Coping Skills to Manage the Emotional Stress of Chronic Pain

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. 

10 Comments

  1. Prayer helps. There is freedom in being broken and weak before God. Crocheting and jewelry making help. Mindfully redirecting my thoughts (and therefore my emotions) help, when I am able to do it. Focusing more on what I want, instead of focusing on what is, or on what I don’t want. Emotional Freedom Tapping (EFT) helps. Having ever increasing healthy boundaries help… So I avoid harmful doctrines and religious zealots that are so blind that they don’t realize the harm they are causing. My recent journey is the realization that toxic ANYTHING (my own thoughts and emotions), people, unhappy TV shows… Anything toxic… Is not helpful. It makes my biochemistry toxic… And I am ever increasingly consciously and mindfully pursuing what is better for me. 💟

  2. Music, Light & Color
    The music I choose greatly affects my mood. On a bad day, or a day when I have some energy but not enough for what I want to do – choosing music that is bright, happy, toe-tapping, upbeat and major scale can be very helpful. On grieving days sad songs, songs that speak of loss, the blues can be helpful. If I do start to feel like they are pulling me down I’ll shift to music that’s kinda in the middle.

    I find light so important to both emotional and physical balance. We chose a house with windows in every room. There are large windows in the living room and kitchen where much time I spent. My reclining chair is right next to the window where I can watch the world go by and catch rays of sunlight. I am slowly acquiring decorations for holidays (especially the winter ones). All include strings of lights.

    I’ve given up on having a pretty, pulled together, designed home. Function and easy ability to clean is more important. I am surrounding us with our favorite colors and textures that are easy clean. The curtains are light in color and weight, easy to take down and machine wash. We are on our way to a comfortable, functional, rural home.

    There are two phrases my Sweetie developed while we were raising the children that I find very helpful in this chronic pain life: Where is your Focus? and What CAN you do (right now, today)? I love your phrase of “doing less than you are humanly capable of doing!” I think I’ll add that right after ‘What can you do?”! Another good question is “What is your purpose? What do you want to have happen or obtain from (this discussion, that event, etc.)? This question is great at high-lighting those things that I feel guilty about not doing or “the shoulds” that can overwhelm those who are healthy – and even more so we who aren’t.

    Thank you for sharing!! There are several of your methods that I will be adding to my daily care!

  3. I’m new to this journey of chronic pain so I am learning rather than teaching. This was a great article. .Thank you so much.

    Have you written anything about how to manage a home when you can do less?

  4. Hi Esther, I’ve only just discovered your blog but it has been so encouraging in just a short space of time! My chronic pain situation seems to have many similarities to what you share about your own….reading your blog I feel like you must be a mind-reader 😉

    I use many of the coping strategies you have listed above, and wouldn’t be able to manage life without them. I see the pain management strategies I have learnt as “tools” in my “toolkit” for dealing with constant pain….just like a doctor’s visit or a medicine….and often more effective!

    Regarding other strategies, I have found mindfulness mediation very helpful in my on-going challenge to separate the pain sensations I feel from the fear and distress that seem to come along for the ride . I think you might be talking about some similar strategies when you mention “Grounding yourself in the present”?

    Practising a guided ‘body scan’ mediation (there are many available online) helps me with just letting the pain be there. As the pain is there all the time, I find if I don’t try to fight it – it has less ‘power’ over me. I used to have a mind-set where I saw pain as “the enemy” but I found this way of thinking to be ultimately exhausting. So I’m trying to be more accepting rather than combative. Incidentally, I have found that a more accepting frame-of-mind also helps me to save those precious, precious energy juices…

    I don’t find practising mindfulness to be counter my Christian faith. On the contrary, I am finding it helps me to accept the pain more. The Lord has seen fit to allow this pain in my life, which I believe He will use for good in the end. He has a purpose in my pain, even though I often can’t see it! Being more accepting of my pain is helping me to keep on waiting and trusting in Him, his steadfast love and goodness, even when the circumstances seem to shout otherwise.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Esther!

  5. I don’t know if this is the right section to ask this but I’ll do it anyway.

    I’ve been suffering from a back injury for months now, and been dosing my self with a lot of pain relievers. I’m starting to think that I might take away the pain of my back with the meds but at the same time punishing my liver slowly. So I started reading articles about marijuana and it’s medical aspect and found this along the way http://www.ilovegrowingmarijuana.com/medical-marijuana-has-profound-effect-on-pain-relief/.
    I am already 34 years old and haven’t tried smoking or any other means of using marijuana and I have nothing against it. My question is that if i try it would I be dependent at the same time addicted to it? And will it really ease the pain? Thanks in advance to those who’ll answer

    1. Hi Peter, I have never used marijuana for pain relief before, but I have a few thoughts about your questions… I am a counselor and I personally believe there is a difference between having a physical dependence to a substance and being addicted to a substance. Not everyone would agree with me – this distinction between addiction and dependency was removed from the newest DSM. Here is a good description that might help – https://www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/addiction-vs-dependence/.

      I think the key to avoiding addiction would be using legal medical marijuana prescribed by a doctor and following the prescription.

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