06 Jul Need a Bigger Cup?
In the pain and fatigue and wellness world we love an analogy…. These always seem to involve kitchen items for some reason: spoons (see here) or cups.
None of these are perfect at explaining what’s going on in something so complex (you!), but they can assist us to understand how to help ourselves.
What’s in Your Cup?
We can think of pain as something that occurs when all of the stressors in our lives have filled our cup.
When you have run out of resources that help you to cope, that’s when things might overspill into chronic pain and/or exhaustion.
How does this help us to manage and decrease our pain and get better?
It means we have two ways of addressing the problem :
1. Decrease some of stressors that are filling your cup
2. Build a bigger cup!
The cup analogy says that we have pain when we have more going on than we can cope with. A physical problem fills the cup up to a certain point, but not necessarily to the point where pain is produced. Or there is lots of problems in the tissues, but the pain is a lot worse than it might be because we are overwhelmed and don’t have the ability to cope.
Pain isn’t as simple as tissue damage. For instance, many people have degenerative changes on an x-ray, but don’t suffer pain. So, why do some people suffer a lot of pain with condition that affects the tissues such as arthritis, when someone else with the same level of ‘damage’ doesn’t?
The stressors that fill your cup are are more than just the physical loads you put your body. It’s more than how much you have to lift or bend or sit a desk. Other stressors like anxiety, fear, depression, poor sleep, past history, family, work etc can all be filling your cup.
Not all stressors are inherently bad. We need some challenge in our lives, to keep us stimulated and engaged. It’s about managing our load of stressors so that we are building our tolerance and resiliency i.e. ‘making our cup bigger’, not overloading ourselves so that we overspill into pain or fatigue.
How do I increase the size of my cup?
I like to focus on this side of the equation because often much of what stresses us is beyond our immediate control, but doing more of what is good for us is generally within our reach.
Some of this is about taking care of ourselves: we all know what that means –e.g. being active, eating well and getting plenty of sleep. It is the devil in the detail of achieving this with all the other demands of life going on that we might need help with.
Movement is an important aspect of helping pain. In Alexander Technique we encourage exploration and ‘play’ with movement to make it feel safe and give more options. Often, we are habitual in our movement patterns, especially when we have pain, breaking out of that can be really helpful to get more confident in being active.
Good quality rest and sleep are also a big factor of this. Basic sleep hygiene is a good starting point. There is more to rest and sleeping than just a good routine though – I will talk more about this in future blogs.
Some of what makes your cup bigger will to be unique to you: what do you really need? What is meaningful and fun to you? Often life can shrink to the necessities when pain is impacting on your life. Making time for a hobby you love is actually helping you manage and reduce pain by increasing your tolerance to life’s stressors.
Maybe you really need some alone time to regenerate, or need to see your friends more. Focus on what truly makes you happier rather than what you feel you must do.
How do I decrease my stressors?
Although you might not be able to change your arthritis, or change your circumstances, like your awkward boss, or your finances in the short term, we do have stressors that our within our control. Perhaps you have some things you do out of a sense of obligation that are really too much for you at the moment? It can be hard to stop things, and feel like you are letting others down, so taking a temporary break can help. This allows you time to work out how to do it differently, and decide if it really is essential.
It is so different for everyone, but once you put your own self-care a bit higher up the priority list you may find it easier to say no to those things that are draining you and ask for help more often. It can be something as simple as asking for the housework to be shared out, or not answering e-mails in the evening: what clear defined thing can you change, or ask others to help with, if only temporarily?
Think of it as the old oxygen mask analogy – you need to put yours on first before helping others. If you think of pain and fatigue as a distress signal from your body and mind, you need to give it some attention. This doesn’t mean stopping everything, and becoming inactive, but it should prompt an audit of what you do in your life, so you do more of what gives pleasure and meaning and is good for your long-term health, and let go of some things that are overwhelming you.
Why haven’t I had this explanation for my pain before?
This can seem like a strange way of thinking about pain when you have always been told it is caused by some part of your body. It’s not that there isn’t anything wrong with that painful body part e.g. your back or your frozen shoulder, or your knee with arthritis, but that pain is an experience that is influenced by the mind and body together. Separating them and saying something is purely physical or purely mental just isn’t true. It is always a complex mixture.
This is something that has been known about and researched for a long time (my lifetime at least!), so should be a standard way for everyone with pain to be treated. Unfortunately, because it is complex, and can be more time consuming to help people in this way, often doctors and other health professionals stick with a biomedical, broken machine, kind of way of thinking about pain. The way pain was taught in medical schools in the past missed many of the complexities of how pain is produced, so even the basic understanding of the ’mechanics’ of pain can be lacking (I took many of my veterinary classes with medical lecturers, so experienced this in my education too). There are some great empathetic, knowledgeable clinicians and physiotherapists out there, but it takes time to get into the details of why you might be having ongoing pain problems, and how you might help yourself, so unfortunately it often just doesn’t happen. This is where using self-help resources or seeking out help from professionals that understand how pain works can make all the difference to your recovery and long term well being.
If you would like to work through what ‘fills your cup’ and how to make it bigger for yourself, try this free workbook.