This post is about how we can use the power of acceptance to manage psychosomatic pain. By coming to terms with your life stressors and discomfort, you’ll be better able to overcome adversity and manage your pain.
Psychosomatic pain is real physical pain that stems from, or is exacerbated by emotional or psychological stresses. It is no surprise then that psychosomatic pain, adversity, and life stressors go hand in hand. Some stress can actually be good for you–forcing you to pay attention and motivating you to take action. But ongoing stress harms your mental and physical health–leading to problems ranging from headaches to high blood pressure and all types of psychosomatic pain.
The way you deal with adversity and life stressors–and in particular how you reduce your negative emotions–can therefore greatly impact the amount of psychosomatic pain you experience.
Specifically, we will look at how to overcome adversity, and reduce your physical pain by
- Learning to accept (and even find the silver lining in) negative life events and stressors, and
- Continuing regular physical and social activities, even if you worry they will be painful
As always, this post is based on over 30 papers on stress, coping strategies, emotion-focussed therapy, and chronic pain, pulled from Psychology and Medicine.
1. Learning to accept negative life events and stressors and overcome adversity
For a more in depth explanation on reappraisal and emotions, take a look at our blog post on emotional regulation. But for now to quickly recap, “cognitive reappraisal” is a strategy that tries to diffuse negative emotions by changing the meaning of an event. The goal is to prevent the negative emotion from forming by actively changing the meaning of what has happened or what will happen because of the event.
Research has shown us that people who predominantly use reappraisal as an emotion regulation strategy, on average, have fewer depressive symptoms, and greater self-esteem and life satisfaction, compared to people who predominantly try to suppress their negative emotions.
It may be difficult to do at first, but the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Here is how it works. Next time you want to overcome adversity, you:
- Accept what has happened, and how it made you feel
- Look at what positive opportunities the event may bring forward
- Inverse the negative effects, by transforming the negative events into positive opportunities
- Focus on realizing these positive opportunities
Accept what happened and how it made you feel. It’s ok to be angry, frustrated, sad, anxious,….
As much as we often wish it weren’t, time is linear, and no amount of fretting or brooding will change that. While we may regret the way we have acted in the past (or the way others have acted towards us), we have to accept that there is no way to change what has been said or done.
Where we do have power over, however, is in the way that we deal with this adversity.
So how do we effectively overcome adversity?
First and foremost, if we want to overcome adversity, we need to be able to accept what has happened, and more importantly, accept the way we feel about it. So what does this mean? Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you were supposed to come over to your parents for thanksgiving, but due to an important deadline at work, you skipped out on thanksgiving, much to the dismay of your parents. You have a fight with your parents.
Immediately you feel angry at them for not understanding why your work was so important. In this circumstance, the anger you feel is the primary emotion.
But maybe you feel you are wrong to be angry at your parents, which makes you angry or sad at your own behavior. Being angry about being angry, or sad about being sad, are called secondary emotions. They prolong your negative feelings by attaching additional negative emotions to an event that can not be changed.
In order to prevent getting stuck in these negative emotions, the first step is to accept and acknowledge what has happened, and allow yourself to feel these primary emotions.
So how do we approach accepting and acknowledging our primary emotions?
- Accept the fact that what is done is done. You cannot change the outcome of something that has already happened. Realize that no amount of fretting will change this, and if we want to overcome this adversity, we first need to come to terms with the event.
- Delve deeper in what caused your response. Accept that there are always two sides to the story. Both you and your parents had a reason to be angry. What were these reasons? Can you understand why your parents got angry? Can you put to words why you got angry? Don’t diminish the feeling that caused you to act the way you did, but remain open to the viewpoint of others. A good tool that may help in this process is to write down, or journal, these feelings and insights.
- Address the discrepancy. Knowing both sides of the story, map out the points you agree on, and the points you disagree on. Reflect on what has happened with this new insight in mind. When you feel that it is possible, it may be helpful to address these discrepancies with the other party, and explain each other’s point of view.
Once you have accepted and acknowledged your primary emotions, you can focus on what you can do in the future to prevent these events from happening.
Look at what positive opportunities the event may bring forward
Deriving from the fact that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and for every door closed another door opens, our next job is to find the upsides to the negative event. This may not always be easy. We may need to incorporate some creative thinking, or even some counterfactual thinking. The goal is to overcome adversity by trying to flood the negative event with positivity.
Again, it is important to note that this is in no way meant to make light, or diminish your negative experience. Rather, these steps are meant as a first step to help you come to terms with the event, and overcome the negative event, so it can help mitigate the damage caused by the negative emotions that are formed by the event.
So let’s start small. Say you had to give an important presentation, but, due to your nerves, you completely messed it up. Your first thoughts may be that all your chances for a promotion are completely out of the window. Your boss will never trust you with big tasks again, and due to your failure you may have lost a potential client. Give yourself a couple of minutes and you may have catastrophized your way into thinking that your boss will come in any second to tell you that you are fired.
Look for positive opportunities. Now let’s take a look at this situation from another perspective. Indeed, the situation is bad, but what opportunities can it bring forth? Maybe it gives you the opportunity to:
- Show your boss that you are resilient, and can deal with failure.
- Ask your boss for pointers on how to improve, showing your dedication to your job.
- Enhance your future accomplishments, by shattering your boss’ currently lowered expectations
Moreover, maybe it shows you that:
- You are not as good at presenting as you thought, and that this will give you the motivation to improve, or
- You definitely do not like presenting, and that you should focus your time on aspects of your job you do enjoy.
