I have seen a line of thinking in some Christians circles that sees coping skills as dangerous because they are just a means of avoiding the real or underlying issues.
“Distracting yourself is dangerous, because you will never deal with what is actually going on in your heart.”
“Why would you use relaxation techniques when you could just pray?”
“The only coping skills I need are reading my Bible and being with God.”
I think I can pull some truth out of each of these statements, but they are also missing a few essential things.
1). Practicing spiritual disciplines and using wise coping skills are not mutually exclusive. Skills to cope with life and self-soothe in the midst of stressful situations are things you naturally learn if you grow up in a healthy environment. Some people didn’t grow up in a healthy environment and didn’t learn these skills. And even for people who did, there is always room to grow in our ability to better manage life.
2). Many coping skills are specifically designed to address dysfunctions in our physical bodies such as unhealthy stress responses, faulty wiring in the brain, or an over-reactive nervous system. I see coping skills as tools God has given us to manage interplays of physical and emotional symptoms.
3). Finally, many coping skills are based on distraction and grounding techniques, which I believe are necessary skills when you are in the midst of unending and terribly stressful situations. Christians who don’t think you should distract yourself from the “real issues” must simply be unaware of the constant, never-ending toll chronic pain (and other life issues) can take on a person’s body and mind. Sometimes we need a break. Yes, we address the underlying issues. But doing that constantly would be too much. We need breaks.
I use coping skills to manage both the physical and emotional manifestations of chronic pain. I use some form of coping every single day. Many of these forms of coping have already been addressed on my blog. Some haven’t. I thought it would be helpful to pull all of them together as a resource for you to browse through.
Visualization strategies: Practicing these visualization strategies created by Dr Moskowitz was not life-changing for me, but they helped me sleep, and I go back to use them when I am flaring and have trouble falling asleep. Which, is actually kind of huge. I wrote two posts about these techniques, and I also recommend you check out this workbook.
Any strategies that “flood the pain map”: The basic idea behind “flooding the pain map” is that your brain doesn’t have the ability to experience the sensation of pain and do other jobs at the same time. Read more about this technique here, including examples of what this can look like.
Deep Breathing: Check out this great and in-depth article on breathing exercises for stress and anxiety. But, it really doesn’t have to be complicated. Deep breathing can be as simple as taking long and slow breathes in through your nose, and slowly releasing the breath through your mouth. You focus drawing the breath into your stomach instead of your chest. This exercise is so simple that it is easily overlooked. But it really does work to relax the body and release tension. I use deep breathing when I can’t sleep at night, and it helps a lot.
Grounding Yourself in the Present. Read my post here on the questions I ask myself in the midst of flares to help me stay grounded in the moment. These simple questions have helped me so much.
Goal-Setting. Goal-setting helps me consider the future in a healthy way that doesn’t lend towards anxiety. Setting goals helps motivate me to keep moving forward. It helps me focus on specific areas instead of floundering back and forth. I typically set over-arching goals at the beginning of each year, and try to reassess some of my goals and habits on a semi-monthly basis.
Journaling. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Journaling can do wonders for releasing stress, processing your thoughts and feelings, and helping you make plans to move forward. Check out my article here on the details of why I highly recommend it.
Pacing. Pacing has been the most important aspect of my pain management plan. Without pacing, I would not be where I am today. Until I developed a rigid pacing schedule, I pushed myself into setback after setback after setback. I have a really in-depth method that I use that I talk about here and here. But pacing can begin with something as simple as stopping before you are completely burnt out or having a rule that you will only schedule one main activity each day.
Pacing is more of a pain management technique than a means of managing emotional stress, but it is so important I decided to include it. Here is another article to check out by The Princess in the Tower on pacing that I found helpful.
Distraction: My favorite post on using distraction as a means of managing chronic illness is this one by Rachel Lundy at Cranberry Teatime. She is so spot on. So often we would rather be doing something else that is more productive. But in the end, mindless means of distracting ourselves can sometimes be the most productive thing we can do, as it prepares us for other necessary tasks we need to accomplish. This area of distraction covers such a broad range of activities. My main form of distraction is reading. It could include anything from knitting to coloring to browsing the Internet to talking with a friend.
Practicing Grieving Rituals: I have talked about grief on numerous occasions. You can read my two posts about it here and here. And you can check out my booklet on the topic. Life with chronic pain is filled with losses, and often times there is very little you can do to fix things. You can’t fix it and it’s not going to get better. And somehow you need to process the ramifications of this. I think that happens through the process of grieving. Read more about this. Research this. Think about this. Practice this. I believe it is necessary.
Rest: This may be the most important one. Rest, and don’t feel ashamed about it. I was looking through some resources on the American Chronic Pain Association, including their lists of pain management tools and List of Basic Rights for individuals with pain. One of the rights they list is the right to do “less than you are humanly capable of doing.” I love that phrase! You have the right to do less than you are humanly capable of doing. I have the right to do less than I am humanly capable of doing.
What coping skills do you use to manage your pain? I purposefully left out ones such as reading Scripture and praying, because I think those fall into a slightly different category. I don’t think of those as coping skills, I think of them as communing with God. I also left out some of the methods I use to manage the physical pain such as ice and heat, etc… You can read about the pain management methods I use for my SI dysfunction here.
So tell me. What helps you? I am honestly interested to know. Perhaps the things that help you could be of use to myself or someone else who reads this blog.
Check out Life in Slow Motion’s first book, But God Wouldn’t I Be More Useful to You If I Were Healthy, on Amazon.com.