When Change Makes Pain

November was tough.

Lots of reasons for that. One, for me, concerned recovery from a really, really busy October. My mom and I (I’m her caregiver) had a whole slew of medical appointments. Another was my long-awaited appointment with a pain management specialist at the very end of the month. This one had me on tenterhooks. Waiting, worrying about it (yes, even as a die-hard optimist, I worry sometimes), wondering how I’d manage if things went south, and, of course, enduring daily, untreated RD pain—all of it was stressful.

Fortunately, the appointment went well. My pain from rheumatoid disease is once again mostly under control most of the time, and I continue to practice alternate pain management techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, as well.

I also traveled from the West coast to the East coast and back in October. The RD-advocacy-blogger event I attended was terrific, I was able to see a lot of old friends and make several new ones, and I left with a lot of new insights and ideas. But traveling itself is stressful and, when you’re in pain, it’s simply exhausting. In addition, while I was away, I left Mom’s care to my sister, who traveled herself to stay with her. It's hard to let go when you’re a caregiver. That's just more stress.

Finally, in early November, the U.S. held a presidential election. For many Americans and others around the world, the election’s result was a fundamental, foundation-rattling shock to the system. My personal stress levels—on any subject from health care to civil rights to how our country will get along in the world in the future—blew right off the charts.

The result? Physical tension. Mental turmoil. Lost sleep. And increased pain.

While stress isn’t the direct cause of RD pain, it sure doesn’t help any. So, what can we do about it, other than find a bottle of good scotch and a paper cup? (Just kidding! Don’t do that! Drinking is bad for you! Please read on, instead.)

Well, one, we can take a deep, deep breath and take a giant step back from the abyss. It’s really easy and you can do it anytime. In fact, try it right now.

Go on, breathe. Take two short breaths in, then exhale in one long breath. Expand your tummy on the inhale, not your chest. Do it again. And again. Close your eyes. Keep breathing. Feel your breath.

You may think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Oxygenating your body clears the mind and energizes every single cell you’re made of, from your toes to your animal amygdala, deep inside your brain. Do this and you’ll feel better, no matter what it is that’s stressing you out. Really. Because while you breathe, you’re concentrating on keeping your mind on your breath instead of on your troubles (present or future) and/or your pain. This can do you only good.

Of course, we can’t just meditate and breathe 24 hours a day, even if we’d like to. What we can do is take two minutes now and then for deep breathing, then move on. We can also—consciously—go about our lives in a more mindful, gentle, and less stressful way.

Turn off the TV, your Twitter feed, and any other social media you go to get your news—at least, for a while. Notice that the world goes on anyway—and for the most part, it’s just fine. People are still smiling and laughing. Hamburgers still taste good. Your dog still loves you and makes you happy. So do your family and friends. Look at the gorgeous autumn colors when you go outdoors. Feel your lips curl into a smile? Enjoy wearing your warm sweaters and wooly socks. Breathe the fresher, cooler (colder?) air the changing seasons bring. Look forward to meeting up with family and friends this season, and make sure you ask for help with holiday get-togethers if you need it—and even if you don’t. Refuse to stress. Life goes on even if you forget to make the shrimp dip or can’t bake your famous apple pie.

We can also relieve stress, at least temporarily, by getting some exercise. Stressed or frightened animals fight if they’re cornered, but given the chance, they’ll run until they feel safe.  As humans, we generally (!) don’t do either unless we’re in serious, imminent physical danger. That doesn’t mean that we don’t feel like running, even if we can’t.

And that’s where exercise comes in.

When you’re feeling stressed, try moving your body somehow. If you can, take a walk. It doesn’t have to be a long one, but make it as brisk as you’re able. Or maybe you can hit the gym and use the treadmill or a stair-stepper, or climb onto a bike and spin for a while. If you’re at home, put your favorite music on and dance to it, gently or otherwise. Dance for a couple of minutes or a half hour. It doesn’t matter. But whatever you choose, try to get your heart pumping, and keep your mind on moving your muscles, not on what’s stressing you.

Each of these activities helps our bodies, like deep breathing does, to oxygenate and energize. Moving helps us disperse tension-causing hormones and other natural chemicals, like adrenaline. These are beneficial to us when we’ve a real reason to run away, but when we can’t do that, they stay and circulate so that the tension remains as well. The result? Harmful stress that hurts us both mentally and physically. And really, who needs more pain?

Finally, talk. Talk to friends about what’s stressing you out. Talk to relatives. I talked a lot to my long-suffering Mom about my frustration and fears over having pain-relieving drugs denied for my RD. She listened, and commiserated, and helped me keep my hope alive. I probably bored her to tears, but she never let on, not once. And she let me blow off steam. I needed that, and I’m so grateful. I talked to friends, too. You know who you are. Thanks.

Change, particularly when it’s negative or pushes us into unknown waters, is always stressful. But there are ways to deal with it. Mostly, remember to hope. To care about others. To be kind to each other. To smile and laugh at every opportunity. There are lots of those.

And remember: We’re going to be OK.

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