More Than Mind Over Matter
I recently wrote an article titled, “Forgetting Pain,” in response to an article in the New York Times, “Forgetting the Pain of Exercise,” which explores the connection between a person’s mental and emotional state and how he or she perceives pain. Interestingly, when I wrote my response I wasn’t going through an RA flare-up, like I am now. During my past week of extra suffering, the topic of pain has been weighing heavily on my mind, and I’ve been thinking more about the article and my response to it.
I agree with my initial response and still firmly believe that one’s body, mind, and spirit are all interconnected, and that they can have either positive or negative effects on each other. The New York Times article argues, via a study that was conducted interviewing marathon runners, that people’s perception of pain can depend on their emotional reactions to it. The marathoners keep signing up to do additional races, even despite the grueling physical hell their bodies go through running those 26.2 miles. But for them, the sport is something they enjoy and are passionate about. Sure, it hurts, but there’s a positive connection to that pain. It’s a more “favorable” pain compared with someone who is suffering from an illness or injury, for example. Granted, the article only begins to touch on this idea, and of course each person’s body and pain is different.
Maybe not too surprisingly, I read some interesting comments on RheumatoidArthritis.net‘s Facebook page in response to the articles. One comment complained of the common RA “myth” that’s often pushed at RA and chronic pain sufferers–that notion of “mind over matter.” You could cure your pain if only you had a better attitude. It wouldn’t be as bad if you were mentally stronger. Others agreed with the original commentator and then chimed in to point out that living with the pain of RA isn’t easy, nor is it easy to keep a positive attitude about it.
I agree with both of these things, and I responded to the “mind over matter” issue by trying to clarify the response I had written to the original article. I explained that the purpose and message of my article was not to say or imply that if people were “mentally stronger” their RA pain would lessen or go away. Instead I was trying to bring awareness to the body-mind-spirit connection and its effect on pain perception. I added that when I’m in a better mood or I’m doing something that’s fun, my RA pain is usually less. But there are exceptions, of course.
Take this week week of flare-up hell I’ve been having, for example. My entire body is inflamed right now, the RA attacking joints that have been mostly quiet for a long time (my fingers, wrists, elbows). My feet and ankles look like bloated water balloons, with the skin tightly stretched and bulging around the straps of my sandals. Hot to the touch, I feel like burning knives are permanently lodged in both ankles, twisting their blades each time I make even a tiny movement. I can’t walk much, which is probably needless to say. Due to my limited mobility, I’ve been trapped in my small, hot attic apartment in Brooklyn all week, during a nasty heat wave on top of it. It’s hard to keep light, happy, positive thoughts in my head when my body is relentlessly attacking me. Chronic pain is not easy and I’ll be the first to agree with that statement.
When I have flare-ups like this, I feel so out of control and my moods and emotions often shift wildly. Hope can quickly plummet into darkness and despair in a matter of minutes. What if this doesn’t go away? What if my feet stay like this? How will I walk? How will I work? How will I continue with my life? The worries snowball and before I know it I’m in a panic and I’ve turned into a permanently crippled and disabled person in only a week. However I also know that by nature I’m a worrywart and a neurotic and very impatient when it comes to these things. Calm down, Angela. One day at a time.
So while I’m biding my time here, cooped up in this attic bedroom next to my AC unit, I’m trying hard to be patient as I wait for the higher dose of prednisone to work its magic. I’m resting, I’m relaxing, I’m icing..(I’m going crazy). I am trying hard to stay hopeful and to push those worries and fears out of my head because I know they won’t help anything. Their negativity will only drag me down and make my pain worse and probably inhibit my healing. But it’s hard. It’s really hard to keep your spirits up in this situation.
What can I do? Distractions work. Good distractions, like chatting with a friend or laughing with your mom on the phone. Getting lost in a book I’ve been wanting to read also helps, as does zoning out watching TV and delving into my Netflix queue. Earlier this week I watched a fascinating documentary about Scientology (HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) which then turned into a very funny and compelling Facebook chat with a new friend. Then today I finished watching another new documentary about the gifted singer, pianist, songwriter, and civil rights activist Nina Simone (What Happened, Miss Simone?) It was fantastic and I’m glad I had the time to watch it.
Actually getting up, moving around a bit, and leaving the house to rejoin the land of the living is important, too. Earlier today I took a break from my self-confinement and walked a couple blocks to my favorite corner deli shop. My “deli buddy” who works behind the counter gave me a warm hello (he’s probably been wondering where the heck I’ve been) and I treated myself to one of the egg and cheese sandwiches I like so much. I felt better.
The Catch-22 of a bad flare-up or every day RA pain bringing your mood down, thus making the pain worse, is a difficult thing. And vice versa. Having a lot of stress and negativity in your life then causing worse pain and physical problems is also hard to break. But I think it’s important to start somewhere to break that cycle and to shift the gears into a healthier, more positive position. It’s not easy and it may feel impossible during the really bad times, but you have to make yourself do it. Use whatever (positive and healthy) resources you need to in order to feel better.
Get up, leave the house, and go get that egg and cheese sandwich, please.