Coping with Pain Through Acceptance
January 18, 2021
As a psychotherapist specializing in clients coping with chronic pain, I was fortunate to work with an inspirational client named Debbie. Debbie’s journey with chronic pain started fifteen years ago. This was not a path she chose nor is it an experience that she relishes or treasures. But she now leads a rich, joyful, and rewarding life alongside pain. Although she still endures daily chronic pain, she no longer suffers. How can one learn to live with chronic pain but not suffer? The answer is not simple but through using an approach of radical acceptance, Debbie discovered that pain no longer dictates her every action or thought, nor does it mitigate the quality of her life.
Debbie’s pain, caused by an autoimmune disease, affects several areas of her body including her pelvic region and back. She underwent numerous surgeries, painful treatment protocols, and lived for years on multiple pain medications including opioids. She became physically addicted to opioids and when she wanted to stop, she needed to go on Suboxone for several months to ease the withdrawal process from opioids. Her various medical interventions helped but never eradicated her pain completely. Debbie had to come to terms with the fact that pain would always be a part of her but how not allow it to dominate her thoughts and actions. After much research and with the guidance of therapy, Debbie was able to stop all medical treatments and pain medications and decided to manage her pain incorporating a different strategy –using radical acceptance.
What is radical acceptance? Radical acceptance is a practice developed by Marsha Linehan. Used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), this practice was created based on the idea that reality must be accepted, rather than battled, and that fighting against a situation is a greater cause of suffering than the situation itself. Radical acceptance means accepting your current situation and your life without question, negativity, or anger. Radical acceptance doesn’t require condoning or embracing your situation or pain but encourages simply accepting yourself and your circumstances in order to move through or past them.
In working with clients like Debbie, I am careful not to minimize their pain and always validate the daily multiple challenges they face. I help clients use an integrative approach encouraging the use of medication, medical procedures, redirection, nutrition, exercise, and meditation. I never ask a client to stop searching for medications or treatments they feel might be helpful. Nor will I encourage non-compliance with protocols suggested by their medical practitioners. But I have found that using the practice of radical acceptance is the most effective method of managing pain allowing my clients to lead a life that allows joy, hopefulness, and gratitude.
What does radical acceptance look like on a day-to-day basis? Debbie feels pain every day but instead of using a narrative such as “I hate my pain and wish it would go away” or “I can’t stand feeling this way” or “I can’t live another day like this,” she uses a more neutral self-dialogue. If she were to use such negative phrases, Debbie’s pain signals would only increase and strengthen leading to a greater level of suffering.
Debbie uses more positive statements such as “I notice the sensation in my body, and I am okay” or “I notice how I am feeling today, and I feel good about my body.” Due to the neuroplasticity of our brains, sending non-judgmental messages from our brain to our body creates new neural pathways, ultimately changing the quality of pain.
Debbie became convinced of the effectiveness of using radical acceptance when she woke up one night and experienced the same level of pain she has felt for years but didn’t suffer. Before using this practice, Debbie would have used negative phraseology wishing her pain away but when using radical acceptance, she merely noticed her sensation and her pain no longer caused her to suffer.
When working with my clients coping with chronic pain, I find those willing to embrace the use of daily radical acceptance achieve the best pain management and can experience pockets of joy leading to an enriched life.
Nancy Fish, LCSWMy clinical practice includes clients requiring treatment for depression, anxiety, anger management, chronic illness, chronic pain, special needs issues and grief. I work with individuals, couples, and families.