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How do you communicate pain?

“Finally, it is likely that validation requires mindfulness, tolerance, and acceptance of one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of the partner.”

This was one of the last sentences I read in a study led by Annmarie Cano and published on the National Institutes of Health website (view it here). The study was, in my words, about the differences in pain levels when a person in pain felt supported by his or her spouse, compared to when they didn't have that support.

No surprises for me in the results – pain sufferers who felt supported had better relationships with their partners and vice versa. We all want to feel loved and cared for, no matter our physical health. Being in pain, especially if your spouse doesn't believe or understand how you feel, can make communication much more difficult.

And I find the quotation I used to start this article to be a very telling statement on this issue. First is the idea that we need to accept our own emotions. Ask yourself: Am I feeling the need to be supported but expressing it poorly, possibly through anger or frustration? It’s like coming home after a long, hard day and snapping at the people around you instead of taking a moment to let go the frustrations of the day. Or when your expectation is not met and you express your need with a sigh, a facial expression, or a certain movement instead of words. This non-verbal signal is done often and sometimes without you even realizing it. I remember an aunt who sighed regularly until she was asked what she needed. It became incredibly annoying for her family who kept suggesting that she just ask for what she needed.

Take note of what you are feeling and convey your needs as clearly and directly as you can. Clear, honest words. Eye contact and perhaps a hand held.

The second part of the quote above relates to the emotions of your partner, or the family member who cares for you. I remember reading of the many personal frustrations Toni Bernhard’s husband had in the autobiography of her chronic illness, How To Be Sick. He hated knowing there was nothing he could do to help her. In the end, he decided that what he could do was make her dinner a special meal and one that she could look forward to. It worked. It lifted her spirits, which in turn lifted his. It is not easy to stand by helpless, unable to help the one you love.

Be mindful of how your caregiver is feeling and keep the dialogue open and ongoing. Doing so with compassion will go a long way in helping any relationship.

Communication is key – both with yourself and those around you. How you talk about pain matters. Make it verbal, two way, and from a position of cooperation. Use empathy even when thinking about yourself. Examine your thoughts about the pain in case any hidden agenda’s may have developed, such as using it for attention.

Most of all, know that you are not alone.

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