Radical Acceptance and the Physical Pain of an “Invisible Illness”

Radical Acceptance and the Physical Pain of an “Invisible Illness”

Once we accept the reality of the current moment (however unpleasant it may be) for what it is, and not what we wish it were, we can turn our attention to ways to improve it. This skill is called “Radical Acceptance”. Radical acceptance is hard to do, especially when it feels like accepting the situation is just impossible.

The following suggestions to improve your moment come from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). DBT was created by Marsha Linehan to reduce the distress associated with intense emotional pain. Its principles and strategies can also apply to ongoing physical pain, as well. Moreover, physical and emotional pain are often interrelated: living with physical pain can be emotionally taxing not just on the self but on our loved ones! Plus, pain symptoms are often exacerbated when we feel emotionally vulnerable.

If you live with chronic pain, you may discover that you are already using some sort of radical acceptance, without realizing it. Consider the following, whether as new ideas or gentle reminders.

Radical acceptance: Practice the willingness to see things as they are, thus reducing suffering that comes from fighting the reality of a situation.

Chronic pain is a daily challenge. It makes sense to want things to change. At the same time, acceptance can bring great relief. Acceptance does not mean you like or approve of the situation or that you have given in or given up. Instead, acceptance is the acknowledgement of the current moment for what it is. This deep level of acceptance allows you to stop fighting reality and open yourself to ways to embrace and improve the moment for what it is. This approach is consistent with the Serenity Prayer (Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference).

Distraction: Participate in activities that take the focus from your pain.

Some research shows significant reductions in people’s experience of pain when they participate in activities they find positively engaging. This has been supported with functional scans of brain activity. Notice, for yourself, the moments when your pain slips into the background. Pay attention to what you are doing at those times and create a list of the most effective distractions! These not only decrease your perception of the pain in the moment, but provide important breaks that can add up and shift your experience of your day.

Self-soothing: Engage all of your senses in pampering activities.

People with chronic pain can benefit substantially from deep relaxation. Unfortunately, an instinctual response to pain is to tighten muscles and to breath more shallowly, which intensify pain. These occur without awareness, yet increase suffering. Taking the time to engage in relaxing activities can provide what you need to let go of the stress.

Core Mindfulness: Practice deliberate awareness.

Developing deliberate awareness is at the core of effective change. You can think of mindfulness as a flashlight: at any moment, it is your choice where you shine the beam of light. Notice the effect of attending to particular thoughts, feelings, sensations, or aspects of your experience or environment. Mindfulness involves taking a step back and seeing the choice in each moment. This is an alternative to being mindless, scattered, or feeling powerless. It also emphasizes the ever-changing nature of the present moment. This holds tremendous power, of course, as we remind ourselves that all we ever have to get through is the present moment, which is always fleeting.

Observing and describing non-judgmentally: See things as they are, even if you wish it was different.

Much suffering comes from judgmental thinking. Once we form judgments, we tend to ignore inconsistent or contradictory information. So if you judge something to be “awful,” someone as “selfish,” or yourself as “pathetic,” you are more likely to experience it that way, and miss out on seeing the richer reality of the situation.

Let go of suffering: Notice your experience without attaching to it.

Observe your emotions as waves, rather than denying them or keeping them around by feeding them with negative self-talk. This applies equally to strong negative emotions, as well as flare-ups of physical pain. You can practice this by slowing your breath and reminding yourself that however it may feel, you are much more than your current painful feeling.

Acting opposite: Doing things you don’t feel like doing and know will help.

Pain is powerful. Acting opposite pushed you do something that will help, even when you may want to stay in bed or generally avoid doing anything. When you hurt, it can be exhausting to consider engaging in anything at all, even when you recognize it could have, at least, a marginal benefit. By “acting opposite,” we can try it out and see the result.

Living well with chronic pain requires the capacity to accept the moment for what it is, while at the same time working toward positive change. Use of these skills can help you to manage more effectively while living a fuller and more enriched life.


Authored By:  Suhadee Henriquez, LCSW