Write and Pray Through Chronic Pain
I. Need. Help.
My friend needed me, so I listened. Meanwhile, my headache got worse, and anxiety tightened my muscles. I had forgotten my emergency meds at home, and I just knew I was getting another migraine. And I only just recovered from the last one. Cutting the conversation short, I felt that familiar shame: I'm always letting people down. By the time I got home, my head was pounding and I was close to panic: I'm never going to get better. I'm trapped.
Sound familiar? If you have chronic pain of any kind, I'm guessing that you too have struggled with feelings of isolation, shame, anxiety, depression, or anger. Perhaps, like me, you begin and end every day with discomfort. For me, some days the pain stays in the background. Other days look more like the scene above: pain, emotional distress, and more pain in a downward spiral.
When I stay emotionally stable, my pain tends to stay the same or even get better. Staying calm and centered is crucial to endurance. It also helps when I feel connected to others, when I remember that my life has meaning. I want to share with you two activities that benefit me every day: writing and meditational prayer. These things help me make vital connections to God and other people, which enable me to have a better quality of life.
My goal is to come alongside you in your own pain, and share what I've learned. Not that I'm perfect, mind you! In fact, I'm partly writing this article for my own benefit; as a teacher, I know how instructors end up learning even more than their students. Another disclaimer: this does NOT mean that the pain is all "in your head," or you shouldn't see doctors. Pain is very real, and I encourage you to seek medical treatment. But chronic pain, and the emotions that go with it, can be very hard to stop. I believe the way we react to pain, through writing and faith, can improve your life.
Let’s look at some of the facts about chronic pain, writing, and faith. Then we can get to work.
The Pain Experience is Multi-faceted
According to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), 25 million Americans have chronic pain that interferes with their life every single day. The number is bigger (40 million) when you count people who experience severe pain on a less frequent basis. That’s a lot of people, and believe it or not, those numbers are on the conservative side—other surveys estimates are larger.
However, not everyone experiences pain in the same way. That fact remains very clear to those of us who suffer physical trauma. If you suffer migraines, don’t you hate it when someone says, “Oh, I have headaches too…I just have to take Tylenol right away, and that takes care of it”? Why would people assume that what works for them will also work for us? Pain is personal.
More information on the gate control theory of chronic pain
- Modern Ideas: The Gate Control Theory of Chronic Pain
Due to the observations that raised questions, a new theory of pain was developed in the early 1960s to account for the clinically recognized importance of the mind and brain in pain perception. It is called the gate control theory of pain.
Pain is also complicated. On my wedding day, I had a severe headache, but as I said my vows and danced with my husband, I didn’t think of pain at all. A friend asked me, "No headache, right?" and I said, "Nope, my head hurts, but I'm so happy I guess I forgot!" Why is it that sometimes strong emotions block our pain awareness?
Scientists say that in the experience of pain, many factors are involved: the nerve impulse that travels to your brain, your brain’s reception of the pain signal, and your feelings and thoughts about the pain. Some counselors also talk about cultural background, previous experiences with pain, the context, and your spiritual heart.
Many doctors believe in the Gate Control theory, talking about a "nerve gate" in the central nervous system which either allows or blocks the pain impulse on its way to the brain. The longer your pain goes on, the more likely it is that the "nerve gate" will stay open and it will be harder for your brain to block the pain. However, many believe this gate can be closed by relaxation techniques, distraction, or emotional focus.
What does this mean for you and me? The pain experience is complicated, and you and I can learn how to soften that experience.
As a writing major in college, my professor Dr. Davis encouraged me to write a memoir of my chronic pain. I decided to focus on the year I dropped out of college, lived at home and endured countless procedures in an effort to cure my pain. Emotionally “returning” to that time period wasn’t easy; it required courage to remember the doctors, tests, and isolation. But guess what? Narrating my story somehow allowed me to make sense of what had happened, and to accept it. My story became not a tragedy but an adventure, containing both sorrow and hope. In addition, I shared my story with some of my classmates, with my family and with my therapist. When I finished the project, I was more emotionally stable and better connected to God and others.
