Why It's Ridiculous for a Study to 'Discover' That People With Chronic Pain Have Positive Emotions


The Mighty’s editors are also a part of some of the communities we report on. Below, Paige Wyant, our associate chronic illness editor, writes about chronic pain not as an editor but as a person with chronic illness.

When you live with the everyday stress and frustrations of chronic pain, it can be difficult to maintain a positive attitude. Not only do you physically feel awful, but your emotional health, social life and ability to work or do the activities you enjoy all take a hit. Even though I have many other wonderful things in life to be thankful for, there’s no sugarcoating that being sick and in pain all the time just plain sucks.

But when I saw a line from a recent Scientific American article that read “Researchers have been slow to realize that happiness, excitement and calm can co-exist with physical agony,” my first reaction was to burst out laughing. Um, yes? Breaking news: People with chronic pain are humans with real and varied emotions – not robots! Wow, what a shocker! Wait a minute… what do you mean this isn’t The Onion…

In all seriousness, that line is absolutely absurd. Has the author ever met an actual person with chronic pain? Of course, having lifelong pain is devastating, but that doesn’t mean we’re all consumed by doom and gloom 24/7. Even in the midst of so much pain, fatigue and stress, there are always good moments – big or small – that shine through. Even if I’m in excruciating pain, I still laugh when my dog crawls right on top of my aching body to give me kisses, and I still smile when the sun shines through the leaves just so to fill my living room with a greenish-gold light.

It is unfair to reduce a person with chronic illness to only the negative emotions their condition may evoke. We are complex beings, and there is so much more to us than our pain.

After confirming that people with chronic pain do indeed experience positive emotions, the article’s author, Judith Tedlie Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences and director of research at the Northwestern University Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, goes on to discuss the impact these positive emotions can have on our health and healing.

By studying whether “noticing, extending and creating more positive emotion, even in the midst of chronic stress,” results in less stress and depression, Moskowitz has found that experiencing positive emotion may lessen pain through several pathways, such as providing your body a break from chronic stress and strengthening your resolve to adhere to treatments.

I don’t argue with the physical and emotional benefits of positivity; I’m not a scientist, but I don’t think focusing on positive moments in your life is going to do any harm. In fact, I know of many, many people who rely on the power of positivity to help them cope with all the negativity illness can bring.

But, I am also a realist. When discussing and thinking about my own health struggles, I like to be honest and practical. Just two weeks ago, after many conversations with several trusted doctors, I made the decision go off my current medication. For eight years, it kept me in remission from a host of autoimmune issues, but lately, it’s not been working as well and has begun to cause more problems than it’s solving. So, with my doctors’ approval, I stopped taking it, and now have to wait to see how my body responds before possibly trying out a different class of medication.

I have a gut feeling that my health is going to get worse before it gets better (if it gets better). But as I’ve gone off the medication, the overwhelming sentiment I’ve heard from friends and family is to “think positive!” so I have a “better chance” of improving. I am so appreciative for their love and support, but I don’t think believing hard enough in a certain outcome is going to change how my body reacts.

I genuinely hope and pray I get better. I would love for all my health issues to miraculously disappear! But, my body has never behaved how I want it to, so my expectations are not high. Despite my wishes for the contrary, I believe I’m going to get worse. And here’s the thing: For me, being practical and “pessimistic” is the best way for me to cope. 

I don’t want to get my hopes up only for them to be crushed if my old pain and symptoms re-emerge. I don’t want to focus so hard on being positive and telling myself I’m going to get better that I’m totally unprepared if I don’t.

Going off my medication is a big deal, and there are a lot of “negative” emotions that have come with that – fear, anger, depression, grief. Those are normal, healthy emotions, and I don’t want to edge them out because I’m trying so hard to “think positive!” I want to process them, deal with them and be fully ready to face whatever my body has in store for me. That’s my way of coping.

Moskowitz does emphasize that she knows positive thinking is not a “cure,” and that her goal is not to minimize the struggles and frustrating experiences of patients with chronic pain. She writes:

The idea that positive emotion can be helpful in coping with pain is counterintuitive and may seem to place the burden on the individual to simply ‘think positively’ to fix their chronic pain. To be sure, positive emotion is not a cure-all that will magically make the pain disappear. But consciously focusing on ways to bring more positive emotion into your life, even in the face of ongoing stress and pain, is one modest step toward coping better with pain.

I appreciate her recognizing that although positive emotion can be a helpful tool, it is not a fix, and takes practice and effort to cultivate, as does any other skill. However, she misses the fact that different people deal with their pain in different ways. While positive emotion may help some, others, such as myself, might benefit more from a different approach.

The most frustrating part of this article for me was the overall conclusion drawn from her data: that it is possible to experience positive emotions at the same time as negative emotions and pain. This “conclusion” is something most people probably already intuitively know, and it demonstrates just how little understanding there is about the experience of chronic pain.

Some may call me pessimistic for believing my health will decline while I’m not taking medication. They urge me to hope and pray for a better outcome. I know this comes from a place of love, but their comments sting just as much as this article.

People can have more than one feeling at a time. Yes, I’m terrified and upset that this is happening, but I’m also grateful to be reminded of how much those in my life love and care about me. I may expect the worst, but I’m still hoping for the best.

Chronic illness is a complicated and messy beast. But if pain can be complex, certainly the people with the pain can be too.

No one may be totally able to empathize unless they’ve experienced long-term pain themselves, but the chronic pain community deserves so much more understanding and respect from researchers and medical professionals.

Photo via DMEPhotography on Getty Images


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