By Ann Marie Gaudon, Columnist
I’ve learned the hard way how you can stress anyone at all. Put these three factors in their life: Uncertainty, lack of information, and loss of control. Chronic pain patients are slammed with all three.
The stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways -- including anger -- and pain patients have a lot to be angry about. I’ve heard it called “paingry” -- which might even be cute if pain didn’t have the capacity to obliterate lives. People in pain typically experience greater anger than others because they carry the burden of many frustrations related to work, finances, relationships, health care systems, limitations, losses, etc.
We all tend to resort to anger to protect ourselves because someone or something has done us wrong. We protect ourselves from feeling what is “underneath the anger” which is emotional pain and feelings of vulnerability. Pain patients often have these feelings in spades. Anger is a natural, adaptive, emotional response when we feel threatened. It is the “fight” in the fight-flight-freeze response.
It’s no surprise that for chronic pain patients, anger arousal is associated with greater pain intensity, muscle tension, and interference with function and relationships.
So is anger regulation, whether it’s expressed in an outburst of anger (blowing up) or inhibited as anger (stuffing it down). Blowing up won’t help you, but it will make you untouchable. You don’t want to be touched and nobody wants to touch you either.
Stuffing it down merely buries problems, which won’t go away and can lead to seething anger. These things are bad for everyone’s health and worse if you have chronic pain.
If you’ve got chronic pain, you’re going to be frustrated a lot of the time and acceptance of your condition becomes important. However, even learning acceptance can spark anger. You may think, “Why should I have to accept this? What have I done to deserve it?”
Understand Your Anger
Ironically, getting angry is not the problem. The real problem is a lack of awareness that anger is building into destructive ways of expressing that anger, and poor resolutions when we blow up in anger.
Here’s my message to all chronic pain patients: Don’t waste your anger, put it to work for you.
Understanding your anger is important. It is not caused by anything outside of you but is a response – sometimes not even conscious – that you make based on your interpretation of events. Feeling betrayed by your body? Doctors underestimating your pain? Suspected of malingering at work? Hard up for finances? Relationships breaking down? Denied or restricted medications? Stigmatized and discriminated against because you need opioid pain medication?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to loathe the phrase “drug seeking behavior” in reference to a legitimate pain patient because it’s so misguided. “Pain relief seeking behavior”? Now you’re talking.
Anger is an assertion of your most basic rights as an individual. Angry feelings need to be validated or acknowledged by yourself and others in order to move on to problem solving. You’re going to need a commitment to optimal pain management and to process your anger in a healthy way. The question then becomes, “How am I going to live with this in the best way possible?”
What Is Anger Telling You?
Anger and other raw emotions can be considered warning signs to things that we care about. Feeling enraged about your life with chronic pain can be a signpost that you value health, a productive life, want to be cared about authentically, and that you are not being treated fairly. If we didn’t experience anger, we wouldn’t have the message. It is a very healthy and necessary emotion to help us protect ourselves.
What is your anger telling you? If you misunderstand the message or do not act on it, your body will react and your pain will be escalated. Know that. It’s also crucial that you look for primary emotions. Those will be the underlying the hurt, vulnerability, and feelings of unfair treatment. They can be quite uncomfortable for a lot of folks.
Think of an iceberg. The much smaller top portion that you can see is the anger. What is not so obvious is the much larger mass underneath the water. That is your emotional pain and what you need to process and feel for all its worth. You need to acknowledge the entire iceberg; really get to the bottom of it. Secondary emotions like anger are often not helpful, especially if it leads to rage. Use your anger as a tip off that you need to look deeper to alleviate your distress.
Plenty of chronic pain patients need help with anger because they have so much to be angry about. See a therapist. There are many questions you will need to address. “Is there any unfair treatment in my life? Am I being honest and authentic about how I really feel? Are my needs being met? What is my message and what needs to be changed?”
You can get help becoming aware of your emotions on your way to accepting them. You can learn to take actions guided by these emotions – and put them to work for you.
If you’re a pain patient with no history of mental illness, yet you find yourself damned angry, breathe easier. You couldn’t be more normal. Pathologizing you with a mental health disorder and treating it with medication will not help you with your anger. Get help to listen to your inner dialogue. See anger as a useful emotion. It’s telling you something that needs tending to.
I have a simple but effective strategy. It doesn’t involve diagnoses, medication, or creating spaces between myself and another person. Rather, I lean in and rely on empathy, respect and compassion for a fellow human being who is clearly overwhelmed with torment. Quietly and gently I ask, “Is it okay if we talk about your suffering?” The floodgates open. Know that is normal too.
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.