Healing Words

Call it self-talk, cheerleading, meditation, improving the moment, finding your happy place, even prayer. These are all variations on a theme that at its core may amount to focusing on words or phrases that inspire you, that make you feel good. I’ll offer some of my favorites in a bit, but let’s begin by helping you find (or define) for yourself what your inspiring words might be.

Self-talk is the most basic version of these techniques, and can take the form of an internal dialogue, a way of talking to yourself like a best friend would, and ultimately a means of keeping yourself focused: “You’re seeing only bad and ignoring all the good in front of you.” One of the skills I often work on with patients is teaching you how to argue with yourself – if you can (in your mind) argue for both sides of a feeling or belief, you may be able to avoid certain negative feelings or the “playing the broken record” phenomenon. Consider this one: “I know it feels like the pain is debilitating, but am I really totally disabled, maybe I can still do some things…”

Cheerleading is my way of describing the overly positive voice you hear in your head (often a loved one’s voice internalized) that pushes you forward during tough times. This is the louder more hopeful version of self-talk: “You can do it, I believe in you, don’t give up!” This is the idea of the little engine that could, the “I think I can! I think I can!” approach.

Meditation takes many forms and typically involves variations on posture and breathing as well. Most often, meditation focuses on a word, phrase, or intention used to focus the mind: “Calm” or “See the light within yourself.” Meditation often involves a spiritual phrase or statement, especially when tied to yoga or certain religious rituals.

Improving the moment is a phrase taken from the mindfulness literature, and it refers to finding the silver lining on the clouds – refocusing your thoughts, emotions, and attention through some internal cue: “I may be in pain, but that pain means I’m alive another day with my family around me” or “My pain doesn’t negate the pleasant experience I am having at this meal.” Sometimes we need to be our own best friend by using such phrases as internal cues to stay on a positive or hopeful track, and avoid placing a negative spin on everything.

Finding your happy place is the classic psychology cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason – sometimes the use of imagery, fantasy, or pleasant escape is a great coping mechanism: “Mmm, an all chocolate buffet” or “I’ll always have that memory of traveling to Tuscany, I can picture the hills and vineyards.” You can use words to paint a picture or tell a story that brings you comfort or calm. (Remember, in an earlier post I noted the proven benefits of fantasizing about chocolate.)

Prayer can come in many forms and I don’t claim to be an expert. However, most people’s approach to prayer involves “talking” to a higher power or repeating a phrase or mantra over and over, any of which can be soothing: “Peace, peace, peace” or “I trust in Your will.”

So you see, words can be more than just words. They can serve as a motivator, an escape, a source of peace and comfort, a rallying cry, an emotional outlet, or a guide for living. There is a growing body of research supporting the use of many of the above methods for relief of pain and pain-related distress. (Don’t forget that the mind and body interact, and lessening emotional distress can reduce the intensity of your pain experience.)

My own means of finding a moment’s peace combines many of the techniques discussed here. I keep a collection of quotes, some famous, some spiritual, some from literature, and some from friends and patients. If I need inspiration or comfort I can scan this list where I find there is often a phrase in there to provide direction.

Some of my favorites include:
”I am only one but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not neglect that something I can do.”
Helen Keller
(This statement speaks to me about overwhelming strength and courage, and keeps me focused – a version of cheerleading).

“To enjoy, to love a thing for its own sake and for no other reason.”
Leonardo da Vinci
(This one for me is about improving the moment and mindfulness – just being in that moment, whatever it is.)

“We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” Will Rogers
(Quotes by Will Rogers have certain personal memories tied to them, and they start a trickle down of images and stories that can serve as my happy place.)

“The great art of life is the sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.”
Lord Byron
(Again, improving the moment, as well as a version of the arguing with yourself in self-talk.)

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
(This quote tells me that, while we can’t always escape our circumstances, we can alter our attitudes and interpretations. This acts as cheerleading and a mantra-like meditation.)

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater the effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?”
“I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”
“To shrug.”
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
(This one means to me that, even if not always apparent, we have choices and options. This is part of a happy place for me, remembering when and why I read this book, but also a personal belief system that is like meditation or cheerleading as well.)

The idea behind this posting is to encourage your own self-sufficiency – any of these techniques can be done solo, without any tools, people, or in any environment. When dealing with pain and its related psychological baggage, it is useful to have portable skills that you can draw upon anytime, anywhere. Use these brief descriptions as a way of picking a technique to explore further, to learn more about it and practice.

What words will inspire you? Do you believe that words can change your thoughts and feelings? What does the little voice in your head say?

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