By Lorraine Faehndrich
If you’re suffering with pelvic pain it’s very likely that you’ve spent a lot of time worrying and obsessing about your symptoms. Maybe you’ve spent hours online searching for answers, reading stories of others’ experiences with pelvic pain, or participating in “support” groups that leave you even more stressed, worried and fearful than you already were. Or maybe you can’t stop thinking that the pain will never go away, or that everything you do might trigger a flare.
If so, you’re not alone! Most (if not all) of my clients have struggled with worry, catastrophizing, and negatively obsessing about their symptoms. It’s just what happens when you’re dealing with something that is interfering with most aspects of your life, preventing you from doing what you love to do, and not going away.
While some amount of focus on your symptoms is helpful and necessary, excessive worry and negative focus not only makes you feel as if your symptoms have taken over your life, it can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze nervous system response in your body and signal danger to your brain, both of which lead to more pain.
Because of this, having strategies to help you overcome these negative thought patterns is an important part of an effective treatment plan. Learning ways to get your focus off worrying about your symptoms, can not only help relieve pain, but just as importantly help you reclaim a sense of yourself and your life as you do.
Which is why I want to share with you a few key concepts and strategies that I have found to be helpful for overcoming negative obsessive symptom focus.
- Spend Less Time Discussing Your Symptoms
Remove yourself from groups, forums, and relationships where the focus is primarily on sharing and discussing symptoms and diagnosis. This includes negative discussions of your symptoms with people in your life. Even if these discussions aren’t spiraling downward into worst case scenarios, spending a lot of time discussing your symptoms, or your worry about them, or listening to others do the same, can start to take over your life. While it is important to have emotional support, seek out connections that feel supportive, where the focus is on solutions, hope, and rebuilding a sense of strength, safety, and resiliency.
Last week a participant in my Healing Female Pain program shared her experience with discussing symptoms and diagnosis after she received a diagnosis of pudendal neuralgia. Here’s what she shared, “I became so addicted to the internet and the groups about it. I remember reading about it for the first time, my symptoms got worse as I read more about it. I would leave those groups after reading scary stories and being hopeless and then rejoin them…. My healing started when I got myself out of those groups. Stopped reading about pelvic pain stories, and stopped scaring the *@! out of myself. It’s been 6 month into this. Pain is better, depression is better and anxiety is a lot better.”
I hear stories like this repeatedly. While it’s natural to want to talk about what’s wrong, and find solutions, it’s important to make sure you’re not losing yourself by focusing too much on your symptoms. Focusing on things that feel good to you (and finding new things that feel good now if you aren’t yet able to do the things you enjoyed before your symptoms began) is important to maintain the sense of inner strength that is so important for healing.
- Come Back to Your Body
One of the reasons that it can be so difficult to stop worrying and obsessing about symptoms is that those stressful thoughts serve as a distraction from discomfort in your body. When you’re in your mind obsessing, and worrying about symptoms (or anything else) it decreases your awareness of other sensations in your body, including your emotions.
The best way to illustrate this is with an example. I’m going to tell you about one of my clients, who’s name I’ve changed to protect her privacy. When Kate and I began working together she was feeling scared and hopeless. She had been diagnosed with vulvodynia, and she was having severe anxiety about her symptoms. Kate was spending a lot of time online researching pelvic pain and reading in pain forums. Every time she read about a new diagnosis she became convinced that she had it or would get it, and she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I taught Kate that when she was obsessing and worrying about her symptoms, her mind was distracting her from her body and her emotions. Basically, what was happening was she was spinning out of control in her mind, rather than stopping and breathing and feeling and being present in her body.
Over time Kate learned how to catch herself when she was worrying and obsessing, choose to set aside the thoughts, drop into her body, breathe and be present with whatever sensations were there, without trying to change them (including her symptoms). Each time she did this her anxiety reduced, and over time so did her pain.
Just like for Kate, the key to overcome obsessing and worrying about your symptoms is to first recognize that those thoughts are simply there to distract you from being present in your body. Imagine temporarily placing the thoughts in a bubble outside your head, and then turn your attention to your breath and the other sensations in your body. Breathe into your low belly. Feel your feet on the ground. If you’re having symptoms allow them to be there for the moment without trying to change them, and then scan your body and get curious about other sensations besides your symptoms. Breathe, be present and feel.
- Observe Your Mind in Writing
One of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal when it comes to shifting scary thinking is a paper and pen. Writing down scary obsessive thoughts while they are going through your mind gets them out of your head and onto paper where you have much more power to question them, and make decisions about how you want to use your mind.
Rather than instantly believing and reacting to your thoughts, if you can create a little space to observe them, you can decrease the fear and anxiety they cause. You don’t need to stop negative scary thoughts to calm your nervous system and signal your brain that you’re safe. You just need to learn how to respond to those thoughts in a new way. Writing helps you do that.
The next time you notice that you are worrying about your symptoms, making negative predictions about the future, or feeling like you want to hide under the covers – get out a piece of paper and start writing. Write down every thought you’re aware of that’s scaring you. Once you have the thoughts written down, read over them and notice how they make you feel. Scan your body from head to toe. Write down the sensations you notice. For instance, does your body feel tense or contracted anywhere? Are you having pain? Do you notice any other sensations like heaviness or stuck sensations?
When you’re done write the exact opposite of every thought you wrote down initially. For example, “You’re not going to relieve this pain.” Becomes “You are going to relieve this pain.”
“You can’t do it.” Becomes “You can do it!” and “There’s something wrong with you.” Becomes “There’s something RIGHT with you.”
When you’re finished. Read through these new thoughts. How do these opposite thoughts make you feel? Based on how the thoughts affect you, which do you think would be more helpful to think?
Thoughts are only thoughts. They can be changed. Overcoming worry and obsessing about symptoms can feel impossible at first, but with time and practice, these strategies can make it much easier to let go of the fearful thinking and choose thoughts that will support healing and relief.
Lorraine Faehndrich is a Women’s Mind Body Mentor, Pelvic Pain Relief Coach, and the founder of Radiant Life Design, a company dedicated to helping women relieve pelvic pain, heal their relationship with their body, and go on to live radiantly healthy joy-filled lives! If you’d like to learn more about Lorraine or how a mind body approach can help relieve pelvic pain, click here to download a free copy of her new e-book 7 Reasons You’re Still In Pain. To hear an interview with Lorraine and PHRC Cofounder Stephanie Prendergast please click here.