With the new DECADE only hours away, everyone is scrambling to write new year resolutions to kick off with the right foot. Today, we share with you seven must-learn lessons to help ‘zhng’ the new decade for a more holistic, less-painful life.
*Zhng: Singlish, Hokkien to mean modify or upgrade
#1 The power of now, giving, and gratitude
I am a firm believer in taking action right now. To be precise – at this exact moment – what can you do that will make a difference for yourself?
One of the more effective self-directed strategies when it comes to changing your mindset from a negative to a positive headspace is to keep a gratitude journal. All you have to do is write down, on a daily basis, one thing that you are genuinely thankful for.
This may sound like all fluff to you but research has shown that keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks resulted in a 28% reduction in perceived stress and a 16% reduction in depressive symptoms among health care practitioners.
It is not a placebo effect! Randomised controlled trial of 102 healthcare practitioners across five public hospitals found the practice of gratitude to be better than control groups at reducing stress and depressive symptoms (Cheng, Tsui & Lam, 2015).
You may think that gratitude practice only works for people who are the zen-type. I am telling you that is not true.
Gratitude practice has a tangible, statistically significant effect on all of you – type A leaders inclusive as well.
First task for you this new year: Write a gratitude letter to some one who matters.
Researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton have discussed in their book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending (Amazon) that spending money on others makes you happier than buying things for yourself!
In short, you derive joy from giving.
My task for you? Write a gratitude letter to some one who has been present and supportive of you during your painful period. It could be your spouse, your parent, your children, colleague, or friend – it doesn’t matter. Take the time to appreciate what they have done for you. To recollect and recount how they have made a difference to you.
Gift them the output of your gratitude practice.
In just one single activity, you can harness into the power of now, gratitude, and giving. Talk about killing two three birds with one stone. Starting the new year on streak already.
Lessons 1-3: Take action on now, gratitude practice, and giving practice
#2 Observe first; respond second
This somewhat crosses into mindfulness or meditation practice. While some people consider such activities against their religious beliefs, my opinion is that mindfulness can play a secular role in clinical practice.
You task now is to reflect upon your current state of mind:
- Are you aware of what you are/were thinking about? Are you able to observe your thoughts as they form?
- What about your emotional experience? Are you happy, sad, surprised, or perhaps angry?
- Do you know how long you have been feeling this way? Are you aware of why you feel this way?
If your answer is yes to all of the above, you are more likely to be a mindful person.
Research estimated that up to 60% of our daily life is spent “mind wandering” (Kane et al, 2017). While the full extent of its effect is unknown, Seli et al. (2018) found that, in up to 33% of the time, the mind starts to wonder within the first 5-second of a task!
Observe – Process – Respond
Once you are able to observe your own thoughts and emotions, take some time to process them before responding.
To respond is to have (almost) full control of the situation so that you can act in a way that would benefit you, or in some cases others, in the best possible way.
It’s about have a choice at choosing a favourable outcome.
So here is the golden question: Are you able to respond – instead of react – to your pain?
Most of us think of pain as the result or consequence of a physical or sensory stimulus (e.g. damage –> pain). However, research since as early as the 1950s had already found pain to be more complex than that (e.g. phantom limb syndrome).
Variables from attitudes, beliefs systems, mood states, and other social factors have been identified to contribute to your pain experience (Innes 2005, Nay & Fetherstonhaugh 2012). This is why mindfulness practice was included in Lancet’s 2018 lower back pain guidelines.
Your second task: Check out our blog post on mindfulness practice and give guided-mindfulness a shot.
While your pain experience is 100% real (I by no means am trying to discount it), being in control of how you respond, instead of instinctively reacting to your pain, can in itself be helpful.
Lesson 4: Learn how to control your mind with mindfulness practice.
#3 Quit trying to get people to understand your pain; focus on acceptance
It’s common to hear people living with chronic pain passing comments such as, “nobody understands.”
To some extend, it might seem like a logical fallacy but I think there is a lot of truth to that.
Your experience is unique and it is plausibly true that nobody genuinely understands your pain experience/what you are going through. In philosophy, the study of experiences is called phenomenology. For most parts, phenomenology experts agree that chronic pain is a mishmash of emotional, cognitive, and physical interactions.
