If you suffer from chronic pain, then it is easy to drift into never seeing your friends. You may feel you just cannot face going out or that you are too much trouble at social occasions. Or perhaps it is just too hard to get dressed up and get out.
I am not going to make light of this. It can feel like an impossible aspiration. But although it may be hard, I cannot stress how important it is. If you can manage even a short time with people you like being with you will feel better.
I am saying much more than, get out it will take your mind off things. I know the evidence to back up what I am saying. There is lots of research to suggest that human beings are hardwired to interact with each other. And if we don’t we all suffer. If you are having a bad time through chronic pain anyway, then isolation is going to make it much harder to get to a place where you can manage that pain. https://labs.psych.ucsb.edu/kim/heejung/townsendkimmesquita-2.pdf
Here comes the science bit
Let me explain a bit more. Most of our behaviour goes back to our hunter/gatherer roots, after all this is where our species has spent most of its history. It does not take a genius to work out that if your life was precarious then sticking closely to your fellow human beings was a good survival tactic. Our brain chemistry reflects this and we produce feel good chemicals when we are with others and stress chemicals when we are not. Study after study shows that in our modern world, interacting with others has all sorts of health benefits. It is just what we are meant to do. If we don’t do it our still hunter gatherer make up, thinks we are in danger so sends out those emergency brain signals to warn us. And they produce stress and tension.
Loneliness has been shown to increase the stress hormone cortisol. This can by itself make our pain worse, for example it leads to increased muscle tension. There is also a proven tendency for people who are lonely to begin to indulge in unhealthy eating habits. This can lead to weight gain, which often increases chronic pain. Loneliness is also linked with insomnia, which is often a challenge if you suffer from chronic pain anyway.
You can read more about this here
Okay, so what do I do?
Loneliness has an adverse effect on all of us. But if you are suffering from chronic pain, it is especially important as the spiral of loneliness, stress chemicals, tension more pain is to be avoided if at all possible.
If you are aware you are becoming socially isolated, what do you do?
I am going to look at this from a number of angles. I know you may be saying that it is all very well to say this, but much harder to do it. And I am not going to pretend it is easy.
But let’s start. One step is better than none after all.
First of all, respect your feelings and remember they are trying to help you. If you are feeling lonely think of it as a positive signal. If you are hungry you know your body is saying it needs food and you eat. If you are lonely your body is saying it needs human interaction, so talk to someone you like.
And a little can go a long way. No-one is expecting you to stay up discussing philosophy until the early hours or going to an all-night party. Just a few minutes of light conversation with someone who interests you can be enough.
Second of all seek out people who know what you are going through. Something which occurred to me while reading the research I talked about above, is that banding together with others with the same interests, or even the same problems may be especially beneficial. I think I see this in my own work, when I run psychology/hypnotherapy for pain clinics in Milton Keynes and Bedford or via video call. Group meetings for people who are suffering from chronic pain can be a great source of help, support and friendship. I see the obvious benefits, when I have anything to do with these groups.
There is the clear advantage of being able to swap experiences, talking about what works for you and learning about what works for others. This has obvious practical advantages, but it is more than that. There is an underlying dynamic here, which our unconscious minds understand. Being with those who are undergoing a similar experience to us may send strong messages to our subconscious minds that we are safe and supported. And that will make us feel more relaxed and happier. Happier and more relaxed means it is easier to control chronic pain.
Some practical steps
So that is all very well, you might be saying. But I have such bad back pain or arthritis pain or whatever that I just cannot build up a social life.
If you feel like that I do understand. I would give three bits of advice
- Aim small
- Use technology
- Only do what you enjoy doing
Let’s look at them one by one.
Not too much and often can be a good guide here. And take time for yourself. I suggest in my book Break the Pain Cycle in 28 days: Pain Busting Techniques for Every Day of the Month
that you build a routine so you are doing something good for yourself every day. You can build into this just talking to someone whose company you value every day. If it is only for 10 minutes then fine. You have started.
There is nothing better than a face to face chat. But if you cannot do that, then technology can be your friend. You can use technologies such as FaceTime, Facebook messenger or Skype to interact and see your friends and companions. If you have to do that while lying in bed, then go ahead. At least you are breaking down that loneliness and you are sending your mind incredibly positive messages. Be aware of some online support groups that are not helpful as they are so negative.
Only do what you enjoy doing
Most of us are constantly telling ourselves what we ‘should’ do. We carry around a little voice constantly telling us to keep up, finish this and that, do better and the like. For your social interaction quieten that voice. Spend time only with people you like and who make you feel better. If you are planning activities with your friends, do what you enjoy and refuse things you do not. This may sound selfish but it is not. We have to spend a lot of our time doing things we do not really love, we deserve some time for ourselves.
Find out more in my book
I’m going to finish with an unashamed plug for one of my books. The pain diary I mentioned above. This book will suggest a routine for you. It will help you put yourself at the centre of your life. It will give you a sense of control and power. And it will give you some guide or route maps for how you develop valuable relationships with others, whether that is your family, your friends or new acquaintances.
You can do this and start on the journey to controlling your pain.
See you here next time when I will be looking at how pain and anxiety interact in more detail.
Wishing you a less pain day