Body parts messaging the person with pain emojis and the person acknowledging it

Thank You, Message Received

As much as I hate to admit it, pain is important. It is a powerful message sent from a part of the body to the brain to alert that something is wrong. The brain receives this message and leaps into action. This can keep us safe.

If I touch something hot, my body immediately sends a pain message to my brain, which in turn instructs my hand to move away from the heat. This happens almost instantaneously. Likewise, if I touch something sharp, my body jerks away from the sharp object because of how my brain processes the pain message of the cut.

If I fracture a bone, the pain causes me to go easy on it, avoiding additional strain that could lead to a break and allowing the bone to mend. Pain can indeed be incredibly helpful.

The constant pain symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis

Yet, when there is never a moment without pain, its utility diminishes. Living with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease [RA/RD], I am never pain-free.

Sometimes, the pain is low-level

Fortunately, I have many times when the pain is a low-level ache that I can push to the outskirts of my awareness. It’s there, but I am able to focus on other things. It’s a bit like the exit doors glowing in a movie theater. They don’t disappear when the movie starts, but one doesn’t think about them until the credits start to roll. I may not think about low-level pain until I try to sleep or until I have a quiet moment without distraction.

Rheumatoid arthritis pain makes itself known

And then there is the pain that makes itself known. Instead of the exit light in the theater, it is the moviegoer one row ahead who won’t stop talking and yelling out comments during the film. Pain of this type can range from making it difficult to perform typical tasks to making it impossible. It wears one down, causing exhaustion and frustration. However, unlike in the movie metaphor, there is no option to leave the theater.

The pain impacts different aspects of life

Sometimes this leads me to feel trapped within my own body. RA/RD can feel like a prison of my immune system’s making. During a flare, I may have a hard time leaving the house or even the bed. Going to work may not be feasible, much less attending social engagements. It can be easy to fixate on this pain and obsessively wonder “why?!” Yet, that doesn’t lessen the pain, and it exacerbates my emotional turmoil.

A new tactic: RA pain as a message from my body

Recently, I’ve begun trying a new tactic. Rather than see my immune system as my enemy and my pain as a prison, I’m working to remind myself that my body is trying hard but is confused. My immune system isn’t asleep on the job but rather focused on the wrong targets. The pain isn’t a punishment; it’s a message to my brain that my joints and muscles need attention.

Thank you, message received

Unfortunately, if I’m in a flare, I’m already giving my body all the attention I know how to give, in a combination of rest, medical treatment, and alternative therapies. So rather than internally yelling “Why?!” I am trying, “Thank you, message received.” This is a reminder that my body is trying to carry out a job, and by acknowledging that in a gentle manner I back away from a fight-or-flight mental state toward a calmer one.

A sense of calmness through RA pain

“Thank you, message received” makes way for more kind thoughts toward myself. Coupled with some deep breaths, this helps me relax my muscles a bit. It’s amazing how tense my body can be while lying down, and shifting toward a less negative frame of mind helps me be mindful of the need to release my muscles. While this is no cure for a flare, being calm helps me focus away from the pain, and makes the distraction of a funny movie more effective.

For lower-level pain, this mantra can be very helpful. Often when I am exercising I will feel a sharp jolt of discomfort in one joint or another. I used to be more prone to responding by temporarily stopping or abandoning the activity altogether. Now, I say, “Thank you, message received” and keep moving, even if at a slower pace. More often than not, the pain will go away or decrease significantly within a few moments.

Shifting self-talk about chronic pain

Pain can feel like an emergency, but chronically staying in an emergency state of mind doesn’t help me. Nor does viewing my body as the enemy. By shifting my self-talk, I find pain a little easier to bear. While I can’t control how much pain I experience, controlling my self-talk feels empowering.

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