My test to find relief in the midst of a serious pain episode
The other day I wrote a blog called, The impact stress and emotions have on our health, where I discussed how stress and our emotional reaction to pain and other unwanted life events can positively or negatively affect our well-being. The day after I published it (January 31), I hurt my back and experienced severe pain unlike anything I have in a long time. The timing was interesting, as if it were testing me to see if I would follow my own advice and if my contention about pain and emotions, that I literally just wrote about, held any water. Here is what happened…
Last Thursday evening, my father and I went to the local university for a basketball game. He has season tickets and on occasion I will go with him. Although I wasn’t feeling that great (I have a neurological movement disorder called dystonia), I was in the mood to go and get away from things. Here is a picture of us before the game.
About 15 minutes after this picture was taken, I turned to my right to say something to my Dad. All of a sudden, I had searing pain shoot like a lightning bolt from the center of my spine radiating all over my back. It literally took my breath away. It has been years since I have had pain so intense and instantaneous in this part of my body.
I was blindsided, so my initial reaction was panic (I am used to dealing with chronic pain as a way of life, but this was quite different). Then I thought I might have just temporarily tweaked something and it would probably just go away (it felt like a Charlie horse in my spine). Unfortunately, this was not the case and fear took over because this was the exact spot in my body that began to contract/spasm when I first developed my most severe symptoms of dystonia almost 20 years ago.
Although it hurt like crazy, I was able to stand, so I got up and very gently tried to stretch a little. That did not help at all. It actually made it worse and taking a deep breath was extraordinarily painful. My heart began to race with fear and my breathing became very rapid and shallow; a true fight or flight response.
My Dad asked if I wanted to leave, but my concern was moving more and making it worse because we had quite a few stairs to go down and a long walk to the parking lot in cold weather. My body was in too much trauma. I needed to sit a bit longer to see if it would get a little better. I also needed to calm my worried mind the best I could for the walk to the car. I knew if I was in rushed panic mode, my muscles would contract more and make it worse.
So here I was in horrible pain with several thousand fans screaming and going crazy at what turned out to be a very close game which was won at the buzzer… by the opposing team, but exciting, nonetheless. Emotions were super high in the building. Talk about testing my ability to relax in a boisterous, highly stimulating environment in the wake of severe pain that came on in an instant!
In my mind I went over all of the things I knew were important to do in that moment, panic being the last thing! I looked straight ahead watching the game, very passively, and mindfully focused on my breath. I said calming affirmations and a few prayers, and I visualized my body at rest and peace.
If I resisted the pain, my body would have seized up more than it was, so I had to let go and find the rhythm of my breath. I basically went stoic; totally within the pain to find peace. This may sound counterintuitive because we typically want to run from pain, but this usually just makes the pain worse. I had to sit with it.
It helped about 10 to 15% in terms of pain reduction, but my mind calmed a lot more than that, which was the difference maker for me to get to the car when I felt ready to leave. My goal was to make it to the car without getting worse. That’s why I decided to stay versus run home, which was my initial reaction out of fear. I knew that panicking and running would make things worse, so I took things in small steps.
I mentally prepared myself for the walk to the car doing all the things mentioned above. I then had my Dad wait until I got comfortable in the car before he began driving so I could prepare myself for the movement of the vehicle. When I got home, I did a few things; ice, heat, massage, trigger point work, and gravity table, but mainly just laying down focusing on my breath. I also tried to get lost watching a peaceful nature show.
I didn’t sleep well and woke up the next morning with a lot of pain, but a little less than it was the night before. The next 2 days I did nothing but rest on ice and heat, lots of relaxation breathing, I loaded up on anti-inflammatory supplements, used my trusty OSKA machine (to check out this cool device for pain that I love, click here to learn more), and just laid on my back. Basically, I pretty much zoned out spending most of the time laying flat as a pancake.
Although most of this was very boring, I made it my priority to strictly focus on self-care so I would be functional as soon as possible. I took care of myself without guilt, something that is very hard for me and others to do, but absolutely essential!! I was eventually able to very carefully make it to my chiropractor for a back adjustment. At the time of writing this, about 72 hours later, I am back to normal. Well, my normal baseline of symptoms I have with dystonia. Not the screaming pain that I was in.
I find it really ironic that I experienced this the day after I wrote something about not reacting emotionally to pain and other difficult life experiences. To be honest, and I know a little (or a lot) crazy sounding, I was kind of grateful to have the opportunity to see just how much I would be able to follow my own advice in the midst of trauma to see what it would do to my pain and ensuing recovery. I was able to and it really helped. Having practiced all of the things I mentioned above for years (relaxation breathing, visualization, mindfulness, etc.) it better prepared me for this moment. Please see Chapter 12 (Mental well being) of my book where I discuss these mind calming tools in more detail.
Had I only practiced these things during times of stress and not made it part of my daily lifestyle, my body and mind would never learn to calm itself. This is something I stress (no pun intended) to my clients all the time. In order to be prepared when the worst happens and not make a situation worse, we have to practice mind calming activities when we are already calm so our mind/body are receptive to learning/relearning how to relax. We can’t learn these things if we only practice them on occasion and only when we are anxious and in distress, which many people do. It won’t help. Think of it in terms of sports. Athletes/teams practice thousands of hours for only a handful of games. Think of your “game” being these stressful and traumatic situations, and all the other time when you are not in as much distress as time to practice.
This experience affirmed what I said in my last blog, and I hope that those who read it and are reading this right now, really take to heart just how much our emotional reaction to pain and any adverse condition we experience in life can either help or hurt us, and just how powerful it is to go within and not resist the pain. This is vital because anytime we have an emotional response to any stimuli, it increases adrenaline and cortisol and other stress hormones in the body, causing muscle tension, pain, shallow breathing, change in circulation, among many other things.
When we add fear and stress to fear and stress, it is a recipe for disaster, meaning it can hurt us more than we already are. This was exactly what I did not do, which I know prevented the situation from being much worse that it could have been.
Whenever you are in pain, especially above and beyond what is normal, please be mindful of how you respond to it. It will always determine how much worse it may get and how quickly or slowly you may recover from that particular event. I can’t emphasize this enough. Lastly, whether or not you have a chronic health condition, please don’t ever take your health for granted. It can disappear in an instant.
Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015) and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021). He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network, The Mighty, Patient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.