Why You Need to Stop Trying so Hard to Get Better

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An image of Georgie Oldfield
Georgie Oldfield, MCSP
Whether or not you accept that your pain is completely stress-induced, there are enough studies[1][2] now to show the effect that emotions such as fear, frustration, anger etc has on chronic pain via the emotional brain. We know that there is one specific area of the emotional brain (the anterior cingulate cortex – the ACC) which mediates pain. The studies demonstrate that when the ACC is stimulated by emotional responses, the activity in the area increases, which causes pain to intensify.

If you suffer from persistent pain yourself you probably experience a number of difficult emotions that are related to your pain, for example:

  • Fear of the pain intensity
  • Fear of never being able to resolve it
  • Fear of certain activities because of the pain
  • Fear of the diagnosis you have been given
  • Feeling resentful of not being able to live life as you used to
  • Feeling frustrated and angry with the pain and the limitations it has placed on you

Our mind and body are inextricably linked, so all these fears/emotions activate the ACC, which actually makes the situation worse by amplifying the pain itself!

We know there is a high co-morbidity between chronic pain and mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, which means that often people are suffering from both. Unfortunately, although anxiety and depression are also stress-induced and a result of unresolved emotional ‘traumas’, they also create further stress and stimulation for the emotional brain, thereby ‘fueling’ the pain even more.

Most people when they come to see me to help them recover from their chronic pain/symptom are, not surprisingly fed up, scared, resentful etc about their pain and their situation, which as you can see now ‘feeds’ into the pain cycle.

Many are absolutely desperate to get better NOW, or as quickly as possible, which also creates inner turmoil exacerbating the pain further, or at least is preventing it from easing, because this is based on fear, frustration etc.

This shows how emotional turmoil can be created by the pressure to recover, which creates ‘resistance’ to your progress. The turmoil created by doing what you feel you ‘ought to’ and ‘should do’ also creates inner turmoil and therefore resistance during recovery.

Much of the work I do with my patients and which my online programme[3] covers in detail, is helping people identify how they are creating self-induced stress through their reactions to their pain and situation, as well as how they react to what’s happening in their life day to day. e.g. based on their personality, learned behaviours and as a result of their ‘buttons being pressed’.

Some of my patients ‘try hard’ (note the resistance that will cause) to do everything they believe will help ‘get rid of their pain’, yet often the way this is done creates further stress and ‘fueling’ of the pain, which you can even see from the terminology!

Often those who have plateaued begin to progress once they really understand that by letting go of the ‘need to be better’ and ‘trying so hard’, they will be allowing themselves to progress. This is part of learning to become more allowing of ourselves and our own capabilities. Learning to be more allowing of others and situations also plays a part in reducing the self-induced stress that can be feeding into our pain cycle on a day to day basis.

The emphasis is on reaching a point of acceptance that you will recover in time and not ignoring the very important part self-care plays in recovery. It’s about becoming more allowing and more stress-resilient, enabling you to ‘live life with less resistance’.

There are many things people can do to help with this, including:

  1. Developing a regular practice of mindfulness meditation[4]
  2. Writing a future journal entry – pick a date a few months ahead and write a journal entry as if it is that date now. Write as if you are fully recovered and how wonderful life is, describing it in detail. You can even describe in general terms how you progressed over the months and that learning to ‘let go of the need to be better now’ enabled you to actually progress. Visualising this can also reinforce it.
  3. Try this very simple, short Emotional Awareness strategy when you find yourself focusing on your pain/symptom and/or ‘in your head’ ruminating over your fears, both of which will be fueling the pain cycle. It will help you ‘get out of your head’ and become mindful in that moment, therefore allowing you to acknowledge the emotion, rather than ‘feeding it’.
Emotional Awareness Exercise

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  1. Klossika I et al. Emotional modulation of pain: a clinical perspective. Pain 2006, 124: 264 – 268
  2. Peyron et al. Functional imaging of brain responses to pain: a review and meta-analysis. Clinical Neurophysiology. 2000, 30:263 – 288
  3. http://www.sirpauk.com/stress-illness/helpful-information/sirpa-recovery-programme
  4. http://www.getsomeheadspace.com
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