Chronic pain conditions do not only affect the individual who suffers from them, they have a knock on effect on family and friends who watch their loved one struggle. Often it can be worrying and frustrating for loved ones who want to help but perhaps aren’t sure how to go about it and may feel helpless.
However you are far from helpless: in fact, patients who have a good support system are inherently more able to deal with their symptoms and even have reduced symptoms. This study concluded that,
patients who described their families as being supportive reported significantly less pain intensity, less reliance on medication and greater activity levels.
Why support is so vital
Let’s look at why this support is so important for patients with chronic pain conditions. Chronic pain is often very isolating, as patients may feel that they are not able to get out and about or that their symptoms are limiting their ability to make significant connections in their lives. Living with chronic pain can be very tough emotionally, it can feel draining and can have an impact on mood. Maintaining friendships and family relationships allows your loved one to feel less alone, to feel loved and this on it’s own reduces stress, which in turn reduces pain and the associated symptoms.
Stress is a major factor in how severe a patient’s symptoms may be, as simply put, higher levels of stress tend to exacerbate pain. Often a lot of stress in people’s lives come from tense or problematic relationships with family, partners or friends; maintaining good connections, building bridges and resolving problems so that connections with loved ones can be strong and supportive, can have a big positive impact on reducing stress in a loved one’s life. This therefore reduces the pain and stress cycle, allowing them to be better placed to deal with their symptoms.
Having that support there has also been shown to reduce the fear of their condition; often people will avoid certain situations because they are worried about how their actions may affect their symptoms, which in fact compounds their symptoms. With support by their side people are more likely to engage in activities and to feel less afraid. This study indicates that, “the presence of a supportive other may diminish one’s appraisal of threat, which in turn might influence one’s experience of pain by reducing the negative emotions and expectations of pain”. The same study also suggests that loved ones may distract the patient’s brain away from their pain more so, and without that focus on the pain solely and with something more positive to focus on, symptoms can diminish.
Being in a happy romantic relationship with a supportive partner has been proven to have really positive impacts on health, even for those without any health conditions, such as improving mental health as well as physical health as shown in this book.
The connections we have in our lives are far more impactful on our health than we may be aware; your position in supporting a loved one with a chronic condition is significant, and you are important in that process. You are not helpless, even just maintaining that good connection with them is so much more helpful than you might be aware of.
15 ways you can help your loved one
Do research about their condition
Finding out as much about what your loved one is going through as possible is going to allow you to be better placed to help. It will give you the best chance possible to understand their symptoms and to figure out where you may be able to help. There are some great resources about how to cope with a loved one’s chronic pain such as this leaflet.
Too often family become frustrated with loved ones because they don’t understand an illness that they cannot see, and this can lead to them placing guilt on their loved one who is struggling, which is turn can break down the relationship between them. Doing research and educating yourself so that you can really understand that it’s not ‘all in their head’ and that even though their symptoms may not always be visible, they are very real, can be a great starting point. Understanding that their symptoms can change from day to day and in severity, allows you to be better placed to comprehend your loved one’s struggles and what they may need from you.
Ask them what they need help with
If you are unsure about how they are feeling or what you can do to help, the best thing you can do is ask them. Symptoms vary all the time with chronic pain, so where one day a loved one may help with a task, another day they may feel completely able to complete the task themselves. Maintaining open communication about how they are feeling and what they are going through will allow you to stay on the same page. It’s also important that you voice your own feelings so that they can understand your point of view: it works both ways.
Remember that they are still the same person you always knew; chronic pain doesn’t change who they are as a person. Talk to them as you usually would and simply ask if there’s anything that you could help them with. Often if you would like to know what a loved one is going through, it’s a great idea to ask them if it would be ok for you to ask them some questions; you may just find that they are keen to help you understand and share their experience.
Offer to go to appointments with them
Going to medical appointments can be worrying and often it can be hard to remember everything that has been said when you are in that nervous state of mind. Offering to go with a loved one to appointments, to be that back up to understand information being given, or even just to sit with them in the waiting room and offer emotional support, can really take a weight off.
Encourage healthy eating
Maintaining a healthy diet is a really practical way that someone with a chronic pain condition can take good care of themselves; encouraging this is a really positive thing. Offering to go shopping with them, to plan meals out together, even to cook together, can be really supportive provided it’s balanced in a way that is not condescending.
People with chronic pain may have the impression that they need to avoid exercise as it may worsen their pain, when in fact the opposite is true; gentle and consistent exercise can reduce symptoms. This book explains that, “a lack of activity can lead to increased isolation, depression and physical deconditioning, which can make the experience of pain even worse”.
As with eating in a healthy manner, often it’s easier to get motivated to exercise if you are doing it alongside someone else. Offering to go on walks, to go swimming or to the gym together, is a great way to maintain social interaction as well as help your loved one to do the gentle exercise that is really going to benefit their body. With this, it’s important to remember that they may not feel able to do as much as you, so try not to pressure them too much and allow them to go at their own pace.
Encourage positive thinking
Thinking in a positive way is very helpful for chronic pain patients, it can aid in dealing with symptoms and reducing them. Often patients can catastrophize about their pain, meaning that they are worrying about it and anticipating it coming in certain situations, which is understandable, but is actually impacting their condition negatively. This study found that, “Catastrophizers reported more negative pain-related thoughts, more emotional distress, and more pain than non catastrophizes”, meaning that those patients who did not catastrophize about their pain were in less pain, felt more positive and in control of their condition.
