Chronic pain is physically and psychologically stressful and its constant discomfort can lead to anger and frustration with yourself and your loved ones. By definition, chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than six months and affects how a person lives their daily life. While physicians can provide treatment for the physical dimensions of chronic pain, psychologists are uniquely trained to help you manage the mental and emotional aspects of this often debilitating condition. Chronic pain is hard!! And if you’re living with chronic pain, you know this all too well. I believe there are many sides to the chronic pain problem that add up to making it one of the hardest things to cope with.
Several medical treatments may be used to alleviate chronic pain, including over-the-counter or prescription medication, physical therapy and less utilized treatments, such as surgery. However, these options are only a few of the pieces necessary to solve the puzzle of chronic pain. Mental and emotional wellness is equally important — psychological techniques and therapy help build resilience and teach the necessary skills for management of chronic pain.
First is the pain itself. Almost everyone has had a bad headache or a twisted ankle, and knows what pain feels like. But patients with chronic pain have to deal with pain that doesn’t go away – and if you haven’t had this, it can be very hard to understand what that’s like. Chronic pain, especially severe chronic pain is very, very difficult to experience. In addition to the pain itself, you often experience many, many negative consequences of pain:
• Pain often affects your ability to work, which may have financial and emotional consequences. Many people like the sense of purpose and fulfillment, and the social contact that comes from work, and this may be lost. • Pain affects relationships with family and friends. At times, you may be depressed and grumpy, which affects those around you. You may have less ability to do things around the house, or may not be able to go out to do what you did in the past. Family members may become as frustrated as you do, if the pain doesn’t improve. There may be long-term changes in roles, which can be difficult to adjust to. • Pain affects your leisure time. Pain may limit your ability to do things you used to like to do, like relaxing or playing with family, socializing with friends, and doing hobbies and favorite activities. This may come from both the physical limitations of your pain problem, and from the stress and depression that often comes along with chronic pain, just “not feeling like doing anything.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers the following tips on coping with chronic pain:
Manage your stress. Emotional and physical pains are closely related, and persistent pain can lead to increased levels of stress. Learning how to deal with your stress in healthy ways can position you to cope more effectively with your chronic pain. Eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and engaging in approved physical activity are all positive ways for you to handle your stress and pain.
Talk to yourself constructively. Positive thinking is a powerful tool. By focusing on the improvements you are making, i.e., the pain is less today than yesterday or you feel better than you did a week ago, you can make a difference in your perceived comfort level. For example, instead of considering yourself powerless and thinking that you absolutely cannot deal with the pain, remind yourself that you are uncomfortable, but that you are working toward finding a healthy way to deal with it and living a productive and fulfilling life.
Become active and engaged. Distracting yourself from your pain by engaging in activities you enjoy will help you highlight the positive aspects of your life. Isolating yourself from others fosters a negative attitude and may increase your perception of your pain. Consider finding a hobby or a pastime that makes you feel good and helps you connect with family, friends, or other people via your local community groups or the Internet.
Find support. Going through the daily struggle of your pain can be extremely trying, especially if you’re doing it alone. Reach out to other people who are in your same position and who can share and understand your highs and lows. Search the internet or your local community for support groups, which can reduce your burden by helping you understand that you’re not alone. There are also many supportive online communities.
Consult a professional. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by chronic pain at a level that keeps you from performing your daily routine, you may want to talk with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help you handle the physical and psychological repercussions of your condition.
Dr. Bahareh Talei received her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) from Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Dr. Talei is a licensed psychologist and is co-founder of Diagnostic & Counseling Center (DCC). Her experience has primarily been in working with children and adolescents with various disabilities such as autism and difficulties with learning and attention. Throughout her career, Dr. Talei has been actively engaged in the assessment of a diverse population (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, central nervous system damage) and training of other professionals. Her experience and interests also includes conducting individual and group psychotherapy with family members of children with developmental disabilities and other populations (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, and infertility).