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Why We Should Focus on Small Steps When Living With Chronic Pain

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“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It’s easy to dismiss this line from Chinese philosophy as a stock Instagram caption or office poster. But its familiarity belies its wisdom and the message is one I very much take to heart. In fact, it’s how I dealt with my chronic pain.

When faced with chronic illness it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the thought of all you suffer compared to all you want to achieve. There’s a great sense that you’ve lost control of your body and your life. But focusing on the small things – both the daily tasks that get you to tomorrow and every mini-victory – is what will keep you motivated to move forward. And it makes you realize that you do have control. Every big change or action that seems impossible at the outset is made up of countless smaller ones over which you have power.

Appreciating and celebrating the small is at the center of “self-care.” Championed by the mental health community, people are realizing the importance of taking moments to nurture their mental, emotional or physical health. Much of self-care is made up of small activities that give pleasure and are as simple as having a cup of tea in the sun. Celebrating the joy small moments or encounters bring can go a long way in improving overall well-being.

But the above quote also works on another level and that is a practical one. I actually like to vary the line slightly and say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single breath!”

If you want to experience how movement can help, start with the most fundamental movement of all: your breathing. Breathing in the right way can do much to relieve your body of stress and tension and promote fluidity. Taking control of this basic physical movement might help unlock other small steps or movements you may have thought were beyond your reach. 

Another small thing you can start doing is beginning each day practicing gratitude. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and think about three things you are grateful for. It might be your family, a close friend, the beauty of a favorite piece of music, that the sun is shining – anything at all. Focusing on what you are grateful for may help take a small amount of focus off your pain. 

Additionally, small exercises, such as rolling movements and gentle patterns, should be prioritized rather than trying to push your body to move in ways which don’t feel natural or comfortable. Gently rolling your ankles might not feel like much, but it’s a small step towards strengthening a muscle group and being in control of a key part of your body. 

Small steps and small movements are the way in which I mastered my chronic pain. Small physical movements and simple exercises can make a world of difference when it comes to alleviating or reducing some of the symptoms.

And to use another familiar phrase, remember that a journey of a thousand steps is a marathon, not a sprint. The size of each step is unique and individual to you. It’s not about how quickly you get there compared to others or where your own personal finish line is. Take each step gently, as it comes. You’ll get there.

Originally published: February 26, 2018
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