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Chronic Pain: Being invisibly ill

Chronic pain is often invisible. It's all in your head, yesterday you managed to go shopping - why are you lying on the couch today, I can't see anything wrong about you - they're all statements that can get someone with chronic pain thrown at their head. What impact does that have, and what can you do about it?

The social side of pain 

In this blog I focus on the 'social' side of pain. We say that pain is caused by biological, psychological and social factors. This means that social factors also play a role in the pain. 

There are different models for it, but most of the time we say that the social factors are next:

Direct contact with persons (one-to-one relationships):

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Work
  • Community

You can imagine that pain has a strong influence on the social environment. So Peter told me:

"Because of the pain, I'm in a wheelchair. My cloverjacket club is not wheelchair friendly. I don't dare go there anymore, because I'm afraid that I'm stuck at the threshold and people laugh at me. What a disappointment. I miss it, I had such fun in those evenings."

This example shows that the social side of pain also has a direct influence on body and mind. Peter suffers from negative feelings and thoughts because of the social isolation. This causes his alarm system to sound even faster. His body reacts to the tensions by producing certain hormones. He comes out less, so he moves even less. This in turn affects his condition, but also makes him feel bad.

In short: How people react to you and what you decide to do for yourself ultimately also has an effect on your pain and how you feel. The fact that pain is often invisible, and people react hurtfully, only makes it more difficult.


Open or closed?

Maybe somebody told you you should be more open. Or just the opposite, that nobody can be trusted and you should keep your problems to yourself. The question is not whether you should be open or closed, but to whom you want to be open or closed. 

It is important to be open about your pain in order to process it. Giving it a place, getting recognition and hopefully making your alarm system less sensitive as well. Think carefully about who you would like to be open to. Maybe a fellow sufferer, but maybe not that one neighbour. Some people will never (want to) understand you. There is little point in putting energy into it or trying to convince them. There are more than enough people on earth who can understand you or help you. 

To those other people it is fine to be closed. Maybe to say that it goes 'fine'. Nothing to explain when they ask a question that already shows negativity. To find another doctor or counsellor, if the current one gives you the impression that it's all in your head. 

And those comments? They may always be annoying. Maybe you can get them blown away by the wind. Or even laugh at them. Or maybe you manage to think: What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.