- Inna Khazan
Chronic Pain Is Not Just Physical
Roughly 100 million people in the United States struggle with chronic pain . For many of them, the obvious solution is to see a doctor or take a pill. After all, if pain is physical, why bother with anything besides standard medical treatment?
Pain is indeed physical, but it is not just physical. There is a psychological dimension to pain that ordinary medical care cannot treat. This does not mean that pain is just “in your head”—as if you’re imagining it or at fault for it. It simply means that the way you think about pain can exacerbate it or make it better. After all, it is your nervous system that processes pain, and it is your nervous system that controls your thoughts and emotions. Your mental and emotional wellbeing cannot be separated from your physical wellbeing.
For instance, when you’re suffering from chronic pain, you may avoid certain activities for fear that they will make your pain worse. Over time, this inactivity and lack of getting outside the house can make you lonely and loneliness can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression. And the more depressed and anxious you become, the worse your pain generally gets. In this way, chronic pain creates a vicious cycle where physical discomfort and emotional discomfort exacerbate each other.
Since the mind and body are so intimately connected, truly healing from your pain requires both physical and psychological care. It means looking beyond the pain itself and correcting unhelpful, automatic reactions to pain that have developed over time.
How To Break The Cycle Of Chronic Pain
When you’re dealing with chronic pain, it’s natural to try and control it. The problem is that pain is never entirely under your control. Getting angry at your pain and the physical limitations that may come with it only amplifies the cycle of pain and stress in your life. As counterintuitive as it sounds, finding relief requires giving up the need to fight your pain and focusing on what is within your control.
One of the best ways to get started is to cultivate a mindfulness routine. Mindfulness skills like meditation, deep breathing, and self-compassion practices can help you stay grounded in the present moment and break unhealthy reactions to your pain. Instead of trying to change the present experience itself, mindfulness skills will help you accept what you can’t change and focus on what you can. For instance, you may not have control over the pain sensations themselves, but you can choose to focus on your breath. This can help you reduce physiological stress activation, which in turn minimizes the intensity of your pain. Mindfulness practice also allows you to interpret sensations of pain differently, helping you disengage from catastrophic thinking, fear, and more pain.
Another vital approach for regulating chronic pain is known as biofeedback. When you suffer from chronic pain, your body and your brain have trouble regulating your level of stress activation. As a result, your body easily slips into stress mode, which exacerbates your pain. Biofeedback can help you prevent this from happening by training your nervous system to regulate itself better and giving you skills for reducing the unhelpful activation that contributes to your discomfort. Learning to pay attention to signals from your body will enable you to decrease the frequency and intensity of your pain.
Additionally, it’s important to make sure that you are staying active and not slipping into the avoidant behaviors that you may have developed in reaction to your pain. While it may be instinctive to say no to social outings or physical activity when you’re in pain, isolating and being inactive gives you more time to dwell on your symptoms and stressors, which only makes them worse. That’s why having a daily routine of getting outdoors, going for a walk, or practicing yoga is so important. It can help you get your mind off of your pain, reduce any tension you feel, and overcome your fear of being active.
There’s no sugarcoating it: living with chronic pain can be debilitating and overwhelming. But it does not have to control your life, and you do not have to remain trapped in a cycle of fear and discomfort forever. By taking small steps toward becoming more active and learning new mindfulness and relaxation skills, it is possible to live a full, joyful life with chronic pain.
Don’t Let Your Pain Get In The Way Of Your Hopes And Dreams
Click here to learn about the chronic pain therapy our practitioners provide. If you wish to pursue therapy with us, contact our Boston, MA office by using our contact page, or calling 617-231-0011. We're happy to provide a free, 15-minute phone consultation.