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Talking About Aches and Pains-Helpful or Not?
April 1, 2017
"OK, girlfriends, no more talk of aches and pains for the remainder of this round", said my dear friend to our group as we finished the first half of our golf game. Everyone agreed, and after a few reminders, we spent the next two hours talking about anything but health issues. That was the first time I became aware of how easy it is to spend an entire conversation talking about what ails us.

As I grow older, it seems like I have been both a speaker and a listener in a lot of "organ recital" conversations. You know how it goes-everyone sharing what ails them and how hard it is to grow old.

Lately I have started to question the benefit of these conversations. Being heard and feeling understood and supported are important to good mental health, but dwelling on the negative may not always help. A study conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel found that talking about a painful situation can make it worse not better. Although Mischel's research focused on trauma, his findings may apply to dwelling on aches and pains, as well.

Where is the balance? No one wants to suffer in silence, and it probably isn't healthy to do so. Friends and family care about how loved ones are doing and want to be informed and involved. Sharing our lives is how we build and maintain bonds with others. However, when health issues dominate our conversations, we give them top billing in our lives.

Not all ailments are equal. Health-related conversations range from life-threatening and life-changing conditions to creaky joints and sniffles. Interestingly, there doesn't appear to be a strong correlation between seriousness of the condition and amount of time spent discussing it. In the last few months of my mother's life, when she knew her time was limited, she willingly discussed how she was feeling. But after her health updates, she would change the subject to her children and grandchildren. Maybe the amount of time spent talking about ailments is related to the receptivity of the listener. Or perhaps, group conversational norms guide the topics.

Regardless of why we spend so much time talking about our physical woes, finding a healthy conversational balance can help us feel supported and connected while promoting our health and well-being.

Recently my husband dealt with some chronic health conditions and medical interventions. His health situation dominated our conversations for many reasons. Friends and family wanted to know how he was doing. He was in a lot of pain and unable to do many of the activities he enjoyed. Much of his time was spent seeing various medical professionals who were helping him get better and researching and trying alternative therapies. During this time, we talked a lot about what was going on in his life and how to proceed. And most of the time, these conversations were important and helpful. However, we both soon realized medical issues were dominating our conversations and tried to focus on other topics.

If you think your conversations are becoming "organ recitals" and want to balance talking about health issues with other topics, the following tips may help.

Assess how much time you spend discussing aches and pains. Track the minutes or percentage of time spent on illness-related topics. Knowing the amount of time you spend talking about your health woes gives you a starting point for improvement. You may be surprised to realize how much of your conversation revolves around ailments.

Limit the time spent talking about aches and pains. My husband would say, "OK, enough talk about my neck, let's talk about something else." Decide to reduce the amount of time on health issues and then change the topic. Focus on what is going well. Although sometimes you may need to dig deep, you can usually find something positive in your life to discuss. And the benefits are well worth the effort. A recent New York Times article describes the many health benefits of cultivating positivity, even when dealing with an incurable illness. Boosting the immune system and countering depression are just a few of the benefits cited. Strategies for increasing positivity include:
  1. Identify a positive event each day,
  2. Focus on a personal strength,
  3. Comment on something positive about someone else, and
  4. Practice kindness.
Giving equal time to the good stuff in your life is a helpful place to start.

Find the humor. Numerous studies have demonstrated the physical benefits of laughter. One study at Loma Linda University identified numerous benefits of laughter, such as reducing stress hormones, activating cells that play a role in reducing tumors and increasing beta-endorphins, which improve mood and reduce pain. Perhaps the most well-known example of the therapeutic effects of laughter is documented in Norman Cousins 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, in which he relates how laughter kept him in remission from a degenerative spine disease for thirty years. Make a conscious decision to find the humor. Even finding gentle humor at the absurdity of your situation may help you feel more positively about your situation.

I want to be very clear that I am not minimizing the value of sharing trials and tribulations with a sympathetic listener. Feeling heard and understood is critical to well-being. I am promoting the importance of finding balancing between sharing woes and focusing on the positive, understanding the benefits of positive words and thoughts, and engaging in conversations that promote health and happiness.

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, or not to anticipate troubles, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.
Siddartha Guatama Buddha

©2010 Ageinista L.L.C