You can help by being outwardly positive yourself for example, helping your loved to see that there is hope and helping them build confidence. While this is important it’s also vital not to dismiss their feelings if they are feeling negative or to invalidate their experience; there’s value in listening to what they are saying and struggling with, but gently encouraging positivity where appropriate.
Encourage putting therapy techniques into action
If your loved one attends therapy, whether it be CBT or another therapy, asking them about it and encouraging them to remember those therapy techniques and put them into action, can help them to be proactive with this.
Encourage them to take prescribed medication
Reminding loved ones to take their medication and to engage with the treatment that medical professionals may have prescribed can be very helpful, but again remember to balance that and encourage with being condescending.
Be there to listen
Sometimes when you’re going through a lot in your life, as a result of chronic illness or regular day to day stress, having someone there to just listen can be extremely helpful. Letting your loved one know that you are there if they want to talk and will listen without judgement, is more valuable than you could ever imagine.
Invite them out socially
Sometimes people with chronic conditions will withdraw socially, and often this results in friends or family members no longer inviting them out because they usually say no. Try to remember that they may be struggling, and that even if they’ve said no many times before, continuing to ask them out socially and encouraging them in this area is very helpful. You may find that they do say yes when they’re ready, and even if not, knowing that they are wanted, just that invite alone can extend a hand of friendship that will mean a lot to someone who is isolating themselves.
Respect their boundaries
One of the most important things to remember is that your loved one is an individual with their own mind and sense of self; having a chronic illness does not mean that they are imcompentent. So if you offer help or encouragement and they say no thank you, it’s important that you respect that. We cannot force what we feel is best onto people, they must move at their own pace, but knowing that help is consistently available will make it far more likely that they will reach out and engage when they feel ready.
Offer support with practical tasks
Living with chronic illness can at times make it hard to keep up with day to day tasks, so offering your help with things like housework, cooking, shopping, picking up medication or attending appointments, is a really practical way that you can help. However this must also be balanced with not enabling inactivity. Offering to help with tasks rather than completing the task for them, is far more valuable. This study concluded that, “People with chronic widespread pain are not completely exempted from responsibilities, but instead are helped to maintain them through practical and emotional support of their families”.
Don’t enable inactivity
Withdrawing from activities because of fear of worsening symptoms, or perceived potential pain is common and is unhelpful for patients because it keeps them stuck in the pain cycle. While offering practical help is valuable, it’s also important that there is a balance between helping them and not doing everything for a loved one or taking away their motivation to keep their body moving. This study concluded that, “social influences can play a role in patients’ engagement in activity with pain present and their willingness to have pain without trying to avoid or control it.”, essentially showing that patients are more likely to accept their pain and maintain functioning rather than trying to avoid it with the right social support.
Don’t try to ‘fix it’
Understand that your loved one is most likely not expecting or hoping for you to magically fix their condition, they simply want your support. It can be hard not to feel guilty or feel like you aren’t doing enough, but remember that offering your support and just being there is more than good enough.
Let them be there for you
As with any relationship in life, it works both ways. Just because your loved one struggles with chronic pain it doesn’t mean that they can’t be there for you. It can be common to feel that you need to hide your own struggles because your loved one is already ‘going through enough’, but everyone’s struggles are valid, don’t minimize yours. Give your loved one the chance to be there for you just as much as you are there for them, because that matters too.
Take care of yourself
It’s vital that you do not overload yourself or wear yourself thin by trying to be there for a loved one. It can be very taxing physically to try and help a loved one who is struggling as well as dealing with your own day to day life, not to mention draining emotionally to see a loved one in pain. It’s so important that you are taking good care of your own physical and mental health; you are just as important and valid as your loved one, and you must remember that you cannot be there for someone else effectively unless you are first there for yourself.
Just being there has such value
As someone who lives with chronic pain, I know personally how much difference it makes to have that support system. Having a husband, family and friends who do their best to understand my struggles with fibromyalgia and arthritis means the world to me. It motivates me to keep going even at times when I feel like I just want to give up. They might not always get things right, but that doesn’t matter; what matters fundamentally above all else, is that I know they want to help, I know that they love me, and I know that they are doing all they can to be there for me just as much as I am there for them. That’s all we want, just like anyone else in life, to know that our loved ones are there for us.
- Maintaining good hygiene
Keeping good hygiene habits can be a challenge when you have chronic pain but is highly beneficial if you can work on maintaining as many of them as possible. Things like keeping up with regular showers, brushing your teeth, washing your clothes and bedding, are all things that can help to keep your body healthy and also make you feel so much more alive in general.
It’s ok to put yourself first
Sometimes putting yourself first can feel ‘selfish’, but this isn’t a bad thing; you have a right to put your own self first sometimes, to ensure that you are acting in your own best interests and doing what is best for your health.
We have to help ourselves before we can help anyone else, especially when we are living with chronic pain. There is no shame in caring for your own health and putting actions into place that are really going to benefit you; in fact, you should be extremely proud of yourself and praise yourself for every self-care action that you achieve, even if it feels small. Sometimes those small things are like climbing a mountain, but they are so worth it, and the more you do them, the more you are helping your own self to improve your health and your quality of life.
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.
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