As someone living with chronic pain and illness, I know about suffering. I have done my fair share of suffering, and then some. For most of my life it seemed inevitable. If you live with chronic pain and illness, you are bound to suffer. Even without it, according to Buddhist philosophy, life is suffering, or, put another way, by Dr. Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker, life is “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.”
According to Epstein, the human experiences of birth, decay, disease, death, the search for the ultimate satisfaction through sexuality, not to be able to love, not be be loved enough, not to be known, and not to know oneself is all suffering.
So does this mean we are destined to suffer? In a word, yes. It’s part of life, whether you are dealing with physical pain or, as Epstein puts it, a "restriction in the capacity for love".
But wait! I'm not quite finished. While we cannot avoid suffering, we can determine, to some extent, the degree to which we allow ourselves to suffer, and with one simple technique, we can reduce our suffering.
Let me rewind a bit first. A few years ago I was introduced to the idea of primary and secondary suffering:
Primary suffering refers to any unpleasant physical sensations you may experience as a consequence of illness, injury, fatigue, etc. Primary suffering may also appear in the form of mental or emotional pain. There is often not much you can do about those sensations. You may have medications, remedies and therapies to help, but they may not eliminate all your discomfort.
Secondary suffering is the anguish and other upsetting emotions we experience as a reaction to primary suffering: feelings like fear, frustration, anger, depression and anxiety, which we pile on top of the primary suffering and so we end up with overwhelm and despair.
To break it down a little more, the emotions of secondary suffering occur as a result of the negative and fearful thoughts you have about your pain, or primary suffering.
In the image above, you can see that thoughts lead to emotions, which lead to behaviours. For example: you feel a pain sensation, and you think “My pain is going to keep getting worse,” you feel panicked, cry, feel more exhausted, and then you think “I’m going to be exhausted forever,” then you feel despair, and on and on and on, spiralling downwards. You get the idea, right?.
And here is the silver lining:
Primary suffering is inevitable. Secondary suffering is not.
Secondary suffering is very draining and uses up a lot of energy. By reducing or eliminating your secondary suffering, you can improve your mood and boost your energy levels.
How to Reduce Secondary Suffering
The key to reducing secondary suffering is to practice awareness: patrol your thoughts and beliefs about your pain, illness or other primary suffering, and then challenge the negative thoughts that arise about that suffering using the following technique:
Using the same example of “My pain is going to keep getting worse,” ask yourself:
Is this thought (“My pain is going to keep getting worse”) valid?
Can you say with 100% certainty that your pain is going to get worse?
No, you can’t.
Is this though useful?
No, not if it is creating so much secondary suffering.
If the thought, like this one, isn’t valid or useful, choose a better one (positive or neutral), such as:
“There are ups and downs in healing.”
“In this moment, I am ok.”
“If I rest enough, there is a good chance I will feel less tired at some point this week.”
Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do. Replace your negative thoughts with supportive ones. By shifting your thoughts and perspective, you can start to reduce your secondary suffering. Even if the primary suffering does not change, you have the power to decide how much more suffering you’re going to pile on top of it.
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