In Pain at 4 am
I've just woken up. It is 4 o'clock in the morning and I am in extreme pain. I'm doubled over and unable to move. My goosebumps have goosebumps and I'm ready to pass out or vomit from the extreme pain. I know I have to go to the ER and it's causing a ton of stress.
I have asked myself countless times what if there was a way to avoid a panic attack? What if I could handle the stress better? What can help me? Could it help me avoid the Emergency Room? Can I make my situation more comfortable?
Does this sound familiar to you? Have you ever asked yourself these questions or wished you could manage stress better? What if I told you, you can make things better? It is moments like these where Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can help lower your stress and anxiety, allowing you to make clear headed decisions about how to handle your health and can even reduce pain. This is because pain and stress can be intertwined. When you're stressed, you are in more pain and more pain equates to more stress. DBT helps break this cycle and gives you a chance at de-escalating the situation.
What is DBT?
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a behavioral treatment method originally created by Marsha Linehan to treat a wide range of psychological disorders such as depression, borderline personality disorder, and suicidal idealizations. Over time, it has been proven that DBT is also effective in helping patients handle chronic illness as well and has been used to lower anxiety in chronic pain patients. DBT focuses on a set of four behavioral skills:
- Distress Tolerance Skills
- Interpersonal Effectiveness
- Emotion Regulation
Distress Tolerance Skills are used when the situation cannot be changed. Each skill offers difference insight and it is important to use the right skill at the right time for maximum success. These skills are designed to help you cope and survive during crisis and can be applied to both short term or long term emotional and physical pain.
Personal Example of Distress Tolerance
Radical acceptance is one of a few distress tolerance skills a person can learn. It is all about recognizing what you can and cannot control. For instance, at one point during the course of my illness I had to live with a feeding tube. Having that tube in my body was the strangest thing. I hated it. However, as time went on I began to accept it for what it was in the moment. That didn't mean I liked the situation.
I actually disliked it quite a bit. But having radical acceptance about it allowed me to relax and recognize that this is just how things are right now. It isn't forever. Figuring this skill out made me feel so much better about my illness. Plus, I was right, the tube wasn't forever, because I had it removed last year and have been much better since.
Interpersonal Effectiveness skills apply to the skills that help us attend to our relationships. It is about balancing priorities and demands. It is about balancing the 'shoulds' and 'wants' to build a sense of mastery. These skills help identify what we need to do in order to get the results we want out of an interaction while maintaining a sense of self-respect.
Personal Example of Interpersonal Effectiveness
Many times I've ended up in the ER and have had to use a specific format of talking to get the care I needed at the ER. The skill I'd use is known as "DEARMAN":
Describe: the situation, "Doctor, I've been vomiting all night and am in a lot of upper right abdominal pain."
Express: your concerns, "I'm very stressed out. I think I'm having a pancreatitis flare."
Assert: yourself by acknowledging what you need, "usually Benadryl, Zofran, lot of fluids and pain medication help the situation. I may also need an admit depending on my blood work."
Reward: the person and tell them what they get out of the situation, "I really need your help to make me feel better, that's what doctors do best!"
Mindful: of what is happening and/or repeating your needs, "So, when you put the medication orders in don't forget to include the Benadryl; that's important or I'll itch from the pain medication."
Appear: effective and nice, "I understand what you mean doctor. I am, however, in a lot of pain."
Negotiate: alternative solutions, "I'm willing to try an anti-inflammatory first. But if that doesn't work, can we make sure there's pain medication ordered as well? Thanks!"
Emotion Regulation is the ability to respond to a variety of scenarios in a manner that is socially acceptable yet flexible enough to allow for genuine reactions. Being able to control how you react to a situation is essential when it comes to managing how you might be impacted by a situation.
Personal Example of Emotion Regulation
One day I was feeling sad about my chronic illness. I was telling myself I looked fat and was lazy. I felt really bad about it too. I really just wanted to check out and take a nap. That's until I went ahead and changed my thoughts which influenced my feelings and behavior. Instead of telling myself something negative, I went for something more positive. Instead of saying I was fat and lazy, I told myself I was chronically ill and doing my best. That made me feel a bit better and I felt a lot of empathy for myself; then I was able to get up out of bed and start the day.
Mindfulness applies to distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills through observation. By observing what is going on around you, this allows you to fully engage yourself in the experience without labeling it as good, bad, or anything in between. The benefit of mindfulness is that it quiets your mind and gives you a way to acknowledge all your thoughts and feelings.
Personal Example of Mindfulness
I was really stressed out about being sick and having a feeding tube that I just broke down. I started to cry with no judgment. Before I knew it, all the stress I hold in my neck, shoulders, and back evaporated. It was like magic. Suddenly, as I noticed the lack of pain in my body, I stopped crying in awe. For two days I noticed every little thing about not carrying that weight on my back and ended up having a really great two days.
DBT for Chronic Pain
As you can see, DBT brings a lot of hope to chronic pain sufferers. This is because chronic pain and anxiety go hand in hand. Treating anxiety is one easy way to lower the intensity of a person's pain. While it may not fix the root cause of pain, it can allow a person the freedom to make intellectual decisions about their care that isn't influenced by anxiety or fear. This alone can unlock doors for those with painful conditions.
Danielle Faith is a chronic pain warrior with a degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in Cultural Geography. Danielle specializes in new media marketing and self-improvement. She has a knack for clarity and over ten years worth of blogging experience. She is currently working on her passion project, XOFaith, which is aimed at bringing those with chronic pain together in a peer to peer supportive environment. For additional reading, she has a post dedicated to DBT Self-Help