Your Writing Experiences
If you have practiced writing before, what kind of writing have you done the most often?
Many people in addition to myself have found release (psychological and physical relief) by writing. A quick online search for “writing therapy” turns up thousands of results. Why does writing help us so much?
Humans are natural story-tellers. We tell jokes, we talk about our job, and we ask people how their weekend went. Even basic introductions are stories, when you think about it.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Vermont, but I’ve lived in Puerto Rico, so I think of myself as part Puerto Rican. How about yourself?”
"I grew up in Florida, but these days I live in Hawaii, working for an environmental organization."
Made by a divine Creator- Author, we reflect the qualities of this first and best Storyteller. We are made to create, in other words; and we are also made to connect with God and others. Writing is both creative and connecting; it has the potential to build relationships between writer and reader, speaker and listener. Amazing, right?
A scientific study about Narrative Therapy
Furthermore, writing helps people to voice their inner trauma, to put words to those things they could never speak out loud. I'm sure you know how tears can give emotional release. Writing is even better (especially since crying can trigger migraines). Writing is the purest catharsis: in writing out our deepest suffering, we literally pull the dark thoughts out of our brain and put them onto paper. In this physical act of writing we can find a measure of freedom from those dark events.
Sometimes writing illuminates thoughts in our subconscious, too. As a certain researcher put it, "The narrating of the patient’s story is a therapeutically central act, because to ﬁnd words to contain the disorder and worries gives shape to, and control over, the chaos of illness" (fom "Narrative writing" article below). Writing helps us to understand our own stories. Studies have shown that writing expressively helps people to overcome anxiety and depression, and even help decrease our pain levels. Writing can re-train our brains, so to speak, so that we have healthier thoughts and more helpful thought patterns.
When you write, you can find new clarity for your thoughts, catharsis for trauma, and a better awareness of the “big picture” of your life. All these things equip you to respond better to your chronic pain.
Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person, in general?
Spirituality and the Mega-Story
Writing does more than give us a deeper understanding of our own story. It also can help us enter into the story, the Mega-Story of the world. And this is where spirituality enters in.
The state of our spiritual heart impacts the pain experience. Whether or not you are religious, you may agree that suffering provokes deeply spiritual questions. If I die, what happens to me? What makes my life meaningful, even when I have bad health? Why does God allow my pain to continue? Questions like these reveal that all of us are spiritual beings. As Dr. Wesley Buch says in his webinar "Spirituality and Chronic Pain" (video linked below), "We are all meaning-makers." We look for significance, ask questions, and tell stories. Furthermore, we all exist as part of a greater narrative--the Mega-Story written by the divine God of the universe, the Great Narrative of creation, brokenness, and redemption. Have you noticed how often movies and books carry themes of suffering, sacrifice, and deliverance? People know instinctively what makes a great story, because we were made by the divine Author. When people who suffer chronic pain reach out to the Creator to find meaning, they can enter into an awareness of the Mega-Story and their particular place within that story.
Our whole being (heart, soul, and body) needs help for navigating chronic pain—and the best and truest help is in seeking our Creator.
Our Spiritual Response
Our spiritual heart is not only occupied with telling stories and seeking meanings.
Our spiritual heart also responds to God.
Maybe you aren't sure yet if you believe in the God of the Bible. That's OK. Yet you should know that your feelings of unsureness, and your other thoughts, feelings, and actions, come together to form a response to God. As Dr. Michael Emlet, doctor and counselor, says, “We are created, body and soul, in the image of our God. Our emotions and our thoughts reveal our hearts, or our basic inner disposition, toward God.”
This doesn't mean we should beat ourselves up for having doubts, depression or anger. Dark emotions are a part of pain and illness. But sometimes we can allow those negative emotions to take over, and we isolate ourselves. It might be a subconscious reaction, spiritual walls going up automatically.
