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How Counselling can Support Individuals Living with Autoimmune Disorders + Chronic Pain

By Keisha Virago

If you are someone living with an autoimmune disorder or chronic pain, I see you.

I understand how challenging it can feel trying to navigate life while simultaneously managing flare ups, ongoing pain, and inflammation in the body.

It’s defeating, infuriating, and down right unbearable some days.

Other days, you feel great physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Your pain takes a back seat and you can move through your day with ease.

Unfortunately, as we grow accustomed to the ebbs and flows of our physical health, feeling well can be met with scepticism and this inner knowing that when we least expect it, our body is going to go haywire again.

And this fear of the unknown can play a major role in our mental health and overall wellness.

How can Autoimmune Diseases Impact our Mental Health?

Simply put, when we don’t feel well physically, our mental and emotional wellbeing suffers.

Constantly having to navigate physical pain is exhausting and takes away from our ability to remain present. It consumes our thoughts, pain receptors, and inevitably our emotions.

Anxiety and depression are common for individuals experiencing chronic pain.

Anxiety is fuelled because we are often worried about the state of our physical health and what it will look like in the future.

Will it always be this way?

When will the pain stop?

And when it does stop, when will it come back?

Feeling out of control and not being able to show up for things in our life or invest time in the activities that we enjoy, can leave us feeling hopeless, fatigued, and depressed.

Our body is designed to move in order to flourish and feel good!

When we aren’t able to do this, our mental health suffers and we can become stuck in what feels like a never ending cycle of pain and anguish.

Our thoughts may wander off to a very dark place, and it is all too easy to get sucked into negative thought spirals that consume every aspect of our lives.

What Therapeutic Modalities Can We Turn to For Support?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be helpful for individuals struggling with chronic pain.

When we start to notice our unhelpful thinking patterns and question our automatic thoughts, we can begin to work towards finding new ways to react to our experiences.

We can catch ourselves before the catastrophizing really kicks in and takes us for a ride we didn’t buy a ticket for.

By leaning into this approach, and gaining a deeper understanding of how our thoughts impact our emotions which then impact our behaviour, we can take back control of our mind and body.

This doesn’t mean that our pain disappears.

It means that we acquire the skills to be able to gain more control over HOW we feel about our circumstances.

The Power of Being Witnessed

I have met so many people over the years diagnosed with autoimmune diseases and chronic pain. And just about every single one of them has come to me with a similar experience.

Unfortunately, that experience is this.

They saw countless doctors and specialists that told them there was nothing wrong with them.

Or worse, that it was all in their head!

Having personally been on the receiving end of conversations such as these, I know how frustrating and disappointing it can be to have your lived experience invalidated.

Imagine the fire alarm going off in your home, smoke billowing from the inside out, only to have the fire department show up and tell you that there is no fire...

That would be absurd right?

And yet it happens, leaving individuals feeling more isolated, misunderstood, and alone in their pain cycles.

Deciding to work with a skilled counsellor that understands the reality of your pain, and can create space for you to process your emotions around it, can help you to feel less alone.

There is power in being witnessed, seen, and heard.

For some client’s, counselling is the first time anyone has ever truly acknowledged their pain.

What Therapeutic Modalities to Avoid if you’re Experiencing Chronic Pain?

While I absolutely love Somatic Therapy and the support it can provide the nervous system, I don’t recommend it if you’re experiencing ongoing pain.

Body based therapies can help shift client’s out of cognitive processing and into sensation. For someone who's experiencing high levels of pain and inflammation, the last thing they typically want to do is get into the body and intensify their pre-existing discomfort.

They have learned that the body is an unsafe place.

As a practitioner, I honour where the client’s at to prevent further harm and understand that each individual comes to session with unique needs.

During our time together, I provide tools and resources that allow you to take control of your experiences, replace unhelpful thinking patterns that are keeping you stuck, and process your emotions so that you can get back to living, not just surviving.

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