I read a paper recently by Mark Collen (founder of PainExhibit.org, an interesting collection of art made by artists with chronic pain, expressing some aspect of their pain), where he recommends a holistic approach to pain management. He suggests taking a “daily SWEM – socialize, work, exercise and meditate,” along with your pain medication, to manage chronic pain. He calls it the biopsychosocial model, because it involves aspects of pain biology, and the social and psychological well-being of the person suffering from the pain.
For the largest part, I like what the article talks about, and I agree with it. Hanging out with friends (socializing) or getting in work mode to find some engagement and routine certainly sound like reasonable distractions to help cheer you up, not feel isolated and feel accomplished towards some purpose. Exercising has also been shown before to improve mobility (or at least reduce the rate of its decline) in patients with chronic pain. [I will give a personal update of my aquatic physical therapy sessions soon in another blog post.] But while they are all good advice, the article did not give many tips on how to practice some of these ideas. That is perhaps the biggest drawback of the article, because I could see many with severe chronic pain not being able to leave the house to work, socialize or exercise.
This is why I like his last advice the best – meditate! This is something one can do anywhere, even laying in bed moaning in pain.
Featured image: One of my original oils on a 7X14 canvas, titled Sun Meditation.
I have personally used three types of meditation with good results: deep relaxation, guided imagery and mindfulness meditation. I have given a brief account of my experience with each below, along with links to some of my favorite videos for each.
I find this especially nice in the middle of the day when the stresses are starting to build up, my pain levels are starting to rise from lack of rest-time at work, and my energy levels are flagging. A ten-minute guided relaxation meditation helps me feel calmer and more grounded, helping to release some of the tension and adding just enough energy to make it through the rest of the day.
I use this a lot in the mornings before I have shape-shifted from the tin-man into my human form, to help with the pain and stiffness so I can get on with my day. Basically, you are guided into imagining an interaction with your pain and dealing with it as an object. Along with helping me to relax, I actually find this helps reduce pain levels at least temporarily! At first, I almost always find the pain rises when I focus on it, but then as I continue, its intensity decreases. This surprised me at first because I wasn’t expecting it to work as good.
I have a couple of favorites for this type of meditation: a short ten-minute version (which I use in the mornings) and a longer 1-hour version by Michael Sealy, which I use at night. Sealy calls it “sleep hypnosis” but it’s really all the same I find! Incidentally, as a plus, the latter does also help me fall asleep!!
This is probably the type of meditation with the most amount of research behind it showing its efficacy. Mindfulness is the way to live in the present moment – not worry about the past or the future, not try to change anything – just observe what is going on without passing any judgement on it. This is something that takes a lot of practice at first. At some point, it is supposed to become second-nature, but I have not achieved this regarding all aspects of my life just yet. This is useful when I am in serious pain and wanting to throw me a pity-party. A lot of the stress and self-pity comes from worrying about what the pain has done to you (and your plans) in the past and how it will affect your future. Just being in the moment and acknowledging the pain, but not passing any judgement regarding it, is curiously freeing. I am learning to do more and more of this and just taking one day at a time, without stressing about the future, and acknowledging the state of things without judging its impact on me. As you can imagine, I don’t succeed at this at all times but I try!!
Michael Sealy has a short video to help you get started on mindfulness meditation, if you feel so inclined, but this type of meditation is really not best done “guided.” It is useful to read about it and practice it by yourself. “Mindfulness: An 8-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman is one of the books that might make for a great starting point.
These are just my coping strategies, I don’t know if they will help others or not. But just in case anyone wanted to try it out, I hope this helps them get started. You never know what helps until you try it out! I was certainly surprised by how well some of these worked. And now meditation has become one of the go-to tools in my arsenal!
P.S. If you are interested in reading the paper I mentioned in the post by Mark Collen, it is called “Operationalizing Pain Treatment in the Biopsychosocial Model: Take a Daily “SWEM”—Socialize, Work, Exercise, Meditate” and was published in the Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy in 2015. It is a pretty easy read despite the mouthful title!