Living With Pain: The Challenge of Habituation

I have written a number of blog posts about the relationship issues associated with chronic pain. Today, I want to focus on your relationships with family – they live with your pain too. Not directly of course. They do not feel the hurt that you feel – they can never actually feel what you feel. But, they are a part of the system that you, and your pain, live in.  One way in which pain can be challenging to both you and  your family involves the process of  habituation.

For example, if you move to the city from the country, at first the traffic sounds may keep you up at night; after a while you will get used to them and fall right asleep. If you have to cut your budget, at first it may seem very hard, but over time you may get used to living more simply. If you sit next to someone on an airplane who is wearing strong perfume, you may be surprised that you no longer notice the odor after a short while. Habituation is usually helpful. It allows us to stop noticing input that is no longer new. However, in the case of chronic pain, habituation can sometimes pose challenges.

Unfortunately, because they spend so much time with you, your family may get used to aspects of your pain experience. Your family may habituate to:

  • the fact that you have pain
  • your expressions of pain
  • your limitations due to pain
  • your pain-related emotions

Even though habituation is completely understandable and normal, if you don’t understand the power of habituation, you are at risk of believing that your loved ones don’t care. Their habituation doesn’t mean that they don’t care or don’t want to help.  It means that your pain isn’t new to them and they may feel they have nothing new to contribute: nothing new to say, no new ideas for treatment, no new inspiring or comforting thoughts, or no new insights. How can you prevent habituation from leading you to  believe that your family no longer cares? Here are two ideas:

Awareness of the Power of Habituation

Just being aware of the process and power of habituation can be helpful. If your family sometimes doesn’t respond in the way that you might expect or desire, consider whether they may just have gotten used to your pain and the feeling that they don’t have anything new to offer. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t let  habituation lead you down the path of feeling isolated, uncared for, and depressed. You might want to share this blog post with family. It may lead to some productive conversations.

What’s New?

It seems to be part of human nature to want to tell someone when you are hurting, frustrated, scared, or sad. There’s nothing wrong with sharing. However, beware of sharing so much and so often that pain-related information becomes “old news”  that your family may get used to. If you become more mindful of your pain complaints and share how you are feeling only when something has changed or when sharing  will serve a purpose, your family will be better able to respond to your needs. In addition, try to consider what it is that you need from your family members before communicating about pain.  Try to be very clear about what you are asking for or about what you want them to know.

About the Author. Dr. Linda Ruehlman is a social/health psychologist and researcher, co-founder of Goalistics, and director of the Chronic Pain Management Program, an interactive site that helps people with chronic pain to manage their pain and live richer, more effective lives as well as Think Clearly about Depression, a self-management program for depression.

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways Magazine

PainPathways is the first, only and ultimate pain magazine. First published in spring 2008, PainPathways is the culmination of the vision of Richard L. Rauck, MD, to provide a shared resource for people living with and caring for others in pain. This quarterly resource not only provides in-depth information on current treatments, therapies and research studies but also connects people who live with pain, both personally and professionally.

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