Chronic pain often makes people mad. Pain feels unfair. You don't deserve it. It gets in the way of life. It doesn't make sense. Other people just don't get what you are going through. It's gone on for too long…
You may be angry and you have the right to feel that way. Anger is a normal human emotion. But think about this: anger makes pain worse. In fact, anger brings its own pain.
- Research shows that negative emotions such as anger can increase sensitivity to pain, making you feel worse.
- Anger can increase muscle tension → muscle tension can increase pain.
- If you tend to suppress your anger and turn it in on yourself, you may feel depressed, your self-esteem may suffer, and you may feel hopeless and helpless.
- If you tend to turn your anger out at other people, your relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and your doctor may suffer.
You might be shaking your head right new (perhaps in anger), thinking “Am I supposed to pretend like I'm not angry when I am?' or “Should I be a wimp and just put up with things?” or “Am I expected to just try to hide from my angry feelings?” No. It's rarely helpful to deny your emotions. But, you can learn to manage your anger.
A book by Dr. Matthew McKay and colleagues, “When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within”, is a very helpful resource. It is easy to read, practical, and based on the science of anger management. The authors talk about anger as a two part process.
Anger has two components:
- Internal physical sensations of stress. Your body is telling you that something is wrong, that you are being expected to do something that you feel incapable of doing. Your stomach may be upset, your muscles may feel tense, you may feel jittery, your heart may be racing, you may have trouble concentrating. Stress reduction techniques such as exercise, daily relaxation, decreased use of caffeine and other stimulants are proven methods of reducing levels of stress.
- Triggering thoughts or beliefs. Dr. McKay and colleagues talk about two ca
tegories of triggers: “blamers” and “shoulds”. Thoughts that some one else is to blame can make you feel like an angry victim. Thoughts that others are not doing what they should can trigger righteous anger. Let's talk a bit more about triggers.
The problem with “blamers” is that they assume that others are really in charge of you. You lose personal responsibility and control. You cast yourself as a victim. Here are a few examples.
“He made me stay at the mall too long and now my back really hurts.”
“The doctor was in a rush and I didn't get to tell her about the side effects to the drug. Now I'm stuck with it.”
“She stayed up too late with the TV blaring so I couldn't fall asleep. Without a good night sleep, I hurt all over.”
“He is so lazy, I have to do all of the housework. Now I have a migraine.”
Shoulds are difficult because they assume the other person knows and agrees with your “rules” about how they should behave. This is often not the case. Rather than assuming others share your beliefs, it is most helpful to talk with them about what you each want and need. Below are some examples.
“She should know not to put so much stuff in the suitcases. Now my back is killing me from lifting them to put them in the car.”
“Why can't he ever make dinner when I have had a bad day? He should think about how I feel.”
“I feel so awful and my family acts like nothing is wrong. They should take better care of me.”
“My boss should give me flexible hours. It's so unfair.”
It is important to remember that once you have had a triggering thought, the anger seems justified and “right”. However, often when people begin to examine and question their angry “blamers” and “shoulds”, they begin to realize that there may be other ways to think about the situation. Take time to list your own blamers and shoulds. Try to identify the situations where you can take control and not be an angry victim. Talk to the important people in your life about your mutual needs and “shoulds”.
About the Author. Dr. Linda Ruehlman is a social/health psychologist and researcher, co-founder of Goalistics, and Director of the Chronic Pain Management Program, an interactive site that helps people with chronic pain to manage their pain and live richer, more effective lives.
DISCLAIMER: This blog is provided as an educational and informational resource only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional psychological or medical advice.