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The Problem of Feelings of Anger and Depression in Those Suffering from Chronic Pain

September 26, 2013

While Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians reminds us never let the sun go down on your anger, this exhortation is especially challenging for those who suffer with chronic pain.  The inability to find relief or perform the daily tasks to which you are accustomed can lead to feelings of frustration, helplessness, and futility.  If these feelings are not acknowledged and dealt with in a healthy fashion through some of the interventions I’ve mentioned in previous chronic pain posts, anger and depression may result.  Anger and depression are powerful negative factors that severely limit your capacity to benefit from any therapeutic intervention in coping with chronic pain.  In fact, anger and depression may exacerbate the chronic pain whether it be through the added stressful tension experienced by those who are angry or the blackened painful thoughts that plague the depressed. In an angry or depressed state, chronic pain will inevitably be perceived as even more painful, more debilitating, more unfair, and more tragic than it would in calmer, more peaceful emotional states.  In situations where anger, depression or both gain a foothold, individuals may quickly spiral downward and seek comfort in alcohol or drug use.

In instances where anger or depression is manifest in the chronic pain sufferer, certain anger management techniques may provide assistance in dealing with both the anger and the chronic pain.  Such techniques as determining the cause of the anger/depression, re-focusing one’s thoughts (a time out from anger)thought stopping, and relaxation may all be beneficial.

Of course, these cognitive techniques, while helpful, can only do so much.  The chronic pain sufferer who is also beset with feelings of anger or depression would be wise to seek solace in a committed spiritual life.  As I wrote in the last post in the anger management series, “The discerning hesychast bishop, Saint Isaac the Syrian, once wrote, ‘Before the war begins, seek out your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grievous things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him, and He will listen to you.’ (The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac, Homily V) Who are our allies and our physicians in our struggle with the grievous passion of anger? For the fathers, the problem with anger is not so much our interpretation being irrational as it is our interpretation being distorted by the presence of pride and vainglory on the one hand and the absence of love and compassion on the other. In keeping with the wise counsel of Saint Isaac, our allies in the war against anger are love made incarnate through almsgiving and profound humility acquired through prayer, an awareness of our sins, and a sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of God. With such love and humility, it is possible to serenely accept even the false accusations made against us without giving quarter to the passion of anger, but instead with a gentle, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

The issue at hand is not whether our feelings of anger or frustration are justifiable.  Reflection upon such a question will only lead to further irritation and annoyance.  What is required is a way out-a way that leads away from the irrationality of anger and despondency to peaceful love and a calm hope.  An old expression comes to mind-“you must play the cards you’re dealt.”  In other words, don’t spend time and energy focused on how unfair or how horrible the present situation is, but rather focus on what can be done with and in the present situation. After all, human beings, even those in pain, even those whose lives seem limited to the extreme, always have a choice. On Calvary, three men suffered painfully being nailed to the Cross: one in angry despair cried out, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us”; the other with humble hope whispered, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom;” and the Third who had earlier forgiven those causing him pain saying “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” now said to the good thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Christians are called first to imitate repentant sinners and ultimately to imitate our Savior. Being angry and depressed while in pain is understandable, but we are all called to greater things. Let us start with prayer to the Lord, let us continue with forgiveness to all, and through the mercy of Christ we too will receive the assurance even in our pain that we will be with Him in paradise.

  1. The issue at hand is not whether our feelings of anger or frustration are justifiable. Reflection upon such a question will only lead to further irritation and annoyance.

    I like these lines especially. Nice post.

  2. Christina DeMichele permalink

    This is a wonderful article, however, there is a typo in the verse ” father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” This is a significant error and should be fixed!

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