Best and Worst Ways to Cope With Stress
The Best and Worst Ways to Cope With Pain
Chronic pain is a bear to live with, but overeating, smoking, and other unhealthy coping techniques could be making your pain worse.
By Wyatt Myers
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Pain is pervasive. According to the American Pain Foundation, 26 percent of Americans have experienced pain that persisted for more than 24 hours at one point or another, and a third of them describe their pain as disabling.
Considering the prevalence and extent of chronic pain, it’s understandable that a wide range of coping mechanisms may be part of your pain management plan. However, you might be doing yourself more harm than good, especially if you rely on tactics such as smoking, drinking, overeating, or using drugs.
Pain Management Missteps: Why We Choose Dangerous Ways to Cope
Many people try an unhealthy option as a quick fix, even if the strategy poses damaging long-term consequences. “It’s not uncommon for patients with chronic pain to attempt to mask or lessen their perception of pain with unhealthy practices,” says Anand Gandhi, MD, a physician at the Laser Spine Institute in Scottsdale, Ariz. Often, he adds, people aren’t aware of just how harmful these coping mechanisms can be over time. In other instances, people may be well aware that their pain management “strategies” are unhealthy, but they are unwilling or unable to stop.
“Painful conditions usually have an anatomic basis and result from injury or degeneration,” says Robert Gruber, DO, the director of spinal diagnostics and therapeutics at the Laser Spine Institute. “If pain persists, there are frequently psychological consequences that occur.” Dr. Gruber points out that if emotional and psychological support is needed but not offered as part of a pain treatment plan, people may resort to available measures to cope by themselves. “Frequently, self-medication with alcohol, tobacco, food, and illicit drugs are used to bring a sense of comfort and control,” he says.
Apart from the obvious hazards to your general health, these strategies can quickly backfire in terms of any comfort for pain. “These ways of coping all seem like they are working for a short term — they’re an escape from the immediate pain and provide instant gratification, but mostly they continue to feed the body toxins and can act as barriers to actually facing the problem and working on resolving it,” says Joanne Wu, MD, a neurologist at Unity Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. “What people don’t realize is that many of these behaviors isolate them even more and contribute to faster body breakdown so a healthy state can’t be achieved. Financially, they also drain them of resources that can help them with their end goal.”
Alcohol and drugs, including the nicotine in cigarettes, aren’t the only coping mistakes. You might not think that the soothing effect of eating a slice of chocolate cake equates with illicit drug use, but pain experts say the impact of overeating is, in a sense, not much different from that of other unhealthy coping mechanisms. And the result can be a complication like weight gain, says Michelle Fedder, LaC, director of clinical services at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine’s New York campus. Worse still, carrying more weight can translate to feeling more pain.
A more subtle situation that can hinder pain management is called “catastrophizing,” or obsessing over something (often the pain) until it becomes worse than it actually is. This sets up a vicious cycle. Mood disorders get in the way of following your treatment plan, says Dr. Wu, with a snowball effect — more pain, an inability to function at work, and damage to relationships with friends and family. “This cycle then repeats itself,” she warns, and you can spiral downward, losing hope for improvement.
Healthier Options for Pain Management
But you can turn your situation around, especially if you replace unhealthy ways of coping with positive ones that you enjoy. One of the best options for pain treatment is exercise. “Low-impact forms of physical activity such as yoga and tai chi may have a positive impact on the mental and physical well-being of patients with chronic pain,” says Dr. Gandhi. “Patients who exercise benefit from the endorphin response, which is the body’s natural pain reliever.”
Other possibilities include meditation, deep-breathing techniques, and guided imagery to take your body and mind to a more restful, relaxing place. “Guided imagery is a way of using the mind to imagine or visualize oneself in a different situation,” says Katherine Puckett, PhD, LCSW, the national director of mind-body medicine for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Use your mind to create a special place where you would feel your best, both physically and emotionally, and spend time in this place, she suggests. “When we use our physical senses to imagine what we would see, hear, feel, smell, and taste in a situation, we can feel as if we’ve really experienced it,” she explains. “We can also use the mind to instruct the body to feel no pain or reduced pain and to feel calm, peaceful and relaxed.”
Your healthy coping mechanism should be based on your own tastes and interests. “I usually try to get to know the patient’s personality, likes, and dislikes and then figure out suggestions,” Puckett says. “For example, if someone loves food and enjoys eating, I help direct them to a nutritionist to learn better food options and maybe hook them up with healthy-cooking classes. If someone enjoys talking about their pain but cannot figure out how to cope without talking about it to someone else, counseling is an excellent option.”
We live in a world of instant gratification, but pain has many complex layers. In the long run, it’s not a quick fix but a well-thought-out strategy that will help you manage your condition.
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