Have you ever felt like Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network? When Howard decided that he couldn’t take any more frustration and emotional pain in his life, he threw open a window and yelled (to paraphrase):
I’m MAD and I’m not going to take it anymore!!
By today’s standards, yelling from a window is pretty tame – but the amount of anguish felt by Howard may be familiar to anyone dealing with chronic pain. Who hasn’t felt like screaming at the top of their lungs, because it seems to be the only way to cope with pain that won’t stop? Who wouldn’t want to stand outside the doctor’s office, yelling, I’ve done everything you suggested and NOTHING WORKS!! NO ONE understands what I’m going through, and what’s more, NO ONE CARES!!!
By the numbers
If this is how you feel, you’re probably not alone. The number of people with chronic pain in the U.S. is staggering: In 2011, almost 100 million Americans reported having long-term pain problems. About one-third of the affected people said that their symptoms were “disabling” – so severe that it was hard, or even impossible, to function normally on a day-to-day basis.
How does anyone cope in this situation?
From meds to moods
Most people with chronic pain first search for help from their primary care physicians; in time, they may see pain specialists or other health care providers. But no matter which providers they see, patients are often surprised to find that there’s no single “magic bullet” treatment that will relieve all of their pain. And even when treatments are combined, as many experts recommend, it still may not lead to a pain-free life.
If treatments don’t work well, or stop working, then a person with chronic pain may feel hopeless, depressed, frustrated, or even angry.
When life seems bleak
Pain that’s mixed with anger, sadness or other negative emotions can lead to problems with daily life and personal relationships. It could even reverse some of the progress that’s been made with treatments.
If you’ve personally reached this stage, you might feel like you’ve exhausted all of your options. You’re probably tired of planning your life around doctors’ appointments, and tired of spending money on treatments that only remove some of the pain. In fact, you may have reached the point that you’re ready to throw open a window and scream, just like Network’s Howard Beale.
Reaching out to help the pain within
It’s awful to feel so frustrated and upset. But when you’ve done everything that you can to help yourself, there may be one final route that you could take: If you’re able, think about going beyond your own frustration and reach out to help someone else, instead.
Helping someone else does more than assist that other person: Pain experts say that it might help you feel better, too:
- It might distract you from your pain, even if it’s only for a little while
- It could help you feel happier and less depressed
- It could lower the amount of pain that you feel
But you don’t have to be a health activist to make a difference in the life of someone else. If you’re able, maybe you can drive a cancer patient to his or her treatments. Or maybe you could help out in a soup kitchen, or just sit and listen when someone else needs to talk. As long as these helping sessions don’t cause stress or physically wear you down, you might find that they give you a renewed sense of purpose and some relief from your chronic pain.
If you have trouble leaving the house, then you might be able to join – or start – an online support group for people with your type of chronic pain. Or you could try writing to politicians about supporting or sponsoring a particular health plan or bill. The options are only limited by your imagination.
Beyond the pain
Chronic pain may be part of your life, but it doesn’t have to define everything that you do. If you have the energy and can set aside some of your frustration (even for an hour each week), reaching out to someone else could make a big difference in how you feel.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Volunteer Vacations: The Health Benefits of Helping Others
http://www.bidmc.org/YourHealth (search on “volunteer vacations”)
U.S. News and World Report
Focus on Others and Help Yourself
http://www.usnews.com (search on “Focus on others and help yourself”)
The Health Benefits of Volunteering
http://www.healthywomen.org (search on “health benefits of volunteering”)
Corporation for National and Community Service
The health benefits of volunteering
http://www.nationalservice.gov (search on “health benefits of volunteering”)