Living with Chronic Pain: Acceptance or Denial?

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

It’s commonly understood that chronic pain not only negatively influences our physical health, but also leads to changes in our sense of self, as well as how we experience the world around us.

An interesting Swedish study set out to explore these factors. Twenty people with long-standing musculoskeletal pain were involved. Each participant completed 20 “qualitative” interviews -- which means the questions were designed to lead to descriptive answers, not hard data such as numbers or graphs on a chart.

The opening question was asked like this: “Please describe your problems. I’m thinking of the problems that made you contact a physiotherapist?”

All of the questions were focused on the participant’s perception of his or her body and were open-ended enough to encourage them to provide a narrative of their lives. After the answers were collected and analyzed, four distinct typologies emerged.

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Typology A: Surrendering to one’s fate

In this typology, subjects do not oppose their pained body. They accept that their pain cannot be eliminated, so why battle against it? They are aware of their limitations and adapted accordingly.

When you accept pain, you can still engage in more important (non-pain) aspects of life. The pained body becomes more integrated with life when the person trusts their ability to cope with the unpredictability of it. Listening to signals and adapting becomes the norm. One participant described it this way:

“No, I don’t rely on my body, because I never know when the pain will come… I always have to consider how to carry things through, what I am doing, why I do it… to prevent pain afterwards. It (the body) is with me and I am the one who decides”

Typology B: Accepting by an active process of change

In contrast to Typology A, in this typology people accept pain through deliberate and active coping strategies. Attitude is adapted in the face of the new reality of living with pain, and it becomes possible to undergo positive change and go on to a richer life.

The precondition for this change is believing that the body and soul are closely linked. Participants describe a previous total lack of body awareness that changes to a life where the body becomes a wise teacher. They look to the future with optimism, while realizing it will take great effort.

The integration of the aching body into life requires a trusting and hopeful cooperation between self and body; there is trust that the body will help even when in pain. The pain puts the body in the foreground. When pain is not being fought against, it enhances both body awareness and self-awareness. One description read like this:

“…growing consciousness is the only, the only way to take control of the pain.”

Typology C: Balancing between hope and resignation

Here researchers found that major changes in life brought on by constant pain put the subject into a state of ambivalence. There is a pendulum swing back and forth between accepting and rejecting the aching body. Hope sees a way forward, but time after time despair sets in.

Integrating the aching body into life becomes problematic and the relationship with the body seems unclear at best. The subject swings from listening to the body to avoiding it.

Accepting this burdened body is necessary to move forward, yet that change is not fully realized. Pain results in feelings of fear or worry. The cause of the pain is considered complex and the subject has a tendency to ignore warning signals.  An example of this:

“My pain started because I am too slender for cleaning work, I believe. This, I think, is how my pain all began but you go on and on and don’t listen to our body until it is too late.”

Typology D: Rejecting the body

In this typology, integrating the aching body into life is impossible and rejected. The word acceptance is considered an insult or a threat. The pain is impossible to accept. The aching body is an enemy, life is unfair and unsafe, and something worse may happen. The subject has no trust in the body and nothing helps.

Living in denial like this may be beneficial for overcoming a short-term crisis, yet the costs in the long run lead to an inability to cope. A quote from one participant:

“No, no, no, I won’t do it. No, I don’t know how my body will react in different situations… it is against me”

Clinical Implications

The results from this study indicate that chronic pain patients can be found along a broad spectrum from accepting to rejecting their aching bodies. Both body awareness and body reliance seemed to be important for acceptance to take place and for life to be manageable.

Reinforcing body awareness and reliance may be a possible way forward. Your body and life may not have played out how you had anticipated, but you can still adjust to life and living with a pained body.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.