If you suffer from a medical condition that causes you chronic pain, life can be gruelling. Nobody likes being in pain, so over time it can really grind you down. Musculoskeletal problems like hip, knee or lower-back pain, arthritis and other ongoing, hard-to-treat conditions can sap your strength and energy over time, making it hard to stay positive or hopeful that a solution will eventually be found. Dealing with pain can make you stressed or depressed, as the ongoing struggle – unsurprisingly – causes sadness and low mood.
But if you or someone you care about is struggling with a painful condition, it's important to know that there is very good evidence for the impact that psychological treatments can have – in particular, cognitive therapy and mindfulness meditation. Of course, thinking differently about your problem, the core strategy in cognitive therapy, will not take away the pain (although it can significantly decrease the amount of pain you are in). Instead, it will help you stop thinking so negatively about the problem, which will boost your mood and stave off the risk of depression.
The mindful approach to stress
Since the 1970s, mindfulness – in particular, mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR – has been used to help people with a wide range of psychological and physical ailments. MBSR's founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, developed his revolutionary approach to help people who had been failed by traditional Western medicine. He worked with patients suffering from treatment-resistant spinal problems and even terminal illness – and had a remarkable success rate at lowering their stress levels and improving the quality of their daily lives.
As with all forms of suffering, whether emotional or physical, the mindful approach is to change our relationship to the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, enabling us to stop fighting or resisting them and – counterintuitively – accept them, even if we do not want them to be there. Over time, we find that this stance of acceptance is an extremely powerful one, allowing the 'aversive' experiences to come and go, so they don't get stuck or morph into other forms of suffering like self-criticism or anger.
I want to be clear: I am not minimising how hard or upsetting it can be to live with chronic pain (as someone with ongoing back, hip and other musculoskeletal problems, I know that only too well). But being human inevitably means dealing with stressors, large or small; and, if we cannot free ourselves from them, we must find the best possible way to live with them.
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