I have a headache. That’s why I’m writing this post tonight. I’d meant to write one on making and breaking social connections, but the headache put what was supposed to be tomorrow’s topic on my mind instead.
I’m not the best person to write about this because there are people out there who’ve dealt with much worse than I have. Makes me wonder how they even function, honestly.
We’ll start with the definition of chronic pain that I’m working off of: Anything that lasts more than a few months. I don’t know anything about nerve damage, cancer, autoimmune issues, etc. But I do know pain.
For me, the primary perpetrator is my back. I’ve dealt with persistent knee, foot, neck, and shoulder issues, but they don’t compare to my back.
With the others, I feel like I can just hold still, add ice/ibuprofen, and be ok. With my back, sitting still just invites more pain.
I’m not going to talk about managing chronic pain. There’s plenty on that. I’m not sure I’m writing this for the people who deal with pain other than for them to see another person out there with it. This is mostly for those without pain to hopefully understand the impacts.
You can look up the spoon theory to get an idea of some of this, but I don’t want to speak in metaphors.
Pain has a very real, very direct effect on my life. I spend a great amount of time and energy (including stealing a friend’s back support for my office chair) just trying to avoid what follows.
At the lowest level, I can just have a dull ache that follows me around all day that I can’t stretch or work out of. It’s like having a slow draw on your car battery. You won’t notice it’s there some of the time, and then it rears its head and you can’t start your car in the morning.
I guess I’ll be speaking in metaphors after all.
To make this more concrete, you won’t realize how tired it’s making you until you hit the end of a long day and you feel like you got in a car wreck instead of putting in 8 hours in the office.
But this isn’t really that bad. You can manage this. You can caffeinate you way through this level of pain.
Let’s amp it up. Let’s make the pain sharper and more focused. Now you have a specific muscle to focus on, which is nice if you have ice, but ice is temporary. That pain could be there all day. The nice thing about this sharper pain is that it tends to disappear (for me) more quickly, but it is still more painful while it’s going on.
And let’s go one more notch. There are days (thankfully fewer now than they used to be) where I just want to lie on the ground and let my back be stretched out by the floor. And I want to do nothing else.
These are the days that are hell.
My temper is shorter and nothing feels good. No seated position, standing position, upward dog position. None of it. My back just hurts, and I want to hit the reset button and start the day over. Or fast forward and wake up tomorrow.
But that ain’t how this works.
And what does all this physical pain do? It adds a mental weight. This is mental health awareness week after all. Physical pain can lead to the psychological variety.
When I’m in pain, I have a much lower tolerance for pretty much everything. So if you add physical pain to psychological stressors, you can basically consider me screwed.
I’m more prone to arguments. I’m more prone to social isolation. All in all, I’m just more prone to being an a-hole (and between you and me, that’s saying something).
And the relationship is reciprocal.
When I’m under a lot of stress, I can usually count on my back to start hurting. I don’t know if it’s just stress causing inflammation, if it’s psychosomatic, or if the stress is just making do other things (e.g., missing workouts, having to sit at my desk more than usual) that then trigger back pain.
So we’ve got pain causing stress. We’ve got stress causing pain. How can we add another layer?
Don’t worry; I got you.
Let’s add the mental weight of trying to avoid back pain. I said I wasn’t going to talk about managing it, and I’m not. I’m going to talk about the mental load of managing it.
Because guess what? You have to now think things through.
I have to watch my posture like a hawk all the time. I’m constantly pulling my shoulders back and trying to straighten out my spine.
I have to watch how I sleep and what I sleep on. On my back is the best if there’s a firm mattress (or floor when necessary), but I sleep better on my side.
I have to make sure I get up and move every so often, so long stretches at the desk and/or computer (we’re at 837 words, and I don’t type that fast) can’t happen without paying the piper. Flying and driving are also fun.
I have to be careful in all workouts not to trigger it. Running? That’s 200 pounds hitting pavement. That’ll be an ache. Lifting? have to watch my spine whenever it’s not pressed against a bench? And yoga? This is the magic cure but not when you get overzealous and have your back seize up a bit in a wheel pose.
And I can’t read on the floor on my stomach without getting a couple of minutes good pain while my back stretches out in a way I’m not used to.
Having to pay attention to all these little things just wears on you. I can’t just slouch into a chair without mentally calculating how much I’m going to pay for that.
All in all, none of it’s all that much, but when you add all of the above together, it’s exhausting. And when my body goes, my brain tends to follow right behind. Later in the week, I’ll talk about productive pain, but this ain’t the productive variety. This is the bad kind. This is the kind that leads to a bottle of pills if you’re not careful.
It makes me tired. It makes me grouchy. It makes me distracted. You can live in those states long-term without paying a cost.
I don’t know how helpful this is, but I hope that it helps you understand.