Introduction to Lifestyle & Habits

Woman grocery shopping

What are the key traits of highly successful chronic pain sufferers? Everywhere you turn, from television shows to print, there is a wealth of advice devoted to helping you radically improve your appearance. If experts can teach you how to have great hair and look sexier, then it’s high time you got some advice on how to transform the way you feel, too!

James Fries, M.D., a professor of medicine at Stanford, developed the Theory of Compressed Morbidity. Morbidity refers to the incidence of ill health. Compressed morbidity means being healthy and highly functional for most of one’s lifetime, then squeezing sickness into a condensed time frame at the very end of life. In other words, disease does not occur until the end of life, at which point it would be time to die.

I realize this sounds like a geriatric fairy tale, as in “They lived healthfully ever after.” But it’s worth noting that Fries’ recommendations for achieving compressed morbidity boil down to a few simple lifestyle habits: maintain a normal body weight, exercise regularly and vigorously, and avoid smoking. I bring this up because, of the thousands of chronic pain patients I have seen over the years, most are above their ideal body weight, have a fear of exercise, have some form of medication dependency, and, to a lesser degree, smoke. (For those who do smoke, the stress of dealing with pain seems to increase the urge to light up.)

The following seven steps will help you create a training regimen to win the battle against chronic pain. Don’t worry about delving into the details of each step right now; what follows is just a quick overview. And don’t worry about tackling the parts in order; that’s not necessary. You don’t have to master one before moving on to the next. Try them all. Some will feel comfortable right away; others will take more time. Don’t worry about that, just keep moving ahead.

Step One: Use Your Breath

Learning how to use your breath is a fundamental step toward gaining control of your health. Your breath is the root from which all your branches will sprout. Mastering the breath can help you:

  • Stretch tight muscles
  • Strengthen parts of the body overprotected by the fear of pain
  • Boost your energy and endurance
  • Manage pain flare-ups
  • Reduce stress
  • Clear your mind of negative chatter
  • Get a better night’s sleep

Step Two: Create a Healing Mind

The mind is a powerful tool for improving health and wellness. If we aren’t careful, we can easily allow dysfunctional thoughts to take root in our minds. Acting through the mind/body connection, harmful thoughts throw us off track. They create negative emotions that “speak” to our bodies, setting in motion biochemical and physiological changes that can worsen our pain and cause our physical bodies to shut down. New research now shows that if we can control our brain, we can control our pain. In order to help you accomplish this, focus on:

  • Breathing and meditative exercises to reduce stress, cleanse negative thoughts and emotions, and replace them with healing alternatives such as gratitude and appreciation
  • Learning the value of acceptance, not as a path to defeat but as a means of improving emotional well-being
  • Becoming acquainted with the ways in which the creative side of your brain can process bottled-up negative emotions that need to be released
  • Recognizing how addiction to prescription pills, alcohol, and drugs can control your decision making and block helpful thoughts
  • Understanding how hard-to-see dependencies, such as emotional addictions to anger or fear, can be equally dangerous

Step Three: Connect

Some of my happiest patients are those whom I consider to be the most “connected.” Connections are the bonds we form with the world around us. For example, I see many patients who were injured at work and need to take a leave of absence while they seek treatment. This time off may be necessary, but it can also be harmful in that it allows the work connection to weaken. A work connection can provide valuable intangibles to life, including social bonds and a feeling of purpose. Breaking this bond can send many people into a tailspin. But the ones who later establish new connections, either by returning to work or finding something that replaces work, like volunteering, seem to manage their pain much better.

Many people react to their chronic pain experience by retreating from more than just work. They may cut down on or avoid social contacts, like visiting with friends or going to church. But each interaction you miss out on removes a connection from your life. As connections become fewer and fewer, the world around you becomes smaller and smaller. Preserving your connections, or creating new ones, significantly improves the quality of your life.

As you branch out, look to make healthy bonds. Seek out friends who like to take walks or exercise. Get involved in pursuits where you can share your love and kindness with others. This will bring more healing into your life than you can ever imagine.

Exercise, home life, healthy aging, facing addiction, and gaining acceptance will help you eliminate the physical and emotional barriers to your connections.

Step Four: Ingest Quality

Our bodies are totally dependent on the air we breathe and the nutrients we eat to run properly. But each and every day we expose our bodies to chemicals from the food we consume and the medications we take. We often lose sight of the fact that our health hinges on every breath and swallow that takes place.

View your body as a temple and cherish everything you put into it. Consider carefully what medications you will expose it to. To keep it in tip-top shape, you must be committed to ingesting only quality substances. Whenever possible, adhere to the principles of the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Think through your long-term medication goals.

Step Five: Add Balance

There are only so many hours in a day, and you need to spend a third of it sleeping. If you want to take charge of your pain, you need to strike the right balance in your life. You must create time to take care of the whole you: mind, body, and spirit. Try to spend less of that precious time in the sick role, going from doctor to doctor and treatment to treatment, and more of it exploring practices and exercises that boost your vitality and well-being.

My most successful patients are those who can strike a healthy balance between things like work, home life, and relationships on the one hand, and looking after their own needs on the other.

Remember: You really can’t successfully take care of others if you don’t first take great care of yourself. Everyone’s situation is unique and ever changing, so I suggest you remain mindful of the balance in your life and adjust things as you go along. Remember: Life is a journey, preferably a long and fulfilling one.

Step Six: Modify Your Environment

A valuable lesson I’ve learned in treating chronic pain is the importance of a supportive environment. I’ve found that creating a nurturing and healing environment for my patients at my center helps them take control of their pain and their lives. Unfortunately when they leave that environment and return home, things can unravel if their home atmosphere lacks the same support. Home life has the potential to really help things along—or play the role of the spoiler.

There are many ways to create a home environment that can sustain all the wonderful parts of your makeover. This can be a give-and-take process, and one thing that might need to change is you, including how you communicate. Everyone in the home has a role to play in creating the best environment.

Step Seven: Gain Perspective

As you have probably guessed by now, our modern health care system is often a less-than-ideal tool for controlling chronic pain problems. Indeed, sometimes it can be part of the problem. Be that as it may, modern medicine remains an inherent part of our lives, and it isn’t going away any time soon. As a matter of practicality, I recommend that you periodically take a step back and reevaluate your treatments. Are they in-line with your long-term goals? Do they help get you where you want to be, or are they holding up your forward progress?

I realize that learning how to make medicine work for you and not against you can be difficult, especially if you don’t have a background in health care. That is why I present important facts and different perspectives to help educate you on all your options. I think as you read this website many of your questions will be answered—but new questions will be raised. That is precisely what I want to see happen! After all, this might be just the beginning of a process for you. Don’t hesitate to communicate your thoughts and questions to your doctors. They need your feedback so they can best serve you. As always, I recommend you consult with them before making any wholesale changes in how you manage your health.

Let’s face it: For all the problems with our modern health care system, and for the many times it fails to adequately help those hit with chronic pain, it is still the system we must deal with, so you need to make the best of it.

Doctors and scientists already know that our most common chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis, are intimately linked to lifestyle factors, including nutrition, exercise, smoking, and stress. My patients have taught me that the most powerful treatment to fight chronic pain is not the strongest drug or latest surgery, but rather the immersion of the self into habits designed to boost total wellness—mind, body, and spirit. I’m here to teach you the best ways I know of to do that for life.

Let’s Get Started!

I suspect you have, without even thinking about it, taken a few hundred breaths while reading this page. Now it is time to learn how to use the breath, the first step in your chronic pain makeover.