As a Pain Coach, I get to see the most incredible transformations. A few months ago, I worked with a person who had been dealing with pain all over their body for years. They were diagnosed with fibromyalgia. This is one of the more common conditions I encounter and can be extremely debilitating, often going hand in hand with chronic fatigue and brain fog. The transformation I saw happening in the 4 months we worked together though was absolutely amazing. I want to share some of their journey here today to give hope to those who are dealing with their own chronic symptoms.
Let’s start at the beginning. There were several different symptoms this client was dealing with, which is common with fibromyalgia. They were suffering from leg and foot pain, sore wrists and hands, brain fog, IBS, mood swings, and dizziness spells. As they told me in our first session, they had always been very active: going to the gym, doing yoga, walking, and biking a lot. Now, some days even walking feels too painful, and the times they feel well enough to do yoga, they regretted it the next day because their body was just screaming at them. So, they started going less and less. The fatigue, that is often paired with fibromyalgia, led to wanting to cancel social activities, but the guilt didn’t help and made them feel worse. Or they said Yes when they were too tired or sore to go, and as a result not being able to enjoy it. It felt like a vicious cycle, that wasn’t getting any better with time.
When the pain started a few years ago, the first step, as usual, was to go to the doctor. There, all the necessary scans and tests were done, since there was no clear answer to the persisting pain, the diagnosis was fibromyalgia. I hear this a lot. And most people are told, it is just “something they have to learn to live with’’.
During our first session, the word acceptance came up a lot, because they wanted to learn to accept the current situation and learn to live with the pain. One of the questions I like to ask here is: Do you believe you can heal? This is an important question because it determines a lot about the healing journey ahead.
When dealing with chronic symptoms, the name says enough: ‘chronic’ means persistent and is considered as ‘for life’. In the majority of ‘chronic’ pain cases, this is simply untrue, and healing is possible. My first step in the journey with a client is to explain more about pain, how it develops and manifests, and how it ended up becoming chronic. Usually, the simple understanding gives people hope, and they start to believe that they can, in fact, recover.
Doing the work
With the understanding of the mind-body connection, we could start taking the first steps toward healing. For this, we need to look at a combination of things: the body, the mind, and the environment of a person. In this specific case, it meant the following:
- Body: what we often see with chronic pain sufferers, is that when something starts to hurt, the instinct is to rest, and do less. When dealing with acute pain and injury, this is indeed the right approach. However, in the case of pain lasting longer than 3-6 months, this means there is something else going on. If the body hasn’t healed by then, it is a mind-body connection problem, also referred to as neuroplastic pain. Here, the approach is to build up activity in a safe way, for the mind to collect new proof that movement is safe to do.
We set up a pacing plan together and tracked this week to week. The aim is to not overdo it either because then you risk reconfirming that activity is dangerous, keeping your nervous system on high alert, which leads to increased pain signals. In a short period of time, they started walking more, and doing yoga, yet avoiding heavier workouts, which was reintroduced later in the journey. The change was gradual but noticeable. So was the joy.
- Mind: when dealing with heavy emotional situations, whether in your day-to-day life or the past, if we don’t process this and release the tension, this will build up in the body and can manifest itself as physical pain. This was also the case here, where the sudden illness of a parent and caring for them, took a huge emotional toll. As is often the case, we tend to deal with it and remain strong, brushing it off as ‘just a normal part of life’. Yet, we can also be strong, while at the same time, processing the feelings that are going on inside, in a healthy way. One does not exclude the other. By becoming aware of the stress it has caused, and understanding what this can do to your body, they were able to release some of it through journaling and in-session exercises. They explained feeling physically lighter after doing this work.
- Environment: this is an oft overlooked factor in a healing journey, however, being the social creatures that we are, our environment plays a huge role. The way we interact with others, how much support we perceive to have, and how we set boundaries, all affect our mental and physical health. In this case, there was a clear lack of boundaries, difficulties saying No, and putting themselves last on the priority list. When your own cup is empty, there is not much left to give. You need to fill your own cup first before you can give fully to others. This was one of the reframes that really helped. The communication improved with their environment, they planned more time for themselves and didn’t have to cancel plans with others because of exhaustion.
Finally, we spent the last 2 sessions on getting more aligned with their true self. What is missing in their life, and how can we add that back in? This might sound like a bit of a reach for a Pain Coach, but so much of the pain is caused by simply being unaligned with your values and who you truly are. When we started applying this to daily life, for them it meant joining a specific gym and doing volunteering work with animals, which brought them joy and connection. The new habits ended up replacing unhealthier ones, making them feel better overall.
Doing things that make you feel more aligned, and connected, not only makes you happier but also reduces pain symptoms as a by-product.
A happy ending but a work in progress
It is common practice to measure the pain level, on a scale of 0 to 10, at the beginning and end of a treatment. (0 being no pain at all, and 10 being an excruciating amount of pain). There are debates about whether this is effective, but it gives an indication of the changes made. For this specific client, it meant going from average pain levels of 7 or higher on a daily basis, where on some days walking wasn’t even an option, to an average of 2. Most days, they said, they are pain-free, and now only have the occasional flare-up. But the most important thing for them was that they were able to fight their fear because they knew exactly what to do when it happened. In their own words: “I’ve learned to be kinder to myself. Developed a better relationship with myself, letting go of control, breaking unhelpful patterns, more confidence in my body”.
I think with the right support, this is possible for everyone.