“Reappraisal”– it may be good for the long-run. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you actually get fired because of your disaster of a presentation. In contrast to a botched up presentation, the negative effects are much more palpable, and will immediately influence your life. So from where do we start here?
First and foremost, acknowledge what has happened, and why it has happened. Here, why have you been fired? There are a few possibilities.
You may have been fired even though you were actually overall good at your job. If so, being fired gives you the opportunity to find an employer who values you for your skills, better fits with your interests, or pursues a similar ideologic goal. Moreover, knowing where your weakness lies, allows you to invest some time to improve, and aim higher for a better position.
You may have been fired because you really were not able to do good work at your job. If so, being fired releases you from a job that was not right for you, but one you never dared to quit because of fear of unemployment. Being fired gives you the opportunity to pursue a career that you will excel at, and will enjoy.
Regardless of why you were fired, it’s likely you have been experiencing a lot of stress for not being able to live up to your boss’ expectations. Being laid off does not only mean that you lost your job, it also means that you lost all the stress that was tied to your job.
It is important to remember that failure is not a bad thing. We all fail, but the important thing is that we learn from our failures and use them to grow. Again, growing does not always mean to have the best paying job, or the most responsibility. Growing can also mean taking down a step and improving your quality of life.
Research actually shows us that experiencing low to moderate adversity can help us develop greater resilience in facing future difficulties, be it major life events or just mundane problems. Experiencing adversity is therefore associated with better mental health and well-being and less distress and disruption in the face of pain in the future, even more so when we successfully overcome this adversity.
So what have we done here? Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the event, we overcome adversity by actively transforming the negative threats into positive opportunities, by reappraising the situation.
Part 2: Applying this to the pain you already have
But what if we are already feeling psychosomatic pain? And what if your back ache, stomach cramps, or fatigue is itself causing you stress or negative emotions? Next we’ll turn to how we can use this mindset when it comes to the experience of pain.
2. Continue regular physical and social activities.
We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.
What do we mean by this? Well, a few things happen when we worry about having pain in the future. According to the fear avoidance model, we first will try to tailor the things we will do to the off chance that we may experience an episode of pain. Second we will try to accommodate for this future pain by taking (often ineffective) precautions or measures to control said pain.
Unfortunately this is an ineffective way to overcome our pain, because it focuses our lives around our pain at the expense of our overall well-being. Fear of pain usually translates into avoiding certain activities. And it causes us to be constantly vigilant of any and all supposed signals of pain, at the expense of all other information.
You might think that avoiding activities and paying attention to your pain makes sense in the short-term, but this kind of behavior will only cause more pain in the long-term. This is because a sedentary lifestyle harms your physical health and can lead to social isolation. Thus, unless your physician orders rest, try to stay physically and socially active.
Stay physically active. When you’re in pain it’s normal to want to rest. But avoiding activities that may cause pain will leave you less inclined to do daily activities and be physically active.
And a sedentary lifestyle only exacerbates physical ailments. A lack of physical activity may lead to an overall physical deconditioning, such as lowered muscle strength, decreased flexibility, and decreases in cardiovascular and pulmonary activity. This can eventually lead to disuse syndrome, which may lower your overall threshold at which you experience pain.
To stay active, consider:
- Starting small. Maybe start with a small walk around the block, or through the park.
- Ditching the car to go on errands by foot or bike. If you must drive, consider parking farther away than normal.
- Getting a dog, or another pet. Not only do pets drive you to be more active, they may also provide companionship in times of need and support as you overcome your pain.
Accepting you may have a small amount of pain but it will likely improve over time. Moreover, constantly being vigilant for signals of pain causes stress and anxiety, which in and of itself is a fuel for further experience of pain.
Stay socially active. Second, psychosomatic pain may lead you to avoid social activities, because you don’t feel well or fear they will exacerbate your pain. But withdrawing from your regular daily activities often leads to isolating yourself, which leads to a reduction of positive experiences and can gradually lead to social isolation. All of which can lead to stress or depression, and will increase your physical pain experiences. So to stay socially active and overcome pain, consider:
- Volunteer work or other activities that focus your attention externally, so you are less vigilant about your pain
- Group activities like a book club, game night, or just coffee with friends
Recap on how to overcome adversity through the power of acceptance
The way we deal with negative life events can greatly influence the amount of psychosomatic pain we experience. Being able to accept and overcome adversity may help us mitigate its influence on our psychosomatic pain.
Just like any skill, learning to overcome adversity will take some practice. Start following these three steps:
- Accepting the fact that what is done is done.
- Delving deeper in what caused your response.
- Addressing discrepancy
Once you have accepted and acknowledged what has happened, it is time to find positive opportunities that may benefit us in the long. If we want to overcome adversity, it is important to remember that failure is not a bad thing, and that it is an important thing we learn from our failures and use them to grow. We can do this by reappraising negative threats into positive opportunities.
Acceptance also helps us when we are already experiencing psychosomatic pain. Accepting psychosomatic pain means less worry about future pain, which reduces stress and hypervigilance.
To overcome adversity and reduce your psychosomatic pain, also be sure to
- Stay physically active and
- Stay socially active.
Even though you may experience some pain, staying active will help combat physical deconditioning and prevent social isolation. In the long run this will help you reduce your psychosomatic pain.
For a more in-depth look at the relation between negative life stressors and psychosomatic pain, please have a look at our previous post in the psychosomatic pain series.