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10 tips for supporting a loved one living with chronic pain


Being close to someone with chronic pain, you often feel helpless and sometimes useless. Did you know that people with chronic pain who have a good support system report lower pain intensity, use fewer medications and have better activity levels? [1] Your support is important, you are probably doing more than you imagine.


1) Learn more about their condition (s)

Doing your research will help you better understand how the person is feeling and what their condition(s) involve(s). Asking your loved one for help and to educate you can quickly overwhelm them, as they already have a lot to deal with, including pain that takes up a lot of space. A better solution is therefore to do your own research. Not only does this show that you really care about what she / he is going through, but you may retain information better by doing your research in the way that works best for you.


2) Ask how they would like you to help them


Of course, just learning doing some research and learning about the condition without including the person's unique experience wouldn't make much sense. Everyone experiences pain differently, so you have to understand how the person in front of you experiences it. It's not enough to consider that we know the person well and therefore understand how they feel their pain. Not only can the experience change over time, but the person is likely to want to hide their pain after some time so that they don't feel like a burden or feel like they "complain" too often. It's good to check out how the person actually feels and what they would find useful from you. This will avoid frustration and spending a lot of energy on actions that are unwanted by your loved one.


3) Offer your support with lifestyle changes


We often see two behaviors, the overly involved person who wants to do everything to facilitate the changes that the other wants to implement (or who suggests lots of things to change or methods to try), or the person not at all involved who does not want to change anything in their personal habits. It can be difficult to find the balance between the two. It's absolutely okay to have different habits, but changing everything completely to please the other person is not helpful if you don't have the same condition. Again, educate yourself on the subject first might be a good idea. For example, if your loved one wants to try a restrictive diet, encourage him / her to see a dietitan or learn more about the diet. If that person wants to explore a vegetarian diet, but it's not right for you, try a few vegetarian meals and a few meals where each one can make their own choice (eg: choice of chicken or tofu fajitas - each fill theirs with available ingredients). If their goal is to do more physical activity, you can of course suggest a common activity that you both like, but your involvement can also be to find a professional who could guide her / him, or to take a few minutes together to jot down ideas for activities that person would like to try. Let the person go at their own pace, being too pushy can have the opposite effect and make them dread the change even more. Be present when the person is ready and support them to make their task easier.


4) Offer to help with certain tasks


A person with chronic pain may have physical limitations that prevent them from performing certain tasks, and taking over those can come naturally. Pain, however, is invisible and greatly affects your energy level. Offer to do the dishes if the person is in charge of dinner, for example. Allow your loved one to rest if you see that the pain is very intense and offer to take on their tasks or decide to tackle them later. If she / he does too much, she / he will pay later, as energy levels do not go back to zero the next morning. A good night's sleep is often non-existent; overdoing it can be felt over several days.


5) Seek outside support


Support can take many forms. If you have chores to do around the house, for example, you could delegate to people whose job it is instead of trying to do it yourself. Having someone come to do the housework occasionally can help, if you can afford it or have access to these types of services at a lower cost through an organization.


Support can also be having a neutral confidant, someone who is not directly involved with the person who has pain to prevent him / her from feeling caught between the two people. If you need professional support, do not hesitate to consult a psychologist or psychotherapist who can help you and allow you to go through the process in the best way for your unique situation. Supporting someone who lives with chronic pain on a daily basis can be overwhelming and a professional who is familiar with the reality of pain can give you the tools to deal with it.



6) Don't forget the person beyond the pain


As a loved one, we often tend to blame a lot of behaviors or emotions on the pain. See the pain as waves, it comes and goes with different intensities. People with chronic pain also have good days, where the pain may be minimal or almost nonexistent. And while it's a good day painwise, they can be impatient or upset for other reasons, just like everyone else. Something like “I know you're in pain, but I find you impatient today” can then create even more frustration. Simply inquiring about the situation might be more appropriate.


7) Be there to listen; communication is key


Make sure your availability to listen is clear. Try not to constantly ask how the person is feeling, because repeating the question may be frustrating to them. The pain is still present for many, so "I'm fine" is more of an answer so they don't have to spend long minutes explaining everything rather than a confirmation that they are okay. It may be more helpful to remind the person that they are welcome to come and talk about how they are feeling, and indicate the best time to do so.


As mentioned earlier, a person who is in constant pain may want to hide their pain from their loved one so that it does not take all the space in the relationship. It is therefore important to talk about it, as the pain and its experience evolves. Schedule a specific time to talk about it, such as once a month or as often as you like. Otherwise, make it clear to the other when you are most available to have a good conversation.


8) take care of yourself


Don't be afraid to take care of yourself. Depending on the level of care you provide for your loved one, it can be very demanding physically, in terms of energy and bring a heavey mental load. This feeling of helplessness in the face of the other's pain can be very difficult to bear in the long run. It is important to do things for yourself and to take the time to rest as well, so that you can give your best to others and optimize your own physical and mental health.


9) Think about what you would do if the person had a visible condition


What would you do if your loved one had the flu? Without going as far as to do everything as if the person had lost all of their autonomy, small things can please them more than you think. Warming up a heating bag, preparing a nice herbal tea or buying them a little treat to please them can sometimes make the difference.


10) Plan ahead


Pain can be quite unpredictable, so planning ahead can avoid a lot of worries. Have a calendar where you write down appointments or outings to plan. Have a clear routine. Have a backup plan as well, so you don't get caught off guard: who can drive the kids to the activities if both are not available? What can you eat if no one has the energy to cook?


Also plan for fun activities, which will not exhacerbate the pain, but allow you to take quality time with your loved one and maybe even forget about the pain for a moment. This is very individual, it could be watching a movie, going for a nice walk in the forest or enjoying a good meal at a restaurant.



Note: This blog post reflects my personal thoughts and observations of what some clients have reported to me as useful in the past. I have often referred clients to colleagues in mental health, because they are the experts in supporting you with the challenges that supporting a loved one living with chronic pain can bring.


Here are some useful links if you need professional support :

Ordre des psychologues du Québec : https://www.ordrepsy.qc.ca/trouver-de-aide

College of Psychologists of Ontario : https://members.cpo.on.ca/public_register/new

Association des psychothérapeutes du Québec : https://psychotherapeutesquebec.ca/trouver-un-psychotherapeute/

College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario : https://www.crpo.ca/find-a-registered-psychotherapist/

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