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How Do You Cope With Back Pain?

By: Dr. David L. Phillips

Most people who seek my services do so because of pain. Back pain, headaches, tendonitis in the shoulder or elbow, whiplash, sprained knees or ankles…some kind of pain. Pain is what motivates us to pay attention and do something. We humans don’t like pain. We define our sense of well-being and our level of health by pain. If we’re not in pain, we consider ourselves to be “healthy”. This narrow point of view is unfortunate and limits our perspective and awareness of our body’s functioning.

How you cope with pain reveals much about you and your personality. Coping with pain can be defined as “efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are thought to be taxing or exceeding the abilities of the individual”. There are both active and passive strategies for coping with pain. If you are one who takes responsibility for your pain and you get involved in the process of pain relief, you are actively coping. You usually press on despite the pain, plan your day to be active and busy, keep your calendar full, exercise regularly, and dig down for more just when you think you can’t go on. Actively coping people attempt to keep negative thoughts at bay and refuse to worry needlessly. Even though you are in constant pain, you find things that will distract you, amuse you and generally keep your mind engaged so that there is less room for feeling pain. The pain becomes less important than ‘getting on with your life’.

On the other side of the scale are people who cope with pain in a passive way. Those who deal with pain passively are those who willingly turn the responsibility for the cause and management of pain over to outside sources. They allow their lives to be adversely affected by pain. They may begin to identify with pain and talk in terms of “My pain”. When your identity gets wrapped up in your health condition, therapies begin to be less effective.

Passive copers have limited their lives to the point that they do very little except dwell on their pain and suffering. They have long since cancelled their social activities and given in to the attitude that they can’t do anything without pain, so what is the sense of trying, they ask. They only focus on what hurts, how much, and how long. They talk in terms of: “I can’t take any more” or “This pain is wearing me down” or “I wish I had stronger medication to help me with this pain” or “Why can’t my doctor do more to help me?” These statements are passive and indicate the victim mentality that passively coping people so frequently reveal.

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In practice, doctors are continually on alert for passive people, as they never seem to get positive results from the usual therapies, and generally become increasingly disabled. We call indicators of passive attitudes “yellow flags”. When we see these yellow flags we tend to look for opportunities to refer these people to psychotherapists for counseling.

Passive pain coping strategies are maladaptive in nature and tend to stand in the way of an individual’s maturation process. These people tend to become dependent on others, including their doctors. They are difficult people to befriend as they take more from others than they give. They seem to be on the lookout for a listening ear so that they can unload their myriad of woes. Listening to them is OK, if some purpose is achieved. Sadly, more often than not, the entire scene has been played out so often by them that talking about their troubles merely reinforces their role of the victim.

Coping behaviors can be a strong indicator of the overall function of the individual. Passive individuals tend to develop victim mentalities, often have weaker immune systems and “catch” everything going. None of us likes to be around passive, negative people for long. Unfortunately, this subtle message leaves the passive person with a self-fulfilling prophecy that nothing good ever comes their way and that they are doomed to suffer, both physical pain and social rejection.

The good news is that it is possible to alter one’s attitude and change to become an active coping person. The key is self-awareness. If you recognize in yourself any of the passive coping behaviors that we touched on in this article, you can then take steps to change the way you deal with life’s stresses. I believe that the ultimate healing power lies within the individual. Doctors and therapists merely act as catalysts to set healing in motion, or to release interference that may be holding your healing powers back, but the real power to positively affect the outcome is right inside you. As with most other things in life, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me”.

The inspiration for this article came from the commentary section of the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association Vol 46, No. 3 September 2002.

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