For example, a patient watching a rubber hand being acupuncture needled in front of them can illicit the same ‘DeQi’ pain response AND the same brain activation comparable to the real deal (Chae et al, 2015)! In this study of 17 participants, no stimulation was applied to the subjects’ real hands!
*DeQi refers to the cocktail of sensations experienced by a patient during acupuncture. They are often described as suan (aching or soreness), ma (numbness or tingling), zhang (fullness, distention, or pressure), or zhong (heaviness) (Yang et al, 2014).
Isn’t the brain amazing?
So, here’s the thing: We don’t really know exactly how or why people experience pain. We know, however, it’s total real. We also know it has real, sometimes severely adverse, effects on people’s quality of life.
Task 3: Come to terms with that nobody can fully understand your pain experience.
Take a moment to appreciate the beauty in the complexity of how our brain works. Especially when it comes to forming an ‘experience’ (in the full phenomenological sense of the word).
Consider why would someone experience the acupuncture deep, dull ache – with the full brain activity/MRI shebags – when it’s only the prosthetic arm that is being needled.
Lesson 5: Accept that your pain is real and that nobody can understand your pain experience in full.
#4 Be approachable
So, this brings us to our next point – approachability.
Once you can accept that nobody will truly understand your pain experience, you can reset your expectations of others. This will be a lot of frustration for you and takes a lot of forgiving on your part.
It’s a personal development exercise in itself!
While it’s true that you deserve empathy, all reasonably healthy relationships are bilaterally dynamic. It requires some contribution on your part too
It’s gonna be tough.
Task 4: Attend an event with some one – make yourself accessible and available for others to support you.
This means that if a friend or a colleague is asking you out because they want to cheer you up, try considering agreeing to it.
Whether they actually do cheer you up is secondary. Because if you are willing to let people to start supporting you, you will eventually meet some one who will.
I think it’s a game of numbers.
It’s rough. But remember the previous lesson? Nobody can understand your pain experience in full.
Lesson 6: Be approachable; slowly start to let others in to support you
#5 Slow things down
We stole this idea in full from The Happiness Lab podcast.
They interviewed peak performance psychologist Dr Don Greene who suggested that one of the strategies to deal with high stress situation is to (literally) slow things down. This means on game day (for athletes) or audition days (for classical musicians), you are looking at walking more slowly, taking your time to brush your teeth, nibble through your breakfast as if you’re a snail.
Earlier, I personally tried this for a few hours – as I am again trying right now – you would realise how fast we rush through our daily routines. How I intuitively hit the backspace or the space-bar buttons without much active thought.
How I flick through my Facebook feed without considering in full the content that is currently scrolling through my screen.
Task 5: Slow down your reading by 2x or even 5x … right now
Consider your own experience.
Being able to slow down your day-to-day – in an almost literal sense – is a foreign, nearly-awful experience. Yet at the same time, it reveals how much of our daily lives are mere mindless routines.
The capacity to break away from that gives you more time and more headspace to consider your action.
To the same effect, I would like you to try applying that to your own pain experience.
Take the opportunity to slow down your task at hand. Are you able to come to the awareness of your bodily sensation?
Are you experiencing pain with sitting at the computer because it hurts to be staring at a screen in the seated position or because your brain associated that sitting activity as being painful (i.e. the acupuncture on rubber arm experiment).
Lesson 7: Slow things down, literally.
If you find lesson 4: observe – process – respond challenging, perhaps this is a good place to start. By taking a slower pace with your daily life – even for just a couple of minutes – you are giving yourself the opportunity of time and space to consider, to be more mindful of your own thoughts and actions.
Go forth and slay your new year resolutions!
So here are my 7 lessons for you. Some of which you can start right now, some of which will take you longer to learn.
But remember, process over outcomes! Every step counts.
Because it’s 5:41pm on New Year’s Eve, I am going to take off now and leave the reference list for the new decade.
Have a wicked new decade and may your processes give you good outcomes!
Reference list to come.
To learn more about how we get our clients to achieve their recovery goals in 4 to 7 visits, check out How To Live Pain Free.