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  • Change Your Mind About Stress (Yes, You Can!)

    change is good

    A New Way to Think About Stress

    I’m most of the way through taking a 10 week class on preventing chronic pain, and so far it’s fabulous! I’m learning a lot about chronic pain: what causes it, what sustains it, what makes it better, what makes it worse. But I’m also learning a lot about stress. I have to admit, that surprised me.

    There are a number of different instructors for this class, all doctors of one sort or another and experts in their respective fields, discussing the various aspects of chronic pain in a variety of illnesses and conditions. You’d think that there’d be condition-specific lists for what makes it better or worse, but there’s not. Not really. While there’s some variability based on condition, there’s more overlap amongst the lists than there is variance.

    You want to know the 2 things that get discussed in almost every lecture? Stress, and our thoughts about stress.

    The Link Between Stress and Pain

    You probably know that stress begets stress, right? The more stressed you are, the less it takes to provoke you into being even more stressed. But did you know that stress also correlates to higher pain levels? It doesn’t matter if the pain is acute (from an injury) or chronic (like fibromyalgia), high stress makes the pain more intense and makes it last longer.

    Turns out, there’s a lot of overlap between the chemicals released when you’re stressed and the chemicals released when you’re in pain. There’s also a lot of overlap in the areas of the brain involved in dealing with both stress and pain.

    While you can’t change the fact that you have stress and/or pain, you can change how you react to them. That doesn’t mean you won’t have unbidden thoughts like “Not again!” or “Why me?” or even “this is the worst thing ever.” It does mean, however, that you can take those thoughts and reframe them to be less catastrophic or pessimistic and more “realistically optimistic.”

    Be a Realistic Optimist

    A realistic optimist takes the view that “this is how it is right now, but it doesn’t have to stay like this.” They know, however, that it doesn’t necessarily mean things will go back to how they were, either.

    I love the idea of a realistic optimist. We know that full out optimism often involves a pair of rose colored glasses, and that many folks who call themselves realists are really pessimists in disguise. Realistic optimism seems like the perfect way to ditch the rose colored glasses while still being hopeful and acknowledging that your situation might leave a lot to be desired, or that it just outright sucks. It allows you an opportunity to do something about your stress or pain.

    I wish I could give you a step by step guide to changing your outlook on stress and pain, but I can’t. You bring your own beliefs, values, and biases to the process. You also bring your own unique set of life experiences which act as a filter for everything that happens to you. The truth is there are as many unique and nuanced ways to do it as there are people in the world.

    What I can do is give you a jumping off point for starting the process:

    • Acknowledge that your situation isn’t what you want it to be
    • Acknowledge that there’s room and possibility for improvement, even if it’s only in your outlook about the situation
    • Know that changing your outlook or expectations creates very real stress relief (I can tell you from personal experience that it’s an invaluable tool for situations that are out of your control)
    • Create a list of changes that you’d like to see. Start with an end goal and create smaller more attainable ones to use as stepping stones to get there.
    • Notice when you’re catastrophizing or being pessimistic and reframe your thoughts to something more realistically optimistic
    • Talk to others who’ve gone through what you’re going through and ask them for the stress or pain reduction strategies they used. They won’t all work for you, maybe none of them will work, but it’s somewhere to start.
    • If you’re under the care of a healthcare professional, follow their suggestions. Again, not all of them will work for you, but give them enough time to have a chance to work.
    • Ask for new suggestions if what you’re currently trying isn’t working
    • Change healthcare providers if yours isn’t giving you appropriate support
    • When you can’t change your situation, change your mind (I suggest Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is, and don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements to help you do that.)
    • Don’t give up

    If you’re having trouble changing your mind about stress, consider seeing a counselor, life coach, or stress mentor for some one-on-one help.

    What do you think about the concept of a realistic optimist? Let me know in the comments below. And don’t forget to share.