Perhaps you’ve heard a news report about the opioid crisis — the American phenomenon where increasing numbers of people are using and dying from opioids (i.e., medicines related to opium and used to relieve pain). Unfortunately, the medical community has had a part in creating the problem.
When I first came out of medical school, physicians were encouraged to aggressively treat pain and not be afraid of using opioids to do it. We knew these drugs could help both acute and cancer pain, so we assumed they would be useful with persistent, non-cancer pain, too. As it turned out, however, that line of thinking was wrong. We began to see problems with addictions, and side effects often overshadow the small to nil improvements realized when treating chronic conditions with these medicines.
The truth is, we’re frequently limited in our ability to alleviate suffering, so it was out of compassion that we turned to these drugs. What we need is another treatment modality, and we actually have one — we just don’t use it!
More Than Pain
We tend to focus on pain as the cause of suffering, but our distress is at least as much or more about experiencing loss.
We feel profound grief and absence when someone close to us dies. Losing a job can go beyond the loss of income we need to support ourselves and our families, to also include the frustration of unmet goals and dreams, feelings of humiliation, and loss of status and identity. Physical ailments may lead to diminished function and disability. Abuse not only causes pain from injuries, but also destroys the victim’s ability to trust, sense of dignity, and feelings of worth and value.
Other factors will either add to or intensify our suffering. Recognizing unmet goals and expectations, whether they are realistic or not, increases our anguish. Our emotional state can both magnify our wretchedness and lessen our ability to deal with our situation. Anxiety and fear add to our torment and further incapacitate us. A lack of meaning and purpose makes everything unbearable. Loneliness and isolation deprive us of the strength and support we need. Powerlessness creates feelings of helplessness and robs us of hope. Dysfunctional behavioral patterns further aggravate our misery.
A Naturalistic Approach to Treatment
How do physicians help their patients?
First, we should try to diagnose and correct the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, sometimes can’t find a reason and even when we do, we can’t always fix it.
Second, we try to change modifiable intensifiers and correct the functional problems that add to the person’s distress. This is why physicians refer patients for physical therapy and counseling.
Third, we try to reduce the symptoms. This doesn’t automatically mean taking medicine, although it frequently does. The problem is that both practitioners and patients jump to this step without giving adequate attention to the first two. Somewhere along the way, people have adopted the false notion that we treat suffering with pills.
While I wholeheartedly endorse this three-part strategy, I also believe secular medicine is making a huge mistake when it ignores the spiritual dimension. So, how could we do things differently and what can each of do to find relief in suffering? That will the subject of next week’s blog.
Finding Relief in Suffering is part of a series on practices that promote psychological and spiritual health.