Chronic pain, especially severe pain, can have an enormous impact on your emotional health. Research has shown that people with pain are significantly more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Remember that you are not atypical, oversensitive, or weak for experiencing emotional distress because of pain. These are normal, reasonable responses to physical suffering and its associated limitations.
Unfortunately, despite the widely recognized psychosocial effects of pain, caring for mental health often takes a backseat to treating physical symptoms. But stress levels exacerbate chronic pain, and chronic pain exacerbates stress levels. This does not mean the pain is “all in your head.” It simply means that the mind and body are linked. Taking care of your emotional well-being can help improve your pain, or, at the very least, help you cope with your pain.
Strategies and treatments for mental health
- Psychotherapy. General psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can be helpful to coping with pain. There is a wide range of licensed professionals that engage in psychotherapy, including clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers. Be sure to find a licensed practitioner, ideally with experience helping those with chronic health issues. Here are a few examples of more specific types of psychotherapy:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy emphasizes awareness of inaccurate or negative thinking, so you can respond to challenges in a more productive, thoughtful way.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy. This approach helps you come to terms with the reality of a challenging situation and refocus your energy on only the things you can proactively control or change. • Psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy. This school of thought explores unconscious feelings/thoughts and the impact of the past on the present. It is one of the more traditional approaches to therapy.
- Biofeedback therapy. During biofeedback, you’re connected to sensors that provide information about your body functions, like heart rate or breathing. This feedback helps you identify how subtle changes, such as relaxing muscles or focusing on your breath, can impact those functions. Biofeedback can be offered by a psychotherapist or a physical therapist.
- Psychiatric care. Psychiatric care involves the use of medical interventions—most commonly, medications—to treat mental health conditions. Psychiatric care should go hand-in-hand with other mental health strategies.
- Peer support. As discussed in the previous section, connecting with others who understand what it’s like to live with pain is hugely helpful. Peer support groups often provide education and coping skills for chronic illness and come in many forms: in person, online, and over the phone. U.S. Pain Foundation currently offers peer support in person and over the phone through its program, Pain Connection. More information is available at www.painconnection.org.
- Meditation & mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness are useful tools for coping with the emotional impact of pain. On a basic level, these techniques can offer a distraction or escape from painful symptoms. But they can also help improve your ability to tolerate pain without anxiety or fear, which can make the pain worse. Examples of meditation and mindfulness include focusing on your breath; visualization or guided imagery; body scanning or progressive relaxation; and practicing gratitude. There are many approaches and philosophies to explore.
- Stress reduction techniques. Stress reduction is not limited to meditation and mindfulness. Other techniques (also discussed in the previous section), include: aromatherapy; art or expressive therapy; journaling; exercise or stretching programs; spirituality; spending time in nature; and more. Find what works for you!