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The Power of Radical Acceptance in Managing Fibromyalgia

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Have you ever noticed how having fibromyalgia can feel a lot like being stuck on a cursed, pain-inducing swirly slide? Sometimes, we get to take a little break on the uncomfortable seat at the top of the slide, but whenever something triggers us into a flare, we find ourselves spiraling down through the worst of our symptoms, unable to slow down the cascade of discomfort, fog, and fatigue.

This was definitely how I used to see my fibro. That is until I found myself sitting in a stylish and comfy white chair in the office of a psychologist who was about to give me the best gift I’ve ever received. It wasn’t a must-have gadget, game, snack, or accessory, but rather a lesson on the power of radical acceptance — emphasis on the radical!

Before I get into this big idea, it’s important to add the caveat that this shift didn’t mean that I’m somehow cured, or even that flares don’t catch me out here and there anymore. However, my symptoms are much less prone to their once-signature slippery acceleration — and knowing that, perhaps my experience in the realm of the radical will offer you some value too.

Are you curious to know how mastering radical acceptance helped me put a cushion on top of that slide and build in some nifty escape hatches on the way down? If so, I invite you to read on!

Getting Stuck on the Swirly Slide

To tell this story fully, I think it’s better if I pop us into a time machine and go back a little further. It was probably around eight years before the aforementioned and fateful seated moment in the psychologist’s office that my fibromyalgia symptoms first started. It all began as unexplained body-wide joint pain: a new companion to the depression that had been following me around like a pesky stalker since puberty.

Making things more complicated, a back injury muddied the waters for a few years, providing misdirection that concealed the real cause of what I was experiencing. But gradually, a series of crazy life events — including a divorce, a car accident, and a house fire — began to turn up the pain and brain fog dial until I couldn’t chalk my symptoms up to the gremlins already lurking on my medical record.

Still, it was only in 2019 that unexplainable pain became the loudest thing in my life, and thankfully, I finally got in front of the right doctor. By this stage in the game, each day was shaped by excruciating burning sensations, white-flash joint pains, and the feeling that I’d been pummeled by a cage fighter. Simultaneously, I was wrestling with can’t-get-out-of-bed fatigue, dizziness, nausea, speech issues, and memory loss. In short, I was in a bit of a pickle. Perhaps that sounds familiar?

I spent about a year in that state, during which time I experimented with medications, diet, and supplements, finding that some things helped a tiny bit, but nothing helped a lot — although, of course, these same things could be just the ticket for you. I was surviving, sure, but I wasn’t willing to accept being so very far from thriving. So my quest for solutions continued, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

Understanding That Triggers Are Only the Spark

So back into the time machine and back to the jazzy white chair. Here, I was set to learn about radical acceptance, and it was going to be a game-changer. Crucially, this was a reframing of my attitude to pain and everything else that comes with fibromyalgia. A novel approach that would allow me to interrupt that negative cycle — and finally gain a little control of my swirly slide situation.

One of the first things my therapist taught me was to begin identifying and tracking my everyday triggers so that I could learn to manage them better. However, triggers, he explained, are only the ignition spark of a flare. To get a handle on what followed, I needed to mount a neurochemical intervention.

So, what was the problem? Essentially, my normal human instincts were doing exactly what they should do — under normal circumstances. You see, when a regular person feels pain, their body and brain arm up to protect them, ramping up activity in the survival-oriented sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response.

This internal shift is a call to action for the stress-related neurotransmitters adrenaline and cortisol, plus a stand-down order for less urgent bodily activities like self-repair and digestion. Now, all of that would be just dandy if you were feeling pain because you’d just put your hand on a hot plate, got stung by a wasp, or bumped into a porcupine. But what happens when your pain is chronic?

Not to mention, compounding this conundrum is the reality that it’s totally normal to be afraid of pain — a pretty healthy self-preservation instinct in most instances.

The kicker for us, however, is that when we are afraid of our fibromyalgia pain, each new wave sets off a mega stress response, which in turn triggers more pain, which fuels more stress, and so on, until our symptoms are screaming along just like a runaway train. Or, perhaps more poignantly, just like me, stuck on the swirly slide.

Breaking the Cycle With Radical Acceptance

Perched back on the chair in my go-to psych guru’s office, I began to understand that it was this viciously spiralling cycle that was keeping my symptoms turned up to their max setting. To interrupt it, I needed to desensitize myself to fibro pain with the help of radical acceptance.

Mastering this art meant learning to sit with my pain, tuning into my body fully, and trying to embrace the idea that each sensation is just there, but can’t hurt me. As awful as we might feel in such times, those shooty, stabby, and zappy pains are just signals — they can’t damage us in any way, are not a threat, and will recede when they are ready.

To begin with, this felt really counterintuitive. Up until then, my best tactic had been to stubbornly avoid acknowledging my pain as far as I could manage. So it took a big dose of courage to make myself really slow down, lean in, and be still with something that I had long seen as the enemy.

However, little by little, I realized that the more I practiced being at relative ease with my new buddy Pain, saying “Hi Pain!” along the way, the more comfortable we seemed to become with each other. Crucially, I was training myself that those nasty but familiar body sensations weren’t worthy of a stress response — and as a result, my sympathetic nervous system and its pesky chemical cohort stopped crashing the party as often.

Casting the Radical Acceptance Net Wider

So, where did the whole idea of “radical acceptance” come from? After honing my new skill over several months with the support of my trusty interior-design-oriented psychologist, I decided to jump onto Google and see where his handy technique had originated.

Thanks to the wonders of the web, I soon discovered that radical acceptance is a practice with roots in Buddhism, the work of Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and that of American humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers.

Today, radical acceptance is taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) as a means for enhancing distress tolerance. Ultimately, it allows us to prevent our pain from becoming suffering — which you’ll probably agree is a pretty essential feat if fibromyalgia is your foe.

Having got the hang of taking the sting out of pain’s tail with radical acceptance, I soon started to cast my net wider and apply this approach to other areas of my health, life, and mental state. Because with fibromyalgia, there is a lot more to accept than pain alone.

Essentially, we each need to go through the process of grieving who we used to be, coming to terms with our limitations, and learning how to shape an empowered new identity within a pretty inconvenient set of parameters. In doing so, it can be useful to keep in mind something that Jung expressed so perfectly: “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”

In my experience at least, radical acceptance is a mighty powerful tool to place in our fibromyalgia management toolkits. Plus, when we start out by applying it toward something as tangible as pain, we can substantially sharpen our skill before turning it to less quantifiable things — like needing to reimagine what our lives will look like moving forward, and ultimately being OK with the outcome of that process.

Is making this kind of progress easy? Nope. But can it be done? It’s a big question for most of us, so I’ll answer it the best way I can.

As I sit here writing this, I am in a flare because of a recently stressful circumstance, but I’m not afraid or distressed about it. Today, I know that the swirly slide isn’t as steep as it used to be and that I’ll be off it pretty soon — because I’ve put in the work and practiced pulling the escape hatch lever enough times to trust that it’s coming, and that honestly feels fantastic.

Getty image by Cavan Images

Originally published: September 29, 2023
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