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Is There an Upside to Our Pain? Comfort Addiction, Loss of Tolerance and Narrative Health Coaching

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November 1, 2016

By Joel Kreisberg, DC, ACC

“As people become better able to satisfy their desire for comfort, they narrow their range of experience and fall out of practice navigating life’s hardships” -Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

disconnectedIs there a dark side to the urge to make life more comfortable?  Evidence suggests that our success in creating more material comfort has a “side effect”—a loss of our ability to tolerate more difficult stimuli.  Dr. Todd B. Kashdan and Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, in their book The Upside of Your Dark Side, provide great detail as to just how limited modern Americans are becoming as we succeed in creating more comfortable living.

For health coaches, perhaps we can see a parallel with our clients’ increased dependence on pharmaceutical use and medical interventions.  Kashdan and Biswas-Diener note that “Material comfort affects our ability to psychologically adjust to our surroundings and to deal with difficulties.” Could it be that as our ability to deal with difficulties weakens, we reach for more medical interventions and take more drugs?

A brief glimpse of a few disturbing trends in pharmaceutical use in the US:

  • Between 2000 and 2005, in commercially insured, rates of chronic opioid use increased by 34.9% among individuals with Mental Health or Substance Abuse Disorder, and 27.8% among individuals without these disorders. (1)
  • Almost 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, and more than half take two, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center.
  • The most commonly prescribed drugs among those studied were opioids (13 percent), antidepressants (13 percent) and antibiotics (17 percent). (2)
  • Deaths by overdoses involving prescription painkillers quadrupled since 1999.
  • Every day, about 50 Americans die from prescription painkiller overdoses.
  • Every year, prescription painkillers cause more than 16,000 deaths and 475,000 emergency room visits. (2)

Unfortunately, prescription opioid use and misuse is a Wicked Problem (3). My intuition here suggests that the opportunity exists to get in touch with the potential upside of our pain.  As Narrative Health Coaches, our intervention offers clients the opportunity to consider a fuller story of their experience with illness.  Rather than seeking to fully identify the cause of the symptoms for removal, our intervention allows for a broad-based examination of the multitude of factors that come into play when considering illness or functional health intervention.

pillsFor example, the conventional approach to gastric reflux or irritable bowel involves manipulating the chemical balance in the gut.  Health coaching favors the bio-psychosocial approach that examines many factors, such as emotional stressors, cultural patterns, socio-economic challenges and environmental stimuli that may be interacting with the client in a way that favors the conditions for poor digestion and gastric irregularities.  The Narrative Health Coach offers the client the opportunity to begin to examine the story that goes along with the lifestyle that is generating the conditions for the symptoms.  With the help of the health coach, the client begins to reframe that story into an opportunity for learning and transformation.  Rather than health and healing coming from a pill or a medical intervention, Narrative Health Coaching relies on a growth model of healing focused on the subjective narrative of the client. We help the client rewrite the story from an illness narrative to a healing narrative.  With this new story we engage the client in new skill development and refine the new ‘muscles’ increasing functioning on levels that directly support the ability for the person to assimilate and digest.  As the coach and the client engage their healing relationship, learning transforms.

Perhaps there is an upside to symptoms.  Is it possible that a simple trip to the physician paid for by our insurance doesn’t really do justice to the deeper meaning and potential for growth and healing that our illness offers?  Narrative healing provides a framework for finding potential for growth in our aches and pains.  We’re not advocating for replacing physicians, drugs or hospitals; rather, as health coaches, we’re simply pointing out that answers to our questions depend on how we ask and how we listen for answers.  With Narrative Health Coaching, toleration provides the necessary ingredient for taking a more active role in healing.  Accepting the messages from our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits can be deeply transformative.  Through listening and learning, we find new ways of living more fully, even with our aches and pains.


1.Trends in use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain among individuals with mental health and substance use disorders: the TROUP study Mark J. Edlund,  Bradley C. Martin, Andrea DevriesMing-Yu FanJennifer Brennan Braden, and Mark D. Sullivan, Clin J Pain. 2010 Jan; 26(1): 1–8. doi: 1097/AJP.0b013e3181b99f35
2.Hooked on Pharmaceuticals: Prescription Drug Abuse in America by Chris Elkins & filed under Dangerous Prescription Drugs. Posted July 29th, 2015   https://www.drugwatch.com/2015/07/29/drug-abuse-in-america/
3.Wicked & Wise: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems 2015 Ken Wilber,  Alan Watkins , Urbane Publishers Ltd,

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