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Setting Intentions for 2020 With Chronic Pain

Posted on January 06, 2020

Eat healthier. Exercise more. Learn a new skill. Pay off a credit card. Many of us have made similar New Year’s resolutions over the years. And many of us have also ended January feeling like failures because we didn’t follow through perfectly. We may feel even more discouraged if our goal was linked to improving how we manage chronic pain.

The problem isn’t that we failed at our resolutions. The problem is that the resolution framework failed us. Resolutions are often binary goals - this or that. Yes or no. Either you went to the gym five days a week or you didn’t. Either you quit smoking or you didn’t. These yes-or-no set-ups can make us feel like losers if we don’t attain perfection. This is true for anyone, but black-and-white goals can be even more challenging when life with chronic pain throws curveballs. Chronic pain symptoms like exhaustion or depression can make it more difficult to stick to a new workout routine or keep up a volunteer commitment. A flare or a trip to the emergency room may send New Year’s resolutions right out the window.

2020 can be different. Instead of choosing a New Year’s resolution, consider adopting a New Year’s intention. Intentions and resolutions have similarities - both require us to reflect on our lives and identify areas we’d like to improve. But intentions can be more successful than resolutions because they give us the space to work towards progress, even if progress isn’t a straight line.

Intentions account for the reality that habits don’t change overnight. Research from the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it can take people anywhere from 18 days to eight months to create a new habit. And that’s ok - the study found that missing opportunities to follow through did not prevent people from achieving consistency over time, provided they tried again. In other words, if you’ve had trouble setting boundaries to protect your time and health, give it another go with a new attitude.

Here are some suggestions for setting intentions that can help improve your physical and emotional well-being:

Find Your “Why”
It’s easy to pick a resolution based on perceived shortcomings, but focusing on your why - your deeper priorities - can make a bigger impact on your overall quality of life. Here are some examples of transitioning from resolutions to intentions that reflect a deeper purpose:

  • “I resolve to lose 20 pounds” becomes “I intend to take steps to increase the energy I have to spend with loved ones.”
  • "I will attend every book club meeting” becomes “I intend to invest more time in my friendships.”
  • “I will pay off a credit card” becomes “I intend to focus my spending on the bills and purchases that have the greatest impact on my life.”
  • “I will stop gossiping” becomes “I will focus on the goodness in others.”

Once you’ve identified your deeper purpose, you can focus on small actions that will support your why. And when you stumble, you can return to your why to renew your motivation.

Lay the Groundwork for Change
Depending on your intention, you may want to consult your doctor to develop a plan. If you’d like to gain more energy, your doctor can help you decide which types of exercise or nutritional plans are best for your chronic pain condition and any other health issues you might have. Your doctor may also suggest working with a physical therapist or nutritionist to support your New Year’s intention. With the support of your doctor and other health professionals, you can research new recipes, find online exercise videos, or make plans with a friend to cook and work out together. If your intention involves addressing depression or anxiety, talk to your doctor about a referral to a mental health professional who can support you.

Build in Short-Term Rewards
Research from the University of Chicago and Cornell University found that people are better at sticking to goals that yield long-term benefits if they can experience short-term rewards along the way. For example, the study found that people were more likely to eat green vegetables if they found enjoyable ways to prepare them than if they only ate them for health benefits. You can apply the same principle to your intentions.

Show Yourself Compassion
Accept that you won’t always live up to your intentions. Be kind to yourself when you fall short. If you find yourself beating yourself up, stop and think about what you would say to a friend or other member of MyChronicPainTeam in your shoes. Would you knock them down or encourage them to try again? Be as understanding and supportive to yourself as you would to someone else.

Do you have an intention for 2020? Share your hopes for the new year with other members on MyChronicPainTeam.

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