Most, but not every person* with persistent pain has experienced pain talk. They quickly and inevitably add that they appreciate, of course, the attention of their friends and loved ones, but it comes to get old.
Might the same be true of you?
Friends and family can develop over the years a tendency to make you and your chronic pain, its treatments, and your overall well-being the topic of conversation. For after all, it tends to be the socially appropriate thing to do. When people are sick or injured or otherwise unwell in some way, we are all supposed to ask about it, express condolences and offer help. Indeed, most people want to express their concern in these ways.
This normal behavior is all well and good. Most of us appreciate some attention when not feeling well or injured or what not. People bring over dinners and help out around the house. Maybe they bring your kids to piano lessons or sports practices for a few weeks following a surgery. Everyone, on both the receiving and giving ends, tend to appreciate these gestures.
It’s also common that after a while these kinds of overt offers of assistance tend to fall away. Life goes on for other people and it’s hard to keep up with such overt helping behaviors. However, the well-being of the sick or injured person tends to remain in the object of everyone’s attention when others do in fact come around. In other words, despite overt helping behaviors falling by the wayside, most people continue to talk to you about your well-being. Again, it’s thing that we are supposed to do.
While initially nice and helpful, when this state of affairs continues on a chronic basis, it can become increasingly problematic. There comes a point for many people where it’s preferable that you are no longer the focus of everyone’s attention. The attention, in the form of you being the object of everyone’s conversation, can become problematic in a few different ways.
It causes inner conflict for you
Suppose that your spouse when she comes home from work tends to ask, expectantly, “How’d you do today?” which implies that she’s hoping you’ll be better. You tell the truth, which you can see in her demeanor is disappointing, and so you feel bad for disappointing her that your pain is still as bad as it ever was. Suppose your four-year-old daughter comments that she wishes you could pick her up, but knows you can’t because it hurts your back. Out of the mouth of a babe, she means no ill will. It’s just an innocent yet accurate comment and yet you end up feeling terrible. Or perhaps, you see your cousin for the first time in a number of months and the first thing she asks about is the surgery that she had heard you had. You know she just had a baby and you want to be there for her, yet she’s trying to be there for you. The brief interaction immediately puts you on edge.
What lies at the heart of these interactions is what, in psychology, we call feeling conflicted. You end up feeling guilty or awkward or ashamed or irritable that you’re yet again the topic of conversation. At the same time, however, it’s not that you can get upset with them. They are expressing a sincere regard for your well-being! It would be socially inappropriate for you to express your displeasure with their attempts to care about you. It’s a no-win situation. You feel conflicted.
This recurrent sense of feeling conflicted is stressful. It wears on you and reduces your abilities to cope with pain. Stress, of course, also makes pain worse.
As a result, pain talk that was initially helpful and nice can become increasingly problematic once it continues on a chronic basis.
People tend to give you unsolicited advice
Suppose your neighbor sees you across the yard and asks, “How’s your back?” and then goes on to ask whether you’ve ever tried chiropractic. He continues for a few minutes on how much it helped so-and-so. Or suppose your friend at church or synagogue or mosque sees you and comes over to tell you about laser surgery that he saw advertised on TV last night. Your cousin insists that you absolutely must try some salve that he absolutely swears by.
You’ve heard it all before, but what do you say? Of course, you’ve considered those therapies or maybe you’ve even tried them. Nonetheless, you nod your head and politely let them finish their thought, but the whole experience makes you irritable.
People trigger bad emotional reactions
Sometimes, people trigger an emotional reaction that you’d rather not have. In fact, as an active coper, you try to stay out of either the victim perspective or the perspective of perceived injustice. Nonetheless, other people’s attitudes can put you into a bad emotional place. Suppose your brother-in-law exclaims, “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they fix your back?” Or suppose a friend comments on how unfair it is that nothing legally happened to the person who caused the motor vehicle accident that started your chronic pain. Or perhaps it was your sister who, getting mad that your disability claim was denied, expresses, “It’s so unfair that you can’t get disability – you paid into it for years!”
