How to Build Resilience Against Chronic Pain
While it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that health problems, with chronic pain as a prime example, can offer positive, life-enhancing opportunities, this does seem to be the case for some individuals, and it may be possible to draw lessons from such examples. A group of helpful positive characteristics have been identified as invaluable in facing up to painful and threatening conditions – together these are described as the “hardiness factor” (or “resilience factor”). Hardiness in this sense comprises the presence of three main attributes, summarised as challenge, control and commitment. These features have been studied in many pain-related settings – for example in people with fibromyalgia as well as in painful AIDS-related diseases.
Stress and the problems of life, including chronic pain, may be viewed as challenges that can be overcome if they are properly understood. People who see stress or chronic pain in this light are likely to be motivated to address causes in positive ways that give a sense of purpose and meaning to life. Contrast this approach with one in which stress and chronic pain are viewed as overwhelming forces that crush, rather than motivate. Research has suggested that by making a conscious effort to view life more optimistically, your expectations and behaviour will change accordingly, resulting in more positive outcomes than you had previously imagined possible.
This attribute is defined as the extent to which an individual feels a sense of autonomy and an ability to influence (if not fully control) life for the better, as it unfolds. A person with control feels that even when true mastery of a challenge is not possible, whatever possibilities do exist can and should be explored. Many people who experience pain (and even those who don’t) have feelings of powerlessness, of being at the mercy of fate. When you begin to exercise control over aspects of your pain, you take the first step toward empowerment, even if the control you exercise over your pain is only temporary and partial. An example might be something as simple as booking an acupuncture session or taking up yoga.
People who have hardiness characteristics feel that their life has purpose (whatever shape that may take), and this purpose motivates them to try actively to shape their surroundings and to persevere even when their attempts to influence life don’t appear to be working out. In contrast a person who has no motivation, and no commitment, will be less likely to lead a resilient, committed life in which they find meaning in their activities even though faced with significant adversity such as pain. Chronic pain can make it all too easy to withdraw from other people, to avoid social contact, to become isolated. But to a large extent this is a choice we make for ourselves, and as with all choices there are other possible options.
The media frequently portrays individuals who have suffered enormously, yet have overcome the vicissitudes of their lives to become beacons of hope and examples to us all. These are people who, despite being crippled by injury or born with major disabilities, have set aside their scars and pain and made a positive contribution. Some of these people may have inborn personality traits that help them achieve this degree of commitment, but they are also choosing to exercise these traits and are refusing to be beaten by circumstances. Research shows that commitment is greatly helped by a strong social support system, whether this involves friends, family, a partner or professional advisers. Even if you feel that you are alone, there are always people to whom you can turn. Choosing to ignore those who can offer support can add to feelings of isolation.
There are a number of ways in which you can engage with other people. Try speaking to someone frankly, uncomplainingly, about your pain, so that they (and you) come to a clearer understanding of your problems. Or you could join a self-help group, where people in a similar situation support each other and discuss shared issues. Another option might be to identify someone in need and to do what you can to help them. In this way you will not only benefit someone else, but also force yourself to look beyond your own suffering.