by Lesli Hill
Human beings are neurologically wired to be social. Much scientific research has shown that those individuals who have social support are more resilient when facing life-altering challenges. Research also suggests that social contact helps control depression, a common occurrence in those who have chronic pain. Yet, chronic pain is isolating. We have a tendency to fold inward, to circle the wagons, as a way to protect ourselves from danger (pain). Along my personal pain journey, I have found that isolation is like a progressive cloud that developed over me. Let’s take a look at that a little more closely.
The first area of isolation was a retreat from my environment, just doing the normal daily life activities such as grocery shopping, picking up the mail, running to the bank. When I did get out, I did not chat with the checker or make eye contact with anyone. I just didn’t have the energy. It was only when I stepped back and observed myself in these situations that I was able to make an INTENTIONAL change. Think about individuals you may come in contact with as you go about your day. What right now needs can they meet? What does picturing yourself in a safe place in public look like?
Research has suggested that social interaction plays a key role in emotional and physical well-being. (urmc.rochester.edu). It can lower blood pressure, protect against heart disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis and depression. Social interaction contributes to longevity.
However, chronic pain is a self-isolating condition. People with pain sometimes barely have the energy to get through the day. Maintaining old friendships requires more effort. It is often hard to make social commitments because we do not know how much pain we will be having on a certain day. Sometimes, even though we schedule social outings, just the worry about being in a social situation can cause increased pain. We find that old friends just don’t understand and we put on our “pretend” face, which takes even more energy.
It requires INTENTIONAL planning to identify your right now needs on a social level. What right now needs can your old friends meet? What new friends do you need? What do you imagine a nurturing social contact would look like?
Turning to family is perhaps the most difficult piece of this plan. While we have an inner idea of what a perfect family is, in reality all families have levels of dysfunction. When you have pain, these are more evident. Within families, it is common to have triangulated relationships, defined very simply as an “us VS them.” If our environmental and social interactions are suffering, we become more dependent on those who are closest to us. Frequently, we feel like an outsider because family members don’t or won’t nurture us in the way we need.
How often, though, do you reveal your right now needs to family? If you have always been the nurturing go-to family member, chronic pain changes this dynamic. You find that your bucket is running on empty and become hurt that family members don’t see that. But, how can they know unless you tell them? They may be afraid of asking you how you feel because they are scared for you. We sit and wait for them to intuitively know what we need and frequently feel as if they don’t care.
What a dilemma. You need their support yet you pretend that you are “fine.” How many times have you said that to family members? This is where you have to step out into new territory…you must reveal to them that you are vulnerable, that you need help, that you need their help to get through your pain. Then, YOU MUST specifically tell them WHAT you need. That is the hard part, especially if you haven’t made that inventory yourself.
What INTENTIONAL changes can you make in your interactions with different family members to feel that your right now needs are met? Can you visualize how those changes will make a difference in how you are experiencing pain?