Chronic pain is an example of an “invisible illness” – many people suffer from it, but you may not be able to tell. In some cases, like mine, your brain’s alarm system still thinks there is damage after an injury or infection, so you still experience pain despite the fact that there is no physical origin of it. This will lead some doctors to claim that it is “all in your head” since they can’t find a pathological reason for your pain. The first doctor I saw told me I would just have to deal with it. While there may not be a clear cause for it, this doesn’t mean that the pain you’re experiencing does not exist. The pain is very real, but since no physical cause is found, it is a lot easier to blame it on stress or psychological issues.
I have experienced chronic pain issues for probably about 6 years now. I don’t really want to share my specific issues in detail, but chronic nerve pain that I experience in my legs is one of the main problems. Some days are worse than others – sometimes it is kind of an achy feeling and sometimes it feels like I am being stung by bees. I can have trouble sitting for long periods of time, especially in class. I have tried a few different strategies in the past – I started with anti-depressants, which have been shown to be useful for nerve pain. Those helped for a while but eventually, their effects wore off. I switched over to some other prescription medications, which again, only helped temporarily. I started relying on anti-inflammatories like Aleve but it is not recommended to take these for the long term. Ultimately, I found that doing physiotherapy in addition to taking meditation has been helpful in some ways; while it does not eliminate the pain, it keeps it at bay and can help reduce the intensity of pain in moments when I am really struggling.
Living with chronic pain is physically and mentally exhausting. It can suck the energy out of you and interfere with your sleep. This lack of sleep, in turn, exacerbates your pain. It ends up being a vicious cycle. It is not often that you get a break from it, and it can be depressing, especially if you have gone through many treatments with limited success. Chronic pain is not something that is always well understood, and while I feel lucky that there are pain specialists and clinics that I can access in Toronto, medication always seems to be the only option that they recommend. I have mainly relied on more natural alternatives, which I feel better about, since I do not have to worry about their long term health effects.
One thing that I know helps is to acknowledge the pain rather than trying to ignore it. I sometimes try to distract myself when it gets bad, but ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away, so I usually use some mindfulness techniques and meditations to help me cope. I do notice patterns in my pain as well – for me, the pain is always worse at night, so I try to incorporate some of these techniques into my daily schedule so that by the time I fall asleep, the pain isn’t overpowering.
It is also important to be your own advocate. Pain affects your quality of life – and even when I tried to grin and bear it, it got to a point where I needed to take matters into my own hands and figure out a solution. So after that first doctor dismissed me, I made it my mission to search out people who would listen to me and help me find strategies to cope. I did find a great group of people who help me manage my day-to-day issues and who do not belittle my problems, but acknowledge and accept them.
While there is no surefire cure for chronic pain issues, I have found some useful strategies to help me cope. Meditation has been very useful – I like to use guided visualizations. These don’t need to take an hour, there are some apps and online videos that are only a few minutes long. While the pain does not disappear, by reducing my anxiety levels and improving my sleep, I do notice a reduction in my level of pain so I can at least function on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, although you may not want to do so, some gentle exercise can be useful. I normally do gentle yoga or even just some stretching. If I get too tense, the pain usually intensifies, so I try to do some form of movement each day. Making sure to spend time with family and friends is important as well – even if you want to isolate yourself, having a social support network will help you cope better.
So, remember that this isn’t “all in your head” – what you are experiencing is real, and it is important to find people who believe you and want to help you. Managing chronic pain is about managing your lifestyle. The key is to try out multiple strategies and see what works best for you. Chronic pain can sometimes make you feel hopeless and isolated, but you can always gain back control of your life.
Here are some links to pain management techniques that you can try out if you have chronic pain:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jD3VxSGM-k [Guided meditation]
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIjKfenNStA [Guided meditation]
Ayesha is a fourth year student at the University of Toronto, majoring in Psychology and completing a double minor in Cinema Studies and Sociology. She enjoys watercolor painting, fantasy fiction, and crime dramas. She was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Depression and Social Anxiety.