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Many of my clients–and people in general–treat their chronic illnesses like they are acute ones. Because of their inability to distinguish and differently treat the two types of pain/illness, they suffer severe consequences in terms of increased depression, feelings of uselessness, and hopelessness.
Acute illnesses appeal to our desire to be “normal”, to have problems “go away”, to “fix” things. Chronic illnesses/pain are not “normal”, cannot be “fixed”, and, frequently, do not “go away”. They fly in the face of the manageable way we like to look at things. They feel unmanageable, unfair, out of control, threatening to our sense of stability. So we use “tried and true” methods that work with acute physical complaints, hoping they’ll go away quickly, feeling frustrated and powerless when they don’t!
I asked a chronic Fibromyalgia patient recently how her weekend was, and she stated that she had gone to bed and remained on fluids only for the weekend due to her increased pain. She did not have an acute bout of anything, she has ongoing joint soreness and stiffness, a chronic condition.
Research has repeatedly indicated that Fibromyalgia responds best to mild exercise and pacing with periods of activity followed by periods of rest, physical therapy, acupuncture or pressure, and cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. Fluids and bed rest are prescribed for colds and flus!
Why then this tendency to take to the familiar “sickbed” rather than to consistently provide mild exercise, regulation, and the like? Because the expectation of complete rest is rehabilitation and a return to normal functioning quickly, as one might in acute situation. Also, the “one shot deal cure” is an expectation of bed rest, although Fibromyalgia and several other illnesses do not conform to this treatment protocol. It is not knowing how to manage a chronic illness that leads us to do only what we know.
Those who suffer and learn to cope with chronic illnesses learn that consistency, pacing, strengthening, relaxing and nourishing provide a greater recovery than retreating to bed. They learn to ride the highs and lows of energy, resilience and mood with grace and equanimity.
They also learn that a range of pain reduction, illness management techniques is more effective than the a single approach. Specifically, no two people respond to illnesses exactly the same, and one person’s relief is ineffectual for another. So, one must sample an array of coping techniques and select what one finds most effective. I have clients that love hypnosis, but get nothing from biofeedback. I have tried and true EMDR followers, and cognitive behavioral treatment fans.
For example, I am an almost daily exerciser, and find incredible relief and wellness from aerobics and weightlifting, despite the fact that I am recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Degenerative Disc Disorder. A close friend and fellow therapist who suffers from Fibromyalgia becomes quite ill after heavy exercise. But they’re two valid points of view. We who have chronic pain and/or illness must find what works for our body–and learn to be patient, loving and realistic! Learn to distinguish when you have the flu from fibromyalgia, when to get bed rest and soup, and when tea and a walk would be better. Since this will be an unfolding path for many, I will be interested in your stories!
Every chronic pain/illness patient has that “wake up” day when they realize that what they are dealing with has a course of its own that is not running out any time soon, that they are not having a “bout”, but rather a “flare up” in an ongoing and long lasting pattern. From then on, it becomes about managing the symptoms rather than eradicating them. The degree to which one accepts this is intimately tied to how soon one learns to cope with the disease. Then, after accepting this reality, it is possible to become open to its management.
The real answer to feeling frustrated and powerless is to feel in charge of the management of the illness/pain problem, to feel knowledgeable, resourceful, and capable with respect to managing the issue. Even though it may not go away, it may be very manageable with these attitudes and feelings!