Stress Management Overview

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There is a good chance that if you are reading this right now, your life is not exactly as you would like it to be.  You are experiencing pain that is significantly altering your quality of life, and you are not very happy about it.  The medical profession has not given you an adequate explanation of why you are in pain.  You are offered multiple treatments that initially raise your hopes of a better life without pain.  Yet the treatments consistently do not result in any lasting relief.  As the pain drags on and your expectations are not met, you become more and more anxious and frustrated.  You are justifiably angry, and there does not seem to be any hope.  Then, another emotion enters the picture.  You begin feeling sorry for yourself.  The pain is bad enough; the anger isn’t great; however, the self-pity becomes overwhelming.

Take away the pain for a second.  Imagine your life before the pain.  Stop and visualize a day or period of life when you were just plain angry.  What kind of a day was it?  Now add the pain back in. The result is a very unpleasant situation.

One of the byproducts of anger is obsessing over negatives. With chronic pain, it is deadly.  As the brain focuses on the pain, the signal becomes stronger.  As the pain worsens, you become even angrier.  An endless cycle is set up and you spiral downward.

As you are reading this, I am asking you, “What exactly are you looking for?”  When I ask that question in the clinic, the most common answer I hear is “ I just want to get rid of the pain.”  The implication is that the rest of the patient’s life will just come together and be great.  Really?

As I am a surgeon, most patients are looking to come to me for the surgery that will solve their pain problems.  If I identify a structural lesion that needs to be dealt with, then I will aggressively go after it surgically and deal with these stress issues later.  However, the vast majority of patients do not have an identifiable structural lesion that I can solve with surgery.

I love structural lesions.  In spite of my strong rehabilitation bias, I am a surgeon.  There is nothing more satisfying in my life than taking someone who is in severe pain and giving him or her back his or her life.  This person is a happy one; I am the hero, which makes me happy too.

I dislike telling my patients that there is nothing I can offer surgically to relieve their pain.  I don’t know any surgeon who likes that situation.  I feel almost as helpless as my patient does.

However, attempting surgery that has a low percentage chance of being successful is a really bad idea.  Not only will it probably not relieve your pain, but there is a significant risk of a complication. Complications in this field can be severe–as bad as your spine breaking down around your fusion.  When you are not coping well with the stress of pain in addition to life’s other stresses, you are vulnerable to making the decision to undergo surgery.  Any chance seems better than no chance.

Improving your ability to cope with stress is critical for many reasons:

  • Quality of relationships
  • Better decision making
  • Calming the nervous system
    • High chance of your pain actually decreasing

If you fully engage in the process of improving your stress management skills you may find that there is a way of living and experiencing your life that you never knew existed.