds don’t rest? Our bodies don’t either.
Did you hear that? I mean, did you really hear it? Your body and your mind work together – for better or worse. So, as a person with chronic pain, how do we change this? We’ve identified the problem and see how it harms us, but what now? This is where therapy comes in. Your therapist can help you identify the automatic thoughts – the “I have to go to work, I’ve got bills to pay,” “I need to do more” “My kids need me.” “I have too much to do.” – and help you realize that they’re harmful to your health. With the support of your therapist, you can change negative or harmful thoughts and behaviors and replace them with better, healthier ones. Ones that help you to feel like the best version of yourself.
One thing I like to say to my patients is that there are hundreds of versions of you out there, and that therapy can help you find the version of “you” that feels best. The version of “you” who you like best. The version of “you” that feels the most natural.
I’ll tell you a secret – my own therapist has helped me to become the version of “me” who I like best. There was once a version of me who fought like crazy to make sure that the house was cleaned every day, that the laundry was always washed and folded, and that dinner was home cooked and on the table every night for my family. And you know what? My physical and mental health really suffered. I did not like that version of myself. I was sad, I was depressed and anxious and I really struggled to live that life that I forced myself to create. My therapist helped me realize that there was no reason to try and create that perfect life – that no one lives a life like that, and that trying to would only make me unhappy, especially as a person with a chronic illness.
So I learned coping skills, techniques, and was able to change how I thought about the way my home was supposed to look, what my role was supposed to be as a woman and wife, and adjusted my expectations for myself. The life I live today is much more manageable, and my physical and mental health are so improved from what they were. Are you struggling like I was? Do you find that you have unreasonable expectations for yourself? Do your mind and body suffer? Therapy can help to alleviate the pressure we put on ourselves and teach us to manage our stressors in a healthy way. I encourage you to reach out and start that journey to the happiest version of “you” today.
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