Self-Acceptance and Ambiguity
Those of us who live with chronic medical conditions often live with ambiguity, uncertain whether disease will recur, or whether opportunistic infections may set in, or whether a new treatment protocol will work. Some of us never know when our plans will have to be changed because of symptom flare-ups. However, there are many researchers who have demonstrated that an intentional acceptance practice increases wellbeing, which reduces the suffering from chronic pain, fatigue, or malaise.
The Physiology of Acceptance
When we allow ourselves to acknowledge and fully accept what we are thinking and experiencing, we undergo automatic physiological responses that include slowing and deepening of respiration. Slowing the rate at which we breathe from twenty breaths per minute to ten breaths per minute creates healthier heart rhythms. This is especially true when the chest and abdomen relax, allowing for natural, diaphragmatic breathing. When we do this, the entire chest wall relaxes, and this is often connected with feeling more accepting and openhearted, both physiologically and metaphorically. Neurofeedback researchers Evgeny and Bronya Vaschillo found that this physiological response also creates healthier brain-wave rhythms, which contributes still further to acceptance.
Self-Acceptance Includes Accepting Pain
In randomized controlled trials on pain management comparing attempts to control pain versus acceptance of the sensations, research psychologist Steve Hayes divided study participants into experimental, control-based, and placebo groups. Using a cold pressor task (placing the participants’ hands in ice water) to produce pain artificially, the participants in the acceptance group demonstrated significantly greater tolerance of pain compared to those in the group who were instructed to try to control or not feel the pain.
Research psychologist Lance McCracken found that one of the most helpful aspects of acceptance and mindfulness practices for those with chronic pain is that they lead to an acceptance of pain and disability, an ability to mentally detach from the pain, and improved overall quality of life. The pain doesn’t even need to diminish in order to reduce suffering and improve one’s quality of life.
Most of the actual suffering is from the negative attributions we assign to the pain and not from the actual physical sensations of pain. Dr. McCracken has found that once we identify and start living according to what is most important to us, suffering diminishes even when the pain does not. Again, accepting our pain and disability means accepting ourselves and what we cannot change.
In my own work with chronic pain patients, it was very common to see them hobble into my office and report severe pain. It would have been obvious to any casual observer that these people were suffering terribly. By the end of the hour, they often would report that the pain had not diminished, yet, they no longer appeared to be suffering. In fact, they would often tell me that the pain had only slightly diminished, but that it just was no longer bothering them.
What I taught my clients, and now teach in my book and classes, is that chronic unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations do not have to ruin our lives, and that when we allow ourselves to courageously and fully experience them, we cultivate resilience, and that resilience transfers over to all aspects of our lives.
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