Asking for help when you have chronic pain

Good communication skills are important for everyone involved in dealing with chronic pain.

A young woman with long curly hair helping a young man lift a box into his car.
Photo: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels.

Most of us are willing to help others, and often we will stop everything we are doing to help a friend in need. But why is it that many of us do not ask for help when we are the ones under the weather? Perhaps we think it is a sign of weakness, we do not want to be a burden or we have that “I can do it myself” mentality.  If this is the case for you, remind yourself that asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. Asking for help is not easy to do, but we all need help from time to time, especially when we live with chronic pain.

Many times, friends and family want to help people with chronic pain. Although these people care for you and your well-being, sometimes their good intentions are not what you need. If you can do something for yourself, you probably will feel better by accomplishing a specific activity. Even if it takes a little longer, you will have the satisfaction of having completed it independently. We all want to be independent for as long as we can, but it is also important to know when and how to ask and accept help.

When those that care about you ask what they can do, instead of saying “I am fine, I don’t need help,” or not answering at all, be honest and let them know what you need. It helps to be specific. For example, if you are still able to get the garbage together but you are not able to carry the heavy bags, perhaps you can ask someone to carry heavy bags of garbage to the end of the driveway. Try to think beyond physical help and consider social and emotional support, too. Invite a friend or loved one to take a walk with you once a week. Sometimes companionship is more helpful than people doing things for you!

Let us think about the flip side. How do you handle being the one who receives numerous requests for help? This may happen often and your friends and loved ones may assume you will always say “yes.” Remember it is ok to say no. You cannot help someone all the time, but you can help anyone some of the time. 

You do not want to agree to a request that you cannot follow through with. An example could be agreeing to help someone move without fully considering that moving entails lots of different steps and degrees. Ask them to clarify how they want you to help before you commit to it. 

Saying “no” is a good self-management tool for all of us to practice so we do not become overwhelmed. It can help us feel better and maintain our friendships. Listening is probably the most important communication skill in managing your commitments to help or be helped.

Being a good listener involves the following:

  • Face the speaker, maintain eye contact and be attentive. Give the speaker your undivided attention which means putting aside your cell phone, computer, television, and any other distractions.  
  • Observe body language and listen to the tone of the voice. Is there body tension or is the person struggling with their words? Observe their facial expression. Perhaps the speaker has more on their mind than what they are asking for.
  • Repeat what you heard to the person talking to you. If the person talking to you is ill, sometimes just knowing someone is listening is what they need.
  • Listen to the feelings behind the words. Let the person know you are hearing both the content and emotions behind what they are saying. When you respond to someone for content and emotion, they usually feel more comfortable and can continue to speak.
  • Respond by asking for more information. Just by saying, “I don’t quite understand, would you mind repeating that?” will help the person to be clearer and let them know you are listening to them.

By practicing good communication skills, whether you are the one in pain or the one providing the help you will feel better about your requests and responses as the expectations will be clearer for everyone involved.

If you or someone you know suffers from chronic pain, chronic disease or diabetes visit Michigan State University Extension website. Michigan State University Extension has free Personal Action Towards Health (PATH) classes that are being offered online, along with other resources.

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