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Alternatives to an alternative therapy

At some point, I expect everyone who suffers from chronic pain is told to meditate. Meditation doesn’t come easily to everyone and I’m one of those people. I don’t switch off easily. The closest I come to it’s while swimming. When I got to the Pain Clinic at Addenbrookes, they told me to meditate. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it and I’d never had much luck before but the idea behind it is that stress causes a chemical chain reaction which makes the pain worse although to be honest, I’ve always thought there are different types of stress and some – the kind that drive me at work – are positive stresses that don’t affect the pain. The deadlines, client juggling etc. They’re the rush. That said, negative stress, the genuinely nasty kind of stress definitely does make me feel pain more severely when it happens. It just isn’t a day to day problem There’s also the physical aspect of releasing muscles though. Tight muscles contribute a huge amount of my pain so it’s worth trying to ease that even if I’m not stressed.

Fair enough. I tried. I downloaded the meditation MP3 they recommended. I thought some more and downloaded an hour of waves lapping against the shore (real waves make me sleepy and it was cheap at under $1 – you can get apps with similar sounds for smart phones). I still couldn’t stay focussed and stick to their routine though. In fact, every time I tried to meditate their way, I tried too hard and got stressed about failing. Catch 22. The natural sounds do help my brain to settle down but as soon as I tried to tense and relax individual muscles it all started going wrong. I found it hard to isolate individual muscles to do this so I got frustrated and it was all but impossible to hear external noise and dismiss it. I’m supposed to hear the fridge gurgling, doors slamming etc and tune it out. No luck. On top of that, I couldn’t control my breathing. I do controlled breathing for pilates but couldn’t do the deep meditative breathing they wanted. Again, the more stressed I got, the more jerky my breathing became.

I was pretty anxious when I went back to the pain clinic. I didn’t like admitting failure and was worried they’d think I just wasn’t trying because I’ve seen attitudes like that before. The nurse was really good though. She acknowledged some people just find meditation hard and seemed to understand the concept that, after a while, you can put so much pressure on yourself to do it “their” way that you’re actually making things worse. She even agreed that I have a fairly “type A” personality and that it’s not surprising that I’d find it hard. (Oi. You at the back. Stop snickering at the word “fairly”.) The nurse said that they want people to try but, if it doesn’t work for them, all they want is for people to just spend some time each day relaxing. That can include listening to music, reading a book or stroking a pet (presumably one who doesn’t stick her claws in your legs and stomp on your bladder). Anything which doesn’t cause stress. I can manage all of these! Although I have the two cats, it’s my parents’ younger dog Meris who can make me start nodding off just from stroking her, even if I don’t see her enough to be an official part of my routine:

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The nurse went further and said they’d recently found evidence that meditation’s hard for a lot of people. They want everyone to give it a chance (saying it’s stupid and refusing point blank isn’t allowed) but they haven’t yet found a way to make it work for everyone. I told her two things which helped me and, as she seemed interested, I’ll add them here. One is the natural sounds. As long as I don’t actively try to meditate, the seashore mp3 makes me feel pretty drowsy and heavy (that particular sound’s not for everyone but you know what I mean). The other is rescue remedy’s night-time tablets. When I explained they cut my brain’s incessant chatter, she made a note to try them herself!

We talked about breathing too. They wanted me to do diaphragmatic breathing, which isn’t the same thing as pilates breathing. Again, she had an alternative for me. Sing. Yep, that’s right. Sing. It makes perfect sense when you think about it but it hadn’t occurred to me before. The best part is I don’t have to find time to do it. I just put music I like on while I’m on the exercise bike, ironing, making dinner. Whatever.

It makes a real change to find people who think flexibly about what’s going to work for individual patients in the context of conditions which cause chronic pain. There aren’t many proper pain clinics around so it seems right to share what my really good one told me.

Since I got landed with a long commute, I’ve been doing my singing in the car. This is my current set of songs. They don’t just make me sing, as it happens. They’re the kind of songs I’m talking about if I tweet I caught myself dancing in public, a habit I’m not really sure I want to break myself of.