I’ve got two small boys whom I spend much of my time running around after. They are little treasures obviously :) but they couldn’t be more different in both looks and character. The little one would be described by parenting manuals as spirited. He knows his own mind and is not afraid to share it. He also seems to have an innate ability to know exactly which buttons to press to instantly turn me into a screaming fishwife!
For a long time I puzzled over what it was that wound me up so quickly as very often these altercations start over very small things. Eventually, I realised that the actual incident had very little to do with the high emotions that followed. What was really firing me up were the thoughts and feelings going on in my head in the build up to and during the arguments. These kind of thoughts go through my head:
“I can’t believe he’s going to do this again…”
“He’s so RUDE!”
“He’s always doing this”
“If he’s like this now, what’s he going to be like in 5 years time?”
I don’t think logical, helpful, calming thoughts. In short, I catastrophise.
“I’m sorry to hear of your parenting challenges but what’s this got to do with pain”, you might ask?
Well, with pain it is very similar. When you have pain, especially if you’ve had it a while, it’s very common to catastrophise:
“This keeps happening, will I ever be able to get on with my life?”
“If the doctors can’t make it better, surely it will NEVER stop?”
“If I’m like this now, I’ll probably be in a wheelchair by the time I hit 60”
It’s our natural tendency as humans to project forward to the future, and if something is bad now, we are far more likely to panic about what will happen. This has a direct impact on our pain experience. This fear and panic is interpreted by the brain as danger. And if the brain feels under threat it is more likely to increase the ‘pain alert’ to warn you to do something about it.
So, the actual physical pain you have is only part of the problem. Thoughts and feelings can literally increase the pain you feel. This is supported by research which shows that catastrophising is a key contributory factor in chronic pain.
However, all is not lost! If thoughts have the power to increase pain, then of course it can work the other way around too. If we can learn to change our thoughts, this can help to reduce pain.
The first step in this process is to notice these panicky thoughts when they occur. Don’t get annoyed or try to stop thinking the thoughts, just notice:
“Oh, so this is what I am thinking.…. Ok.”
I repeat, don’t try to just stop thinking these thoughts. The more you try to stop doing something the harder it persists. If I tell you “Whatever you do, DO NOT think of pink elephants!” What do you think of?.... Exactly.
Next, you might find it helpful to write the negative thoughts down. For example:
“This is never going to stop”.
Getting it down on paper helps you firstly to realise what you are saying to yourself (often we aren’t aware of our internal monologue, yet it spins on a repetitive loop in our head). It also allows you to start picking this statement apart. Start to ask yourself questions about it. How do I know this is never going to stop? Do I have evidence? In fact, although my previous episode did hurt a lot it did stop after a while. Perhaps it’s not as bad this time.
What might be a better, more helpful phrase? Perhaps: “I can get better” or “This will change”?
This technique alone may not immediately stop your pain of course, but with practice it helps you to STOP and identify where your thoughts about pain may be spiralling out of control and unknowingly aggravating the pain.
This approach helps me stop flying off the handle with my kids but it can also help you to break the cycle of pain and fear and get back to doing more of the things you enjoy.