What does it mean to accept your pain? That is a question that many of us have asked or been asked. I’ve been involved in a conversation on twitter with someone who doesn’t get why we would choose to focus on coping with our illness. His thought is that we should be focused on curing it. My answer was that’s great and I hope they do find a cure, but for now there isn’t one. So, I can either sit and do nothing or I can choose to accept the life that is and choose to cope with what I have.
I love the research that Dr. LaChapelle and her group are doing at the Rehabilitation Research Psychology Lab. This is where I would have loved to have gone to grad school if I’d gone… and if it wasn’t located in British Columbia (I’m just not that fond of cold and snow).
Pain acceptance is the process of giving up the struggle with pain and learning to live life despite pain.
This quote from the first paragraph of this study says so much and it basically sums up what I want to inspire people to do. It’s not that we don’t keep trying to lessen our pain, it’s that we go on living despite it.What does acceptance mean? Acceptance isn't giving up, it's learning to live despite the pain. Click To Tweet
Acceptance of pain is associated with lower pain, distress, and better living. The problem is how do you get to that point of acceptance. There are therapy programs focused on acceptance and they can be very helpful, if you can find them. Most of us don’t get to the point of acceptance through therapy, though, we get there on our own, through a process of.
Typically, when we are diagnosed acceptance is not where we start. We start by fighting with everything we have to try to find a way to make the pain go away, to cure the disease. We are not ready to surrender and the idea of simply accepting our new state in life would never occur to us. It’s only after we’ve exhausted all other options and realize that the pain is not going away that we might consider learning to accept the diagnosis.
Despite that, research has shown that it’s when patients stop looking for medical answers and start living despite their illness that they have the best outcomes.
It is thought that the process of acceptance allows people to redirect their energy from finding a cure, toward finding ways of living a fulfilling and satisfying life despite the pain.
Research was conducted through focus groups. You’ve seen these on TV, it’s where you have a group of people (in this case, anywhere from two to seven) who openly discuss a topic. They divided the 11 focus groups up so that those patients who live with Fibromyalgia were in their own group. This was done with the understanding that those living with Fibromyalgia often face different issues than those living with arthritis.
The focus groups discussed three main questions:
- “What is acceptance from the perspective of persons living with pain?” They asked that each person share their own definition of acceptance, and what it means to that person when they hear someone say that they’ve been able to accept their diagnosis.
- “What facilitates acceptance?” What has helped them accept their diagnosis?
- “What hinders acceptance?” What has made it difficult to accept their diagnosis?
The researchers found that most of the patients felt that acceptance meant giving up or giving in to pain. They preferred other terms like, “embracing”, “dealing with” or “coming to terms”. That said they generally defined acceptance as pursuing life despite the pain.
Another interesting aspect was that many of the women in these focus groups (the groups were all female) stated they will willingly engage in activities that will cause them pain because those same activities will bring them joy.
They also repeatedly stated that they’ve taken more control of their lives because of the pain, even if they can’t control the pain.
Acceptance is about understanding your limits, and simply trying to live better. Click To Tweet
Acceptance is really about knowing what your limits are and knowing what you can do […] and just trying to find a way to live a better life than you did and not try to find answers. (Carrie, FM)
So much truth in that statement.
It is important to note that just because they chose to accept their pain that acceptance to these ladies did not mean that they would live with the pain without any need to reduce it, avoid it, or change it. They still have hope that the pain can be improved, and did not believe that acceptance was the same as giving up.
The Process of Acceptance
All of the focus groups agreed that acceptance is not something that just happens, it’s a process that takes time. They felt that it began with realizing they needed help and receiving a diagnosis. This was followed by realizing there is no cure, realizing it could be worse, and redefining normal. they also felt that acceptance is an on-going thing. You don’t just accept your lot and then you are done. It’s something you do again and again. I know that I’ve found that I move back through these steps over and over again, with each new diagnosis and sometimes I repeat these steps within the same diagnosis.
What helps acceptance?
- Obtaining a diagnosis is a huge step for many in learning to accept their illness. It’s hard to accept something when you don’t know what it is or if it can be cured.
- Self-management and education – Only after you have a diagnosis can you begin to educate yourself about how to manage the illness. Self-management include many things including diet, exercise, pacing, and even humor.
- Perceived social support – It’s easier to accept a diagnosis and to keep living when we feel support from those around us including our family, friends, and employers. Many also find support groups helpful.
What hinders acceptance?
- Lack of support and acceptance from others – understandably so. If your spouse, or loved ones, doesn’t accept your diagnosis you are much more likely to fight it yourself and keep looking for other answers. This also includes lack of support from the medical community, something we see all too often with Fibromyalgia.
- Unrelenting pain experiences – when the pain refuses to go away it drains you and it makes it really hard to keep living from day-to-day.
- Mounting losses and the fight to be ‘normal’ – We often fight to keep up the identity we had before we got sick. Many feel that by making adjustments to life you are letting the pain win. Therefore instead of making adjustments to life, many choose to use an exorbitant amount of energy to fake being normal. Unfortunately, this often just makes things worse.
The women’s responses revealed that acceptance was a process of realizations and acknowledgements, including realizing that the pain was not normal and help was needed, receiving a diagnosis, acknowledging that there was no cure and realizing that they needed to redefine ‘normal’
I found this study interesting because it’s so in line with the way that I think. I haven’t given up on eliminating my pain completely. I do still have to avoid certain activities that would bring me joy simply because of the pain they would also bring. But, I engage in others with the knowledge that they might bring pain. I’ve learned my limits (mostly) and I pace myself. I control my life instead of letting it control me. That’s what acceptance means to me. It means that I keep living despite these stupid diagnoses and the pain.
What has helped me accept it? Reaching a point where I’d tried so many things that didn’t work. I finally had to decide to either give up on life or learn to live despite the pain. I chose the latter. I did find means to reduce the pain and fatigue, and I haven’t stopped looking for answers yet.
What’s hindered it? Only myself. I get in my way sometimes. There are times I get frustrated and I want to fight it all. I want everything fixed and I throw an internal tantrum.
LaChapelle, D. L., Lavoie, S., & Boudreau, A. (2008). The meaning and process of pain acceptance. Perceptions of women living with arthritis and fibromyalgia. Pain Research and Management, 13(3), 201-210.
What about you? What is your definition of acceptance? Have you gotten there yet? If so, how did it happen? I’d love to hear your stories, so please share them in the comments below.