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Thoughts, Feelings, and Chronic Pain

September 9, 2013

Have you ever noticed that when someone has done or said something unkind to you, that if you brood on it, the words or actions start to seem a lot worse? But not only do the words and actions begin to seem much worse than when you were first encountered them, you also start to feel a whole lot worse as well. Your initial injury or sting from the insult is now compounded by your own feelings of anger or sadness. This is all part of the mystery and gift of being human, we think, we feel, and we create our own inner worlds out of our thoughts and feelings. Saints create flexible, beautiful inner worlds out of humble, compassionate, and loving thoughts and feelings. Sinners create brittle, ugly interior terrains out of prideful, selfish, and resentful thoughts and feelings.  And most of us know a variety of worlds created in our hearts at our better moments and at moments we would prefer to forget.

This given of human nature, thoughts and feelings, influence our perception of pain even as do the givens of physical bodies and social support we spoke about in our previous post on this subject. The fact that the way we think about pain and our shifting emotional state play their roles in our experience of pain does not make the pain any less objective and real. It is just that the way we use the magnifying glass of our mind to enlarge our pain and the various colors we borrow from the pallet of our heart to liven it up have an inescapable effect on how we respond to the pain and how we cope with it.

Since childhood, most of us have looked at pain as a mysterious black box situated between I fell down and now I hurt. We know that a mother’s caress somehow makes it feel better and her absence makes it feel worse, but we have not considered that our own reaction to ourselves can also take on the function of a mother’s soothing voice. According to clinicians Grant and Haverkamp, those who don’t realize that pain is a complex phenomenon involving not only the physical pain, but also cognitive, emotional, and social factors, tend to have “lower self-esteem, increased psychological distress, and poor treatment compliance” in relation to those patients who understood their chronic pain. But not only does a lack of understanding lead to a lack of action, it also instills feelings of hopelessness, despair, and a belief that nothing can be done to alleviate the chronic pain or at a minimum, cope with chronic pain and manage the activities of daily life.  Grant and Haverkamp also observe that when patients think about their pain they now feel or will soon feel, they tend to become anxious. Anxiety in turns locks them into a still-frame of suffering that only makes the present pain that much worse.

The biopsychosocial model of pain—including physical, social, cognitive, and emotional factors—demystifies the experience of pain and displays areas where the sufferer can make real choices that can lead to better coping and even less suffering. Knowing that there are tools available decreases despair and anxiety, increasing hope and trust, two virtues so important in the Christian life. Just as we can choose to brood on an unkind word or to turn our attention elsewhere, so we can choose to focus on the experience of pain or lift our hearts up unto the Lord.

The Elder Porphyrios relates how he once had to have a large mole the size of a chick-pea removed from his head, because it caused him a great deal of pain and was continuously growing. For the surgery, he asked the physician, who was also a spiritual child of his, to not give him any local anesthetic. Although the physician disagreed initially, he eventually relented. And so the cauterization began, and the Elder relates that he imagined the crucified Lord Jesus on a large Cross and with faith said continuously, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” As the operation continued, he said that his faith kept growing until he didn’t feel anything. Forty-five minutes later, he got up from the operation table with a smile on his face, calm, and grateful to God and to his doctors. I relate this incident not to encourage people to not use pain relievers or to see how much they can endure, but to simply underline the power of attentive prayer with faith to overcome every and any trial in life. Our thoughts matter; our feelings matter; and above all, the focus of our thoughts and sentiments matter. That focus of thought and sentiment can change our experience of pain, especially when the center of our focus is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ Who suffered on our behalf.

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