I wrote this up for a friend recently. And as some of you who follow me know, I’m writing a book about my experiences through cancer, and the science behind the mentality which kept me going. But I realised recently that I hadn’t written up what I wished I did have when I was suffering most from chronic pain… A step-by-step guide which showed HOW you could beat this back.
The thing is – when you have something like chronic pain… everyone around you has suggestions. Eeryone suddenly becomes an expert. When you’re already so drained, physically and emotionally, from the condition itself – being told about miracle cures and being sold things that ‘WILL CURE IT ALL’ is not only heartbreaking, when you find measure after measure fails, but also depressing, in and of itself.
So I’m telling you straight up – this isn’t a miracle cure. I still have issues dealing with the sleep and fatigue I get from this chronic pain/cramping/fibromyalgic-like condition that I have. I still do get frustrated by how it limits me, at time (though I can ignore the fatigue as well, I know it’s healthy to respond to REAL signs it needs rest). With this system, I still feel pain. But my suffering because of it has decreased significantly. It wasn’t even hard to do this. It didn’t require an ounce or bravery, courage or willpower. It did take time. But today, I can, and do ignore pain as it comes on, automatically. Without willpower, or effort, or, as I talked about above, an ounce of bravery or courage. I hope it helps you do the same too.
It took a few weeks to get there. But the key to this is that I had this long term goal in mind – of getting to a point where my mind would automatically ignore the pain when it came on.
I knew I could do this because I was on duloxetine – an antidepressant – for a while 2 years ago, and that helped me, despite it not actually stopping the cramps which initiated my pain. While I was on it… the pain still happened, but it didn’t affect me as much. This powerful evidence of this working – of me being able to ignore pain – in the past, really helped get through my head that I could indeed accomplish this. That I COULD ignore chronic pain, which really helped me stay on track.
But it was also reading about the science of chronic pain that solidified this belief and gave it backing. I looked at how greater connections between attentional centres and emotional ones, amongst others sensitizes us to, and enhances the impact of pain via neuroplasticity. I also read about neuroplasticity in general (the science of habit formation in particular), and the effects of positive reinforcement on strengthening mesolimbic (aka reward) pathways – which has numerous effects that makes a thought process or behaviour addictive, and hence, easier to maintain – from our amygdala (emotional centre), to the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for planning and attention) to our hippocampus (a vital part of memory) –
By learning everything I could about these things, and combining my findings, I figured out how I could hack this process, via positive reinforcement, to make the journey to get to a stage where neuroplasticity would change my reaction to pain, easier. Below, I go into this process, step by step, in a manner that could help you out too!
I’ll be talking more about this, and referencing hundreds of articles which helped me ‘hack my brain’ in my book – do sign up to my email list and I’ll keep you updated on its progress! But, these steps I keep talking about are not only simple and replicable, but makes this process easy too!
1) Take a step back and look at the pain I was facing – when it was worst, when it was best etc. and wrote that down.
2) I saw that I could, and did ignore pain when I was feeling happy, when I was on that antidepressant (it didn’t reduce the cramps themselves, but did help me ignore them). When I was able to attach less importance to a burst. I then latched on to that.
3) I knew that I could ignore it, and could focus on stuff that made me happy – and make that an automatic response, in a matter of weeks, as neuroplasticity could rewire my responses to pain.
Almost mantra like, nstead of focusing on the pain once it occurred, I told myself “This is an aberrant, faulty signal that I shouldn’t be attaching significance to,” that “it would be over in seconds – minutes” that “getting annoyed by it, fretting over it happening again was only gonna make it worse” and told myself that “focusing on something else was more constructive – why not do that instead?”
4) I rewarded myself every time I ignored the pain. And I allowed myself to be human – acknowledge there would be times I’d fail along the way – but that in the long run, I would get there.
After a week, as I got better at this, I even started looking forward to cramps coming on as an opportunity to show myself I could do it. I’d addicted myself to getting better at doing this. It became easier to do.
After a month, my reward pathways kicked in and I didn’t have to keep rewarding myself – exponentially growing hits of dopamine surged through me as I got closer to my long term goal (another observed phenomenon that my research assured me would kick in).
In 5-6 weeks, I didn’t have to tell myself any of this at all. I was automatically ignoring chronic pain when it struck. IT DIDN’T EVEN TAKE WILLPOWER – or me reminding myself of those ‘mantras’-cum-realisations I did in step 1 and 2. Neuroplasticity made this a habit. One I maintain to this day.
Maybe this could help some of you guys out too.
It isn’t perfect. When I cramp these days, I do still cry out and it does still stop me from doing things as it physically takes a lot more effort to do things when you do have issues like what I have.
But I have been able to ignore the pain more often than not.
My psychologist told me “you have to accept the pain”. But doing that was REALLY HARD – accepting that and saying “I may suffer like this all the time…” was impossible for me to just jump straight into. CBT and all that, I mean it could have helped, maybe… but again, that was hard to maintain.
It was the preparation of this mindset – the manipulation of my reward pathways and neuroplasticity – and the knowledge it could – that helped me stay on track. The acknowledgement that it’d take time, and knowing I’d fail and feel crappy some days – but that in the long run, I’d get there – prepared me. When failure did come, when I felt pain overcome me (I knew I inevitably would in my journey), I’d grit my teeth and bear it, but found myself focusing on the long run, and taking solace in that I would get there, instead of trying to be this ‘brave, strong dude who had to ignore everything’ which I could not. That helped me persist with this and get to this stage I’m at now, where I do ignore the pain, as an automatic response, when it comes on.
I think it could possibly help some of you. I wrote this out for a friend, and realised I didn’t have a ‘lay-over’, something to help people as I kept working on that full sized book (don’t worry, it’s only going to be 30-40 pages). So I thought I’d share this with you guys too. Again – sign up to my email list (I only email people once a month or so, don’t worry), and you’ll know when that books’s finally out. I’m gonna try and make it free too!
I know how much is sucked being told “It’s all in your head” when I was really in the dumps because of all this, that’s why I don’t wanna kid you and let you know that it’s not perfect. You can ignore fatigue as well, I’ve found, but my recent health run-ins made me realise that ignoring legitimate signs your body is suffering (something pain is not) is not exactly healthy.
But I hope my getting there can help some of you. Feel free to hit me up if you wanna talk it through – info at nikhilautar.com will ensure you reach me. I’m also decently active on my Facebook page and have a startup – Get To Sleep Easy – I run (we won Australian Student Startup of the Year actually! Check out our GoFundme.) which I’m always working on.
But ultimately – the thing that helped me most was the realisation that this life can be very long. Why make my suffering worse by lingering on it? Why let it take anything more than me than it should? That’s what really got me thinking about this.
Let me know your thoughts – good or bad (Please… ROAST ME if you hate this post. I wanna make sure what I’m saying helps the most people possible. I won’t mind at all if you completely hate this).
More about my pain condition –
So I’m an ex leukaemia patient, current graft versus host disease sufferer and get chronic cramps. This is sort of common post transplant, but doctors aren’t too sure about what it is, how it happens, and have no clue about treating it in general. You can read more about my journey here.
I’ve got motor and some sensory neuropathy, and there’s definitely fibromyalgic elements to it too – it was looking at fibromyalgia that got me to ask my doc about duloxetine, actually. Something that had changed my life for the better for a long time. If your suffering is because of something similar, and have found something that helps… let me know!