Recovering from Chronic Pain by Maggie Phillips, Ph.D.
Many ritual abuse survivors also have chronic pain conditions. These vary from systemic pain that tends to move through the body, like fibromyalgia, neuropathy, arthritis, and RSD (reflex simplex dystrophy) to pain specific to particular parts of the body such as migraine headaches, back and neck pain, and carpel tunnel.
Both types of pain tend to be related to trauma. Sometimes the pain is related to obvious physical trauma, such as a series of car accidents, work injuries, post-surgical responses, or childhood physical, sexual, or ritualized abuse itself. Other types of pain conditions may be related to emotional trauma such as a sudden loss or a series of losses, neglect or abuse in childhood, neglect or abuse by medical professionals or therapists, or battering or abusive intimate relationships.
During my twenty-five years of working with pain, I have learned several important lessons about recovery:
- Pain diagnosis does not influence treatment as much as you might think. Most of the effective tools used to regulate pain, such as imagery and hypnosis, medication, acupuncture and energy therapies, are similar across the pain spectrum.
- It’s virtually impossible to resolve persistent or chronic pain without being connected to your body. Body awareness and presence is one of the most important tools for shifting pain. If you are connected to the felt sense of your experience, you will have a much better chance of finding permanent relief. There are many tools for helping you learn to make this type of connection with the body, including Somatic Experiencing,ä Sensorimotor Psychotherapy,ä Focusing,ä and Hakomiä work.
- An important part of involving your body in resolving your pain is attending to its survival response. As with animals in the wild, our survival responses are stored in the brain and nervous system. What we learn from each threat becomes our blueprint for future self-protection and defense. Unlike animals, however, our body reactions for survival are often interrupted. Instead of being helped to honor our natural somatic reactions and complete them, however, we are often told directly or indirectly to “get over it.” Successful treatment of pain that has become chronic after its source has been resolved requires attention to these aborted survival responses in the body.
- For each person there is a tool or combination of tools that will bring him/her to the “tipping point” of shifting away from traumatizing pain to reverse the pain cycle. What is required is a collaborative partnership with a professional who specializes in pain and the ability to experiment until this solution is found. Exploration must involve ways of helping the mind and body to work as partners, instead of against each other, to solve the puzzle of a given individual’s pain.
In addition to finding the right professional or team of professionals to work with, it is important for you to have ways of tracking your pain. Keep a pain notebook to write down questions, discoveries, and stuck places so that you are organized in approaching this ongoing challenge. Graph your pain several times a day to include intensity (0 none-10 maximum distress), activity level, emotional pain intensity, and how you respond. Become a vigorous advocate for yourself as well as a disciplined scientist to determine what can shift your pain even a half point at first.
Remember that YOU are the final authority on what works or doesn’t work for you. Discarding approaches (and people) that are not delivering what you need is important so that you can develop and refine what does make a difference. In order to make these kinds of discernment, however, you need to learn to ask for, and make sure that you receive, professional help that produces the desired changes, or at least moves toward them, especially pain relief that lasts, starting with tiny, subtle changes and working toward larger, measurable ones.
Above all, don’t give up hope! Find daily sources of inspiration and nurturing, whether they come from other people or from pets, nature, exercise, meditation practice, reading, prayer, or the arts. The only way to avoid drowning in a sea of pain is to find anything that offers solid support for you.
The great paradox of pain is that when we try to prevent ourselves from feeling the painful part of our truth, we also fail to find the truth of pleasure. Learning to be with pain is all about learning to be fully with all of ourselves, with the aspects of ourselves that are wounded as well as with the warrior that prevails. May your journey to recovery from emotional and physical pain help you learn the wisdom of being with, the true path to wholeness and aliveness.