Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Ability to Cope

How do you cope when your coping feels like it is gone? Sometimes all the pain, fatigue, stress, and everyday life challenges can feel like they pile up so high that one more thing is just too much. It’s like the figurative “straw that broke the camel’s back”. When we spend our lives close to that breaking point, it can leave us feeling easily annoyed, irritable, and frustrated with ourselves and others. It can feel like living in a really annoying itchy sweater, where every stimulus or stress becomes magnified, and so do our reactions. Sometimes our reactions add to the feeling of being broken, as we know that they are not in proportion to the problem and are different from how we would typically react to things.

All people go through this sometimes, with chronic pain or not. Tami Brady, a woman who has chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, commented that "People are people. Some look like they have it all figured out. Trust me, they don’t. They are just good actors" (Brady, 2008). When chronic pain enters the picture and demands to be part of your life, there are bound to be times when you feel like you’ve been pushed past what you can take. This feeling could be brought on by too many stresses, not enough sleep, or a bad pain day.

These overwhelming symptoms can make it hard to deal with the other challenges life inevitably brings. One of the terms related to this concept is “frustration tolerance”, which is the ability to handle or deal with problems without getting upset (McCallister, 2013). It’s not surprising that when people develop chronic pain, their frustration tolerance changes. Their daily life stresses now include pain and the impact of pain. Other things that would not have been a problem before can suddenly become much more troubling.

When we asked our readers to send us their definition of pain, one response was "Pain hurts and affects everything. If I don't react how you think I should, please blame the pain, not me, or you."

"Please blame the pain, not me, or you." Such a short phrase but so very important. If you feel like you aren’t coping the way you should, like you’re too grumpy or irritable (or your loved one is), know that you are not just a grumpy, mean, short-tempered person. And like everything with pain, understanding helps. Understanding that pain affects our frustration tolerance and lessens our ability to deal with everyday stressors allows us to learn strategies to deal with it. After all, recognition is 50% of the solution, right? 

What comes next is realizing that even though life/stress/pain/fatigue has you down at this moment, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You can feel this moment, and then move on from it. You can gather your resources and strength and get through this. There’s a song by Katherine Nelson that says “I was born to stand tall, I was born to face the wind, I was born to feel heart break and to heal again”. Even when it feels like we’re completely spent, and all our inner strength is gone, it’s still in there somewhere. 

The key is learning how to access it. Those moments when life really has us down can be the hardest moments to remember how to find our strength. That’s why we love the idea Bronnie Thompson (2008) shared about “cue cards for coping.The idea is that you identify the unique set of strategies that works best for you, and write them down on a card small enough to carry around with you. That way, when you need the strategies most, you will have a simple reminder to help you get through the worst times. 

Sometimes it helps to have advice and reassurance for yourself in your own words. When it feels like no one truly understands how you feel, you might find your own words the most comforting. I (Ashley) had a difficult first pregnancy. After the baby was born, I knew I wanted to have another one, but I was afraid of what it would be like to be pregnant again. Over several months, I shared thoughts and strategies with my husband that I wanted him to remind me of if the next pregnancy was also difficult. Eventually he said “Why don’t you write all these thoughts down for yourself to read? You’ll believe your own words a lot better than you’ll believe me anyway”. There was some truth to what he said. I took his advice, and wrote myself a letter. Later on, when I did become pregnant for the second time, I read and re-read that letter whenever the challenges felt like too much to face. 

So our suggestion is to take some time when you’re feeling okay, and think about what helps you cope. Write yourself a letter to explain it, or make some point form reminders on a card you can carry with you. Your set of strategies will be unique to you, but they might include things like deep breathing, relaxation exercises, music, calling a friend, heat or ice (ask your health care provider for advice on which one to try when), distraction in the form of a favourite movie, book, or video game, a you tube video that makes you giggle, massage, yoga, or any number of strategies to reduce the pain or improve your energy. Your health care provider can help you explore specific tools, but ultimately you know yourself best, and only you will know what combination of techniques works most effectively for you.


Rope image courtesy of scottchan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


McCallister, M.J. (2013). Institute for Chronic Pain: Understanding Chronic Pain. Retrieved from http://www.instituteforchronicpain.org/understanding-chronic-pain/complications/depression on November 2, 2015

Thompson, B. (2008). HealthSkills: Cue Cards for Coping. Retrieved from https://healthskills.wordpress.com/2008/10/15/cue-cards-for-coping/ on November 2, 2015

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