How do you respond when your pain flares? I have been thinking about this a lot over the past 6 or so months. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about some of the harmful ways I emotionally process pain flares and other stressful circumstances.
Personally, I find myself using the following two strategies.
Strategy #1: Freaking out. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take one more day. My life is terrible!
Strategy #2: Denial. Everything is fine. I’m great! What problems?
Both responses are unhealthy. They are particularly unhealthy when it comes to dealing with physical health issues because both suppression and exaggeration of emotions have a negative impact on our physical bodies.
Suppressing Our Emotions
Do these words sound familiar? Avoidance. Isolation. Numbing. Escape. Depression. Denial. Some of us are really good at denying reality in these ways. This is a bad strategy for a number of reasons, including the fact that it just makes physical pain and symptoms worse.
A great deal of research has been done on the impact of emotional suppression and emotional disclosure on pain levels.
- Research shows that when people suppress their anger, it increases their pain levels.
- On the other hand, emotional disclosure through writing exercises or verbally processing feelings of distress pain can lead to decreased physical pain levels.
Emotionally Exaggerating Our Problems
How about these words? Sound familiar? Anxiety. Freaking out. Racing thoughts. Worst case scenario. Heart racing. Panicking. Irritability. Anger. Some of us are really good at taking difficult situations and making them even worse by imagining that the worst-case scenario will certainly come to pass.
Some of us have legitimate reasons to be concerned. For many of us, our worst case scenarios have come to pass before. But even in the face of legitimate concerns, blowing up and letting panic and stress overtake our bodies weakens our ability to tolerate pain.
- Intense expressions of anxiety, anger, and sadness weaken peoples’ tolerance to pain.
- Elevated stress is correlated with increased muscle tension and increased pain.
What is the Answer?
So, what should we do? Is there a third way? I can’t say I have it all figured out, but here are a few thoughts.
Here’s how I put it in a sentence: We express the truth about what we are going through to self, others, and God without denying or exaggerating our experience. We simply acknowledge and speak aloud what is true.
Provide space to grieve. We don’t avoid the emotions, but approach them. We don’t allow ourselves to sit in the sadness or wallow in the anger, but walk through them towards the other side.
Consider self-talk. Is it honest? Suppression leaves stuff out; exaggeration embellishes the truth. What is actually true in my situation? In your situation? Speak the truth, not lies, exaggerations, or omissions. It might sound something like this.
“It’s possible that the worst-case scenario in my head will come to pass. It’s happened before, and it could happen again. But, it’s also possible that this will pass sooner than I think. It’s possible this won’t be as big a deal as I’m imagining. Either way, anxiety and stress won’t help me. They will only make things worse by increasing my stress hormones and increasing my pain.”
Don’t forget God. Bring God into the picture. Did you remember He is there? Constantly present? Did you remember to pray? It’s easy to forget in the moment. Read the Psalms and let them direct your prayers. Ask God questions. Tell God your fears.
Find people and places for emotional disclosure. Bring your burdens to others. Emotional expression to others is important for a couple reasons. Sometimes we need validation that wat we are going through is actually a big deal. It’s not “nothing.” Other times we need to be brought back down and shown that we are misrepresenting our experience to ourselves. We need someone to show us the truth that we can’t see.
What is Best for Our Bodies?
When pain symptoms flare, we get to choose how we will respond. In my better moments, I can slow down and ask myself important questions. How does God want me to respond in this moment? How can I make sure my response doesn’t have a negative impact on the people around me? What would glorify God most? How can I make the moment better and still appreciate the good things in life in the midst of pain?
I’ve recently added a new question to my list. What response would be best for my physical body?
Freaking out won’t help me. It only increases muscle tension, stress, anxiety, and subsequently pain. Denial won’t help me. It only increases depression, muscle tension, and will probably lead to blowing up later. The best thing I can do for my body is to be honest with myself, others, and God about what is going on.