Personally, I experience this a lot. When I roll out of bed in the morning with a crushing headache, sometimes I give in to despair and speak harshly to my husband. I say things like I hate my life and I can't handle this anymore. And my despair makes the pain experience worse. In moments like that, I am throwing up spiritual walls, turning away from God and other people. On the other hand, if I take a moment to breathe deeply and ask God for help, before I get out of bed, chances are that I will be able to fight the despair, and to speak kindly (or at least, to keep myself from speaking bitter words). The pain experience is a lot better when I turn towards my Creator in this way. Again, as Dr. Emlet says,
“The responses of our hearts, whether weighted towards belief or towards unbelief, serve to modulate the pain experience for better or for worse.”— Dr. Michael Emlet
I have experienced this over and over: in the middle of chronic pain, even the worst of my life, I can turn towards my Maker. The Lord of heaven and earth is with me, and remembering this awesome Presence, I am able to face the pain.
Dr. Emlet's article, "When It Won't Go Away: Biblical Response to Chronic Pain."
- When It Won’t Go Away: A Biblical Response to Chronic Pain (JBC 23:1)
Dr. Michael Emlet explores the intersection between our body’s pain experience and the theological truths that interpret pain.
Starting the Journey
What does this mean for those of us who live with chronic pain? By personally meeting God, and narrating our own stories at the same time, our pain and suffering could truly be decreased. In this hub series, I invite you to come along with me on this journey. In each article, I will address specific issues and give out assignments--prompts that I have done myself and found to be helpful.
If you’re coming along with me on this journey, you will need several important things.
- A desire to change.
- A pen and notebook (and a computer if you prefer typing).
- A commitment to write and/or meditate 10-20 minutes per day.
If the idea of writing scares you, remember this: your writing will be for your own eyes and no one else’s. You can hide it, lock it up, or even throw it out (some assignments I really will encourage you to destroy). Don't worry about grammar or spelling or being nice. Just write.
Of course, those of us with chronic pain have to be careful with our writing position, especially if you have pain in your hands, back, or neck. Get a good chair that supports your lower back and encourages you to sit up straight; and make sure that your hands are at a 90 degree angle from your arms. Ergonomic pens and desks are great. Also, if you get on a writing "roll" and want to keep writing all day, make sure to give yourself breaks every half hour. If typing or writing is physically painful for you, please invest in a dictation program like Dragon Naturally Speaking. (I used that program for many years when I had wrist and hand problems.) You could also buy a digital recorder or use a phone app.
Your First Assignment
With that in mind, let’s get going!
Using a comfortable ball-point pen, pull out your notebook/journal (use actual pen and paper for this week, if possible). As you answer the following questions, write at a relaxed pace, but continuously. Try not to think too hard. I recommend at least 10 minutes on each question.
1. What do you hate about your life, and why? Be graphic and honest. Let it all come out. Describe your pain, anxiety, anger, depression, envy, etc. When you’re done, I recommend that you tear up the page and throw it in the trash. It feels good.
2. Describe at least 10 things in your life that give you joy. Describe places, objects, people, activities that you love; use lots of sensual language, evoking your senses of smell, touch, taste, sound, and sight. (Don't throw this one out.)
3. When you got sick as a child, how did your family react? My husband’s family was stoical—no tears or complaining allowed. My family babied me, putting a Band-Aid and bacitracin on every tiny scratch. What about you? Think back and describe the way your parents/siblings/caretakers reacted to your illness or pain. *Optional: If you’re on a roll, consider this question too--How do you think your family’s attitude toward pain has affected your life in the long run?
4. Ask God some questions, using pen and paper. Imagine that your Creator is standing right in front of you, and will answer every question you have. What would you ask? Ask God those hard questions that keep you up at night. Ask about things that bother you, and things you’re curious about. Just ask.
You can do it!
Please check out the included links, including Dr. Buch's video...and let me know if you have any questions or comments. I'd love to hear from you.