On a hot, wind-still, summer evening, the park by the river is the perfect place to be. When you are only just two, this perfection poses a few dilemmas. Climbing and running and jumping, your very favourite things to do, make your shoes and sunhat fall off, and somehow turn the hat inside out. And when you an only just two year old, these are pretty serious dilemmas. Shoes are just too difficult yet. But the grass is nicer on bare feet anyway, so no worries, you can stuff the shoes in your pocket and keep going.
But the hat. This is the strong New Zealand sun, that burns in seconds, and hurts your skin and stings your eyes. You already know all about slip-slop-slapping with sun-cream and hat. And you are very fond of your hat, with the sharks and dinosaurs on it. You want to wear it, but it’s just not working. You don’t want help, because you are someone who likes to do everything you can for yourself, and you are pretty sure, if you do it once more, try it this way, it might just work.
You are so utterly focussed on turning your sun-hat the right way out and getting it on your head, that you are breathing like a grampus, and forget to finish what you want to tell me.
“I’m fixing my hat Oma, and putting it on my head, because…” Breathe, breathe, puff.
“What are you fixing it for, sweetie?”
“Oh! For shade, Oma.”
Five minutes later, despite the success of Operation Sunhat, the inconsiderate sun manages to shine its sharp evening rays directly into your eyes.
“I need to put the sun away!” you say, although when you realise how much higher it is than the trees you’re not tall enough yet to climb, you decide the sun can stay where it is, and run off to find the highest thing on the park to climb. To practise for the sun. I know one day you will discover that putting the sun away is beyond you, but no worries: you have a sunhat, and you know how to use it.
That particular summer evening is an old memory now, but it’s one that recurs whenever I see my granddaughter learning a new skill. Putting her hat on didn’t work the first time, so she tried again. And again. And she kept trying until it did work. It might not seem much of a skill, but the real skill is not in hat management (though success with the hat stood her in good stead later for clothes with tricky buttons and zips, and shoes with buckles or bows). The real skill was in her attitude. Every repeated attempt was another show of persistence, of resilience in the face of mistakes, or of ideas not working as well as expected. Each time she tried again, she was developing patience, planning, and problem solving skills. And each success, no matter how small, taught her that those skills are valuable and productive. She is six now, and she still approaches learning with that same spirit of exploration and determination.
Many people could do with a hefty sprinkle of her persistence and self-belief over their morning cornflakes every day. I often see people in Facebook trigeminal neuralgia support groups ask for help with dealing with their pain, and then dismiss any suggestions with “I tried that once before. It didn’t work.” Chronic pain conditions are life-limiting and debilitating, no doubt about that. Fatigue, anxiety and stress often walk alongside. But there are many strategies we can learn to help manage all of this.
Will they make the pain recede so that normal life, whatever that happens to be, becomes less difficult?
Yes: we can all learn to manage a misbehaving hat.
Will they reduce those pain attacks that are a 10 on the pain scale, that drop you to your knees on the floor, leave you vomiting, or half-conscious?
Not necessarily, but they will help you focus on getting from one moment to the next.
Will you get them right first time?
Maybe. If not, keep trying. New skills take time and practice. If you practice them at times when your pain isn’t a problem, they’ll be second nature by the time you need to use them.
Will they cure the pain?
No. None of us can put the sun away. But we can all wear sunhats, sun protection dark glasses etc to reduce it’s effects. It’s the same with pain.
SEVEN WAYS FOR MANAGING PAIN:
I come back to this one again and again. I lose count of how many times I do it during even one day. It’s simple and unobtrusive, so I can do it wherever, whenever. Thumbs and fingers do the job just as well. I was talking to someone today, when electric shocks of pain snaked along my jaw in sudden, eye-watering, stabs. Inside my jeans pockets, my thumbs sprang into immediate action, tapping left then right, in a slow rythmic beat against my hips. And because the brain is distracted by the movement, it switches its focus from the pain to the thumbs, and keeps it busy until the pain fades or passes.
Another one that is unobtrusive and easy to do wherever you are. If it’s not possible to sit down, don’t worry. I’ve often used this tool when I’m standing waiting in a queue in the supermarket. You don’t even need to move your eyes too far either side, so if you’re self-conscious trying this in public, nobody looking will notice. Pretend you are reading a book!
I have a range, from energising ones for those days when fatigue is the worst problem, and I just need to make my brain wake up out of sluggish mode, to ones that make me conk out into sound sleep at night. This one above is my favourite for pain.
I keep an app on my phone and my laptop, so when I need it, it’s always at hand. www.calm.com but the internet is full of others you might find more up your street, (or on your whispering beach, or in your rustling forest). Gentle yoga (avoid bending if you have face pain), tai chi, meditation etc are all great relaxation activities too. You-tube is your friend here.
You can do self-guided visualisations or search the internet for guided ones. Make sure guided ones are narrated by a voice you can enjoy listening to for long. I found it easier starting off with guided ones, and once I was accustomed to the practice, moved on to self-guided.
Mindfulness is one of my favourite techniques, and I use it for pretty much every aspect of my life. It’s not complicated or as mystical and otherworldly as it might sound. It’s simply focusing on the moment you are in right now and allowing yourself to experience it through your senses. Giving yourself a mental breathing space.
Anything goes! When the brain is busy focussing on something, anything, it does not respond so much to the pain signals. So any activity you can get absorbed in works well. For me, the list always includes writing, walks, art, games, reading, music, crafts, the garden. Figure out a whole range of things you enjoy doing, so if physical activity isn’t possible, you have some mental activities to fall back on. And if thinking is too much because of brain-fog, then playing gentle music in the background, or leaving the TV on as wallpaper, or staring at the birds out of the window.
As my granddaughter learned with her sunhat, not every idea will work every time. But don’t be a tried-it-once-give-up kind of person. Learn all the tools, and practice them often. Figure out which ones work best when. Make them work for you.