Such comments, while understandable and perhaps wholly accurate, put you in a bad emotional place. They stoke the resentment that occurs deep inside you. They tap you into the long-held anger and powerlessness and lack of control that you can sometimes feel. You try not to go there too often, because you find yourself too depressed when you do, but it is difficult to hear such comments without going there.
It’s not anyone’s fault
Please notice that in observing these complicated interactions no one is blaming anyone or criticizing those who talk too much about your pain. It’s not anyone’s fault. Pain talk is normal and natural, while at the same time it isn’t helpful.
So, what do you do about it?
One long-standing recommendation in chronic pain rehabilitation is for patients to have a discussion with their friends and loved ones and ask them to stop talking about pain. The discussion might go something like the following:
“I’d like to talk to you about something that is important to me. It’s the fact that we talk about my pain a lot – how I’m doing, whether it’s a good pain day or a bad pain day, and how my therapies are going. I know that you ask about all these things because you care about me. I appreciate your caring – I want you to know that. However, I’m also trying to cope better with pain and to do that I need to focus on my pain less. I need to get involved in other things that also matter and preoccupy my time and energy with these things, not my persistent pain. So, one thing I’ve learned recently is that I should ask everyone in my life to stop talking or asking about my pain. This will free us up to talk about all the other things that matter in life. It will also serve to keep me focused on these things, and less on my pain. If we all agree, I’ll make you a deal in that I will update you on my pain if there is any significant change for the better or for the worse. But as long as my chronic pain remains chronic, let’s try to stay off the subject. OK?”
Reducing pain talk leads to improved coping
Pain has a natural capacity to command our attention. When it’s a bad pain day, it’s hard to focus on anything else. This relationship between pain and attention is reciprocal or self-reinforcing: the more pain we experience the more we focus on it, but the more we focus on it the more pain we experience.
It is possible to counteract this natural tendency for focusing on pain. It involves a learning process over time and it takes repetitive practice, but it is possible. It’s a process of recognizing in the moment that your attention is focused on pain and making an intentional effort to change the focus of attention to something else – something that it is stimulating or interesting or pleasurable or meaningful in some way.
This process of repetitively recognizing and changing your focus of attention is helped along when others stop talking about your pain. Your interactions with them become focused on other things in life that are stimulating, interesting, pleasurable or meaningful.
When other things in life that matter start to compete for our attention, we can come to experience less pain. Pain gets relegated, as it were, to the background of our everyday lives. It’s a little bit like white noise. When a box fan gets turned on, it seems loud and it competes for our attention. But as we get involved in other activities, the stimulation remains, but we stop paying so much attention to it. We start to hear it less. We’ve all had the same experience with pain. When we get involved in other things that compete for our attention, we come to experience the pain less.
When we talk about pain less, life is less stressful. We don’t have to put up with feeling conflicted – knowing that others care about us but wishing they’d stop talking about pain so much. We also have a greater likelihood of staying out of bad emotional places, like experiencing the resentment that’s common when you have a chronic pain condition that you didn’t deserve or ask for.
Reducing pain talk also reminds you and everyone else that you are more than just your pain. You have endeavors and aspirations, activities about which you are passionate, and relationships that are meaningful. Reducing pain talk takes these issues off the back burner and puts them front and center. They can again come to define your identity.
Of course, when you see your healthcare providers, go ahead and talk about your pain. But in the course of your everyday life, it is best to repetitively practice staying off the subject. It's what people do when they cope well with pain.
*Such concerns are not always true of all people with chronic pain. Some people report basically the opposite experience. In their case, no one in their life asks about their pain anymore. They tend to feel alone and can understandably wish for someone to ask about their well-being once in a while. This state of affairs is also problematic. It deserves a discussion of its own and so we’ll save it for another post in the Coping with Pain Series. So, for now, let’s focus this post on how to cope when your pain occupies too much of everyone time, attention and energy.
Date of publication: October 21, 2017
Date of last modification: October 21, 2017
About the author: Dr. Murray J. McAllister is the editor at the Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP). The ICP is an educational and public policy think tank. Our mission is to lead the field in making pain management more empirically supported and to make that empirically-supported pain management more publicly acessible. To achieve these ends, the ICP provides scientifically accurate information on chronic pain that is approachable to patients and their families.