Home / Latest News / People with chronic pain and other long- term health conditions – Do you know the difference between Radiators and Drains? And which are you (most of the time!)

People with chronic pain and other long- term health conditions – Do you know the difference between Radiators and Drains? And which are you (most of the time!)


We all know people who make us feel better, those people who when they walk into a room make you think ‘I’m so pleased she’s here; I know we’ll have a good chat.’ Then there are their opposites, those people who if you see coming towards you on the street make you quickly duck into a shop until they have gone past.

Oprah Winfrey, who often says things which make sense, has a good phrase for these different sorts of people. She calls them radiators and drains. 

Radiators radiate good things: warmth, kindness and enthusiasm. This lifts your mood and makes you feel happy. Drains on the other hand suck the good stuff away. Their negative and often self-absorbed attitude ends up draining your energy levels and making you feel miserable.

A tip to manage your chronic pain: do not attract drains

This might be controversial, but I suspect that if you suffer from chronic pain you may attract drains. That old adage ‘misery attracts misery.’ Has something to it, and there are people who keep an eye out for those they know are not feeling at their best. 

Just last week a client in my Bedford chronic pain clinic, told me how a neighbour constantly told him about her pain. ‘I really don’t want to know,’ said my client. ‘She knows about my problem and seems to think that gives her carte blanche to share her much lesser problems with me. I like to keep positive. I work very hard on my mental attitude and this doesn’t help at all.’

I had a good think about this after my client had gone. I knew the ‘radiators and drains’ analogy and I do think it is useful. And I would like to take it a stage on. 

Why is resilience important, especially for people with chronic pain?

It’s not always possible to avoid the drains, but you can protect yourself against them. You can do this by building a strong centre which will act like a suit of armour against people who may drain you. I believe that this art of protecting yourself can be a way of finding your true happiness and equilibrium. 

I want to introduce you to some thinkers who have talked about what happiness is. They have often done this in the context of mental health and stressed that good mental health is not just the absence of illness. It is a positive mindset leading to resilience and true fulfilment. One of the best-known protagonists of these ideas, Martin Seligman calls this positive psychology. He puts this well in his book Authentic Happiness. Positive psychology, he says: “takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfilment meaning and purpose.”

If you can build this you will find it much easier to avoid drains and even when you cannot they will have much less effect on you. 

Mentally coping with chronic pain

If you are a person who has to deal with chronic pain then in a way you have a head start. You are used to coping in situations where things are not perfect. I hope you have help and support (if you do not then do contact me, I can help you). Through this process you will have built up experience and resources. 

Adverse experiences can be powerful. A famous psychologist of the latter half of the last century, Viktor Frankl, had the most horrendous experience in life, yet he used it to develop a very influential view of what it means to be a resilient human being.

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist who lived through terrible experiences in the 2nd World War. 

He was Jewish and spent much of the war in Nazi work camps. His best-known book Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles his experience of giving healthcare to his fellow prisoners. He observed that those who kept a sense of purpose and meaning in life survived longer than those who lost their belief that life had any purpose at all. 

Viktor was the only survivor in his family apart from his sister. After the war he returned to Vienna where he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning although the translation of its German title, Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything, A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp probably sums the book up better.

As he put it: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.” 

He believed that, even when faced with the most horrendous of circumstances, it was still within human capacity, the last human freedom, to choose one’s attitude to one’s circumstances. For Frankl, the meaningful life could be broken into three essential areas which took into account the uniqueness of every human being. These included:

  • Doing, using our talents in work or in other ways
  • Experiencing, the world through relationships, enjoyment of art and culture and the environment
  • Attitude, which we always have the freedom to change whatever our circumstances

When I think about this, I imagine a radiator. Someone who does these things which Frankl says give meaning will definitely be a radiator and not a drain. It’s about taking fulfilment in looking outwards and taking joy in doing and being. It also involves interacting in a positive way with other people.

Frankl was a practising clinician and developed techniques based on his ideas. There are a couple of these which I think are especially good if you suffer from chronic pain.

The technique of dereflection for chronic pain

The first is what Frankl called dereflection. This is designed to stop yourself obsessing about a certain idea, emotion or feeling. If you suffer from chronic pain you may be familiar with this thought habit.

Frankl suggested changing focus specifically to focus on a task you are doing. This is why in my clinic I often recommend hobbies or exercise or self-hypnosis for chronic pain; each of which turn focus away from focus on the pain. By losing ourselves in a task or activity we lose the focus on ourselves and our problems and pain. 

I often teach a simple self-hypnosis technique to help this. You can do this yourself any time you have a few minutes.

Find a simple mechanical task which you need to do and you know will take a few minutes, an example could be folding the laundry. 

As you do this task 

Talk to yourself, saying what you are doing at every step. Imagine you are describing the task to an alien from another planet. With this sort of focus you will notice new things about the task. 

When your attention drifts, then gently bring it back to the task. 

However often your attention drifts bring it back. By the end you will be concentrating on the task rather than pain. You will also be training your mind, making new neural pathways which will make it easier and more natural to deflect your attention from the pain in the future.

Paradoxical intention: don’t fear your chronic pain

Another technique of Frankl’s is one he called paradoxical intention. He noticed that people spend a lot of time worrying about things which never actually happen. If you suffer from chronic pain you may have fallen into a version of this. Perhaps even your better days are ruined by you fearing the pain which could come on at any time. In fact, the anxiety this induces make you feel rotten and can even bring the pain back or make it seem worse. 

Frankl taught his clients to break this habit by imagining the thing they fear happening and focusing on what they do as that happens. 

I use a version of this technique with my clients. 

I start by explaining that in order to experience things we have to mentally act; we are not passive recipients; we are active creators of experience. When we are experiencing chronic pain, we are actually doing things which allow our brains to interpret that pain in certain ways.

I ask patients to imagine what they do when they have a serious bout of pain. I ask them to describe this. They will often say things like: my muscles tense up, I feel sick and tense, my stomach hurts, my mouth feels dry. I cannot think straight. 

I then explain how some of these symptoms can be lessened just as they can be worsened. There is an actual situation, the onset of chronic pain. But there is also an individual creation based on the client’s worst fears. If you can face these worse fears and understand how you create them you can then uncreate them. This may not completely remove the pain but it can significantly lessen it.

This can cut the level of fear and this lessens tension and all the physical and mental effects which flow form this.

Both these techniques involve radiator behaviour. Focusing outwards, concentrating on things which are not the problem, being creative to improve your situation.

I feel pretty sure that if you develop radiator behaviour you will be able to protect yourself against the drains. Even better, you will attract other radiators and that will make your life much happier.

Wishing you a less pain day

Dr Sue

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *