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Body Betrayal: How to Cope with Chronic Pain and Illness

“As long as you make an identity for yourself out of pain, you cannot be free f it.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Up until fairly recently, I often felt betrayed by my body. It was always breaking down, leaving me frustrated and bitter.

No one else seemed to have as many problems.

I’ve had Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, an inflamed gall bladder riddled with stones that ended in surgery. Chronic migraines, chronic hives, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Whenever I get sick, it never seems to be something trivial. A cold becomes bronchitis. Hayfever leads to a sinus infection.

One year after holidaying in Thailand, my partner returned home fit as a fiddle, whereas I got scabies, salmonella poisoning, and acute facet lock (or rye neck, which I did in my sleep!).

Gah!

The thing is, I’ve done a lot of healing over the years. I’ve consulted with counselors, acupuncturists, physios, osteos, hypnotherapists, and more. In a lot of ways, I’ve become more in tune and aware of my body and healthier than ever. I feel like I’ve grown as a person, have more resilience, and am able to celebrate the positive side of life.

So when I found myself trying to heal my chronic lower back pain, I was disapointed to hear the old “poor me, why me?” tape start running again. One day I was lying down, feeling very sorry for myself when something occurred to me:

What was the lesson that I hadn’t learned yet? What was my body trying to tell me?

So I asked it.

Yep, I said, “Excuse me body, I feel really betrayed by you. You always seem to be sick, sad, or sore. What are you trying to tell me?”

And here was my body’s soft, small answer.

“I’m not trying to betray you. But I have needs too. I try to let you know but you’re too busy hanging out with your mind. When you two get together, you get lost and sometimes I have to scream at you for you to hear me.”

Woah. For me, this was an epiphany.

I had an immense insight with images flashing in my mind from my past.

Nights when I ignored my body’s need for sleep as I voraciously consumed gripping novels. Eating sugar until I had throbbing headaches. Becoming dehydrated from forgetting to drink water. Punishing workouts that I pushed through in agony in my endless quest for thinness.

All that time I spend overthinking, overplanning, and overtraining, while my body endured it all. Trying and often failing to get my attention until it broke down.

Now I’m not suggesting that all sickness or pain is created by a lack of awareness or the ill treatment of our bodies. Sometimess illness befalls us for no good reason, and it’s no one’s fault.

However, each moment we are in chronic pain or illness, we can choose our attitude toward it. So I wanted to share 7 small tips I’ve learned along the way to help do a 180 from resentment to kindness.

Do what you can. 

Focusing on all the ways you are limited brings on a case of the “poor me’s” lickety split. “Poor-me-land” is the most unfun place ever (for you and all the suckers who were unfortunate enough to get dragged in with you) so get outta there as quick as you can on the gratitude gravy train.

Seriously. Focusing on what you can do gives you more inner peace, keeps you grounded, and inspires you to take action.

Don’t do what you can’t. 

Being a martyr and pushing yourself to try to appear less weak to yourself or others is a recipe for disaster. So don’t be a hero. If it hurts or it will hurt, and you hear yourself saying, “I should” or “Screw it, I’m doing it anyway” that means your inner critic has barged in and is running the show.

The best way I’ve learned to deal with mine is to banish her to a hammock. As weird as this may sound, it’s my way of helping calm her (and me) down. I remind her of what I can do (see above), let her know she doesn’t need to be afraid, and that she can go chill in the hammock ’cause I got this. Then I have the grace to give myself a break.

Stop trying to heal. 

I know it sounds weird, but hear me out. The idea of “healing” brings to my mind someone who is sick, broken, less than good enough. What if instead of trying to heal yourself, you treated your body with absolute kindness? What would that look like?

Of course you may still need to see health practitioners, but your intention shifts from getting someone to fix what is broken, to the ultimate in self-nurturing.

Meditate. 

I don’t think there is a person alive who couldn’t benefit from meditation. This is doubly true for anyone experiencing chronic pain. There are a myriad of techniques, so I encourage you to find a style of meditation / relaxation that works for you.

Invest as much as you can in your health. 

Now, this is tricky, and a subject that can make people a bit twitchy. I know it’s hard, especially if you’ve had to stop working to focus on your health. (I’ve been there too.)

But prioritizing your money to support you healthwise as much as you can is worth it. Begin to look at your budget through the lens of fierce self-love, rather than what you think you should spend it on.

Nourish yourself. 

When I feel like crap, it’s so easy to eat sugary foods to comfort myself. But it always backfires becase I end up feeling empty and drained after the rushing sugar high. When I choose food that I know my body will love me for, it helps me by putting more energy into healing itself.

Find pleasure. 

Illness is a drag, no doubt about it. But humor and pleasure are incredibly healing. Surround yourself with as much pleasure as you can. It doesn’t have to be grandiose or expensive.

Simple pleasures every day can help alleviate suffering, whether it’s watching a comedy, using your favorite tea cup, being in nature, hanging with animals, or listening to your favorite album. Whatever works for you.

Write a list of your favorite things, Sound of Music-style, because sometimes we forget in the moment, and reminding ourselves of the fun stuff helps us do a 180 toward joy.

How do you transform your attitude during moments of pain or illness?

Photo by Helga Weber

Avatar of Tahlee Rouillon

About Tahlee Rouillon

Tahlee Rouillon is the Major Instigator of The Attitude Revolution. She helps body haters + binge eaters (herself included) do a 180 degree turn toward loving who they are and the bodies they’re in. She has a degree in music, is a certified Personal Trainer, and has a really loud laugh.

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  • Merri

    Hi Tahlee! I’m very interested in this topic; feelings, thoughts, and emotions and how they affect our bodies. I actually do think that most disease is caused by a lack of bodily awareness, and that an increase in attention to our bodies and feelings can turn things around.

  • ituderevolution

    Hi Merri! Absolutely. Understanding our own body’s wisdom can be very powerful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/globeitsuresh Suresh Thondamuthur

    What did you do for your Migraine?

  • http://www.facebook.com/anne.gregson1 Anne Gregson

    YAH! What a wise and wonderful article. As a big fan of Extreme Self Care, it took me back pain, P.T., re-injuring (was it the high heels & too much champagne, the pick axing or the Zumba???) to come to grips with being much gentler with myself. and accepting an aging body, too (I’m 58). You summarized my big lesson of the year so well. Thank you. Lucky you learned earlier in your life! :)

  • anonymous

    Thank you.

  • Christy

    Thanks for this article. I myself have dealt with lots of back pain for the past 7-8 years (I’m only 29) and nothing I do seems to help. It’s a constanst struggle. But I have noticed doing some of those things above has helped get my mind off the pain. It’s the times you’re sitting idle at work, at home or in an emotional bad state that’s hard. I’d love to hear how others deal with pain. Thanks for this!

  • Chirp

    If there’s one way that you can prevent your writing from being seen as childish and uneducated, please for the LOVE OF GOD stop spelling it “woah”. It’s “whoa”. It’s always been that. The teenage-Tumblr spelling of “woah” is just incorrect and looks idiotic. Thank you! And great article otherwise.

  • Ruby’sjules

    This is the most profound thing I gave read for a while! Tiny Buddha usually speaks to me but this goes further today! Thankyou

  • ituderevolution

    Hi Suresh. Actually I found out it was the contraceptive pill. Once I changed to a different one they happened a lot less frequently. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine helped too.

  • ituderevolution

    Thanks Anne. I love that term “Extreme Self Care” :)

  • ituderevolution

    You’re welcome

  • ituderevolution

    Hey Christy. Honey, I feel for you, that’s a long time to struggle with back pain. I encourage you to keep searching for solutions and to do whatever small routines you can that help. Personally I have found reformer Pilates to be a big help with my lower back pain. Big hugs to you.

  • ituderevolution

    Wow, thanks Ruby’sjules. That’s lovely :)

  • ituderevolution

    Whoa. Duly noted. Thanks for the correction :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/Jacqueline.Roesler1 Jacqueline Barnett

    Sounds like the story of my life. I could give you a list of chronic conditions and “broken” body bits as long as my arm. I’ve come to all the same conclusions. But one more thing. It’s made me a better person. Because of chronic pain I had to give up my corporate carrier and am now going back to college to become an acupuncturist. I am so looking forward to helping others! Because of all my experiences I have more compassion and learned to patiently accept the obstacles life throws at me. It’s made me richer as a person and somehow I feel I have more to give to others these days.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Jacqueline.Roesler1 Jacqueline Barnett

    Can u get a standing desk? I have heard great things of them. Personally I have a daily routine of physio exercises put together by a specialist. If I’m pressed for time I only do a selection of the routine. Better than nothing. It’s a constant struggle of ups n downs. But must be better than doing nothing n giving in to the pain. Hope this helps xx

  • tdpwvu

    Love the phrase “lens of fierce self-love”. Great article!

  • ituderevolution

    Ohmygosh Jacqueline, absolutely!!! Pain gives us such perspective and I love that you’ve transformed yours into helping others. Bravo! x

  • ituderevolution

    Thanks!

  • Andrea Schreiber

    As a linguist who hates prescriptivism, I’d just like to point out that if you think about it, “woah” actually sounds more like how we say it. Sure, so does “thru” versus “through”, but who are we to be total assholes about the way language evolves?

  • Julia

    thank you for sharing! <3

  • http://twitter.com/meme_aimee Aimée Lévesque

    Thank you for your article; it is very meaningful to me. I love that you say “Stop trying to heal”. I tend to compare my body’s performance or condition to what it used to be, and therefore I see it as lacking something, as a broken thing that needs to be fixed in order for me to appreciate it and be able to live my life. Well, now I realize that attitude is not helpful at all, and that it might even be harmful.
    Gratitude is the key. Also, when panicking (cause I often find myself worrying too much for my condition, with “what if”‘s and all that stuff), I concentrate on things exterior to myself, for example I listen to my friend’s story, I get carried away by a good book, or I concentrate on the taste of tea. Then I know that my health is not everything, and that I can still enjoy life even if my body is not in a perfect state – I mean, not in the state that I define as “perfect”.

  • ituderevolution

    Aimee – what a beautiful insight. Gratitude is absolutely the key to halt comparison. As Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy”.

  • ituderevolution

    you’re welcome :)

  • Alex

    This is wonderful but I don’t think it applies fully to life threatening chronic diseases.
    At the end of a day (or the start of the day) it can be almost impossible to find pleasure in something or eat something to help me. My body has basically hit shut down and no amount of will power will move me as the strength is gone and the pain is there regardless of painkillers.
    But I have learned to slow down and tomorrow is always another day to try again.

  • Toma Lynn Smith

    Wow, thank you for posting!!!! This is a HUGE HUGE INSPIRATION!

  • Lainie

    Thank you for writing this. As someone who lives with progressive MS, I saw myself in so much of your story. I get depressed about my disability, so I stay up late, or eat too much sugar, or fight not to listen to what my body is saying. I love your thoughts about finding time for pleasure or rest, and especially about not trying to heal a ‘broken’ body but instead loving my body with what it needs to be healthy. Thanks again!

  • Ellie

    Thank you for this article. I starting reading it and was like “this is totally my life!” The “stop trying to heal” tip was a very odd thought at first but I feel that it is actually very helpful. I need to stop thinking of myself as ‘sick’ or ‘broken’ and think about the good things in life.
    I was just meant to find this site today and see your article at the top!

  • ituderevolution

    Yay Ellie! It is a strange concept at first but it really does revolutionise your approach to wellbeing.

  • ituderevolution

    Thanks Lainie. Big hugs.

  • ituderevolution

    Alex, my heart goes out to you. It must be so hard to cope. You are absolutely right tho. Each day is a new opportunity. Big big hugs!

  • Nanners

    I love this article so much. For me, my ‘chronic illness’ is what so many people think is just vanity – it’s skin issues. But to actually have to deal with that, every day, and day-to-day, something so visible and noticeable… it’s rather difficult. I’m so glad I read this! I resonate with it all, especially the bit about meditating, not looking at myself as “broken” or “wrong” (hard not to compare in our culture, we all know that), and the bit about just lavishing yourself with whatever you need – letting go of how much it costs and just DOING IT.

    I’m about to make a move to somewhere new, and I really think things are going to look up, both for me and my beautiful, amazing, resilient skin. Thank you so much for this, and I wish you all the best and health and joy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tess.brading Tess Brading

    I am 17 and have had to deal with.general muscular-skeletal chronic pain literally as long as I can remember. I have had doctors tell me I shouldn’t necessarily even bother seeing specialists and pursuing answers because chances are I’m never going yo know what’s wring with me. It’s unlikely to ever go away. This has always been my life so I can deal with it, but recently I went to see a neurologist (over the past year I have developed a tremor in my hands, fasciculations and these lovely little things called ice.pick headaches) and was pretty much told once again that they can’t find anything wrong with me. I think I’m one of the few people who get disappointed when doctors tell them their tests have come back negative 8) For some reason it hit me really hard this time even though I was expecting it.
    Your advice about not trying to heal yourself makes a lot of sense to me. I know that I can’t heal myself. It’s just a fact of my life. Your advice will help me. It’s a great way to think of my issues.
    Thanks.

  • Stony

    Chirp,

    If there’s one way that you can prevent your writing from being seen as childish and uneducated, please for the LOVE OF INTELLIGENCE stop placing the period after the closing quotation marks.

  • Dhruva Kapoor

    Thanks I loved it, I randomly landed up here, While I was Almost crying for my inability to do things because of my Injuries, I am a sports enthusiast From childhood and been experiencing many injuries and also Hepatitis A (twice), I couldn’t Pursue my career as a Cricketer because of the hepatitis, What was more Disheartening was When I became a Fitness Freak and Sculpted a great body My Right elbow got injured, Its been 2 years and I was just getting the feeling that it is getting better and suddenly I am Now suffering From a Groin injury too, Its been 2 years I am out of shape and unable to Play Any sports. But Maybe there is something Good in this.

    I can relate to your story :)

  • Cricket Sauce

    This is really good advice. I like your insights about kindness and compassion. Thank you!

  • Mizunogirl

    Found this as I was searching for an image of “betrayed by my body” I’d just finally come to a point of being grateful for an adductor injury http://30weeks.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/thanksgiving/ and healing it when I was attacked by some intense back pain, which was new and scary to me. What amazed me was that my investments made in myself and my body paid off huge. (I employ both a running coach and a LMT regularly). Generally when someone experience a bout of acute pain it involves trips to multiple Docs, referrals, waiting and more time in pain. Because I already had these relationships in place, even though I was entirely terrified, everyone stepped in and seamlessly started the healing process. In the midst of not being able to train (heck I couldn’t stand!) which is my passion, I found so much joy and comfort in the relationships I had built. Hang in there folks.

  • Mike

    Test,

    I am no expert, but I have read a book by John Lowe who claims muscle pain is from a metabolism disorder. Do you have cold hands, feet, are you cold in a room when others are warm? John Lowe was an expert in thyroid… look into thyroid…. also sometimes thyroid is needed despite normal blood levels as blood levels aren’t always accurate.

    I wish you the best.

    Mike

  • Luciana

    Great article. In 2012 I pulled my back, and all I did was reach for my laptop! The pain was excruciating and I was bed ridden for 2 months. After 2 weeks worth of pain I got an x-ray which showed nothing, nothing! From that moment on I knew it all had something to do with stress. So I wound up working through it with books from Dr. John Sarno and Dr. Schubinner (Unlearn Your Pain) and I have been relatively pain free for over a year now. Looking back I was under so much emotional pain and stress from a series of life events, that I chose to ignore or “eat my way” through until it resulted in that horrible incidence. Today, every time I am stressed, something hits me. For example lately I have been dealing with horrible neck pains and headaches. I know, it’s stress related and I take the time to listen to my body as much as I can.

    The idea of “stop trying to heal” is the most important thing you can do. If you tell your mind that you are sick, your body agrees. I am not saying anyone can live forever, but just try saying “I am healthy,” and see where that takes you.

    I also believe in meditation, listening to music, walking or just being completely alone for a few hours.

  • Couldn’t Resist

    The period belongs after the closing quotations marks unless the narrative in quotes is a complete sentence. :) Just saying.

  • Shannon

    Who cares about grammar, the message is clear and the message is what’s important. A pedantic focus on spelling and grammar is just more mind stuff that will keep you trapped in your prison of thoughts

  • Shannon

    And most things appearing to be childish, uneducated, savage, archaic and backward usually contain the most profound wisdom, something which is clearly lacking in our grown up, educated modern industrialised way of thinking and living

  • Shelley Soden Crocker

    I’ve been reading a lot about coping with chronic pain and illness, and this is hands down one of the best articles I’ve read. It’s simple, yet not simplistic.I especially love the part where you say “stop trying to heal”. As anyone knows with a chronic illness there is a fine line between acceptance and giving up.Chronic means just that…one isn’t going to heal. Accepting our chronic illness doesn’t mean we have given up on living!This article focuses on many good pointers to help one cope. I Thank you,Tahlee

  • Betsy Siegel

    Thank you for the good advice.
    I have also been helped tremendously by The Chronic Pain Website.
    They have many different directions you can take according to your personal chronic pain.
    I’ve had two spinal surgeries and now I have two auto immune diseases that affect me every day.
    Whatever we can do to help ourselves and in turn others!

  • C

    Love this! It’s simple, profound, and just what I needed. Thank you so much!