Chronic pain is often referred to as the “invisible illness,” and though it may not be readily apparent, its impact on physical and mental well-being is significant. The condition can render some individuals bedridden and diminish their ability to engage in previously enjoyed activities. Moreover, it can leave them searching for answers regarding the cause of their persistent pain.
However, those struggling with chronic pain need not feel alone, as about one in four Canadians over the age of 15 also experience this condition. Technically, chronic pain is characterized as any pain that endures beyond three months. While physical therapy, surgery, rehabilitation, and medication can aid in reducing pain, psychological treatment can also serve as a crucial component in pain management.
So, how can a psychologist or therapist help with chronic pain? What should you know? Below, we take a look at the role that psychology can play in the chronic pain cycle and how a therapist or psychologist can help you overcome it.
Is Chronic Pain a Psychological Condition?
Research shows how chronic pain actually creates structural and functional changes in the brain. In particular, individuals with chronic pain have reduced grey matter in the hippocampus and amygdala areas of the brain, leading to emotional and cognitive changes. Interestingly, these brain regions and pathways are also involved in a variety of mood disorders.
When pain develops into a chronic condition, many individuals develop negative emotional states, anger issues, depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and suicidal thoughts. By incorporating a holistic approach to pain management and reduction, a person with chronic pain can tackle these issues from all angles. Overall, a psychologist or therapist can help you address the psychological (or “thinking”) side of chronic pain, potentially helping reduce it (more on this below).
How a Psychologist or Therapist Can Help
Alongside other therapies and treatments, various research suggests psychologists and therapists can play a significant role in helping individuals manage and eliminate chronic pain.
For instance, a 2014 review indicated that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may improve anxiety, depression, and disability associated with chronic pain. It’s further thought that psychological approaches may help reduce the intensity of the pain by helping an individual manage their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in relation to their pain.
Psychologists and therapists may help prevent acute pain from becoming chronic and persistent pain by addressing psychological factors, such as fear avoidance and catastrophizing. This may reduce healthcare costs for not just society but also for the individual. In addition, this process can lead to an improved quality of life where pain doesn’t hold you back from doing what you love!
What Psychological Intervention is Best for Chronic Pain?
Various psychological interventions have been shown to be effective for chronic pain, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), biofeedback, Graded Motor Imagery (GMI), and even hypnosis. Many of these approaches focus on changing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours regarding your pain.
A psychologist or therapist can further provide social support, education regarding coping strategies, and strategies for goal setting. They can also help address underlying psychological issues associated with your pain and/or related substance use and sleep issues.
Yet, finding what works best for you is very individualized. For each individual, it’s about determining the combination of treatments, including what psychological approach may help reduce or manage pain effectively and efficiently. Exploring the above options can help direct you toward what may work best for you.
Other Tips for Dealing With Chronic Pain
For coping with chronic pain, other tips that may help and can be applied to your daily life include:
Incorporating relaxation techniques. These include practices such as meditation, deep breathing, and visualization. Research shows these methods are very effective at managing chronic pain when used regularly and consistently.
Regularly performing physical activity. This may feel like the last thing you want to do. But it’s important to avoid letting the fear of pain control your life. Movement may also help ease some pain and improve mood. A psychologist can further help you identify and remove barriers to exercise, helping you take this step.
Connecting with your social network. Research shows how social support can improve adherence to treatment, as well as improve your resilience to depression and anxiety.
Distracting yourself from discomfort. When a flare-up occurs, try distracting yourself from it. Call a friend, watch a movie, or read a book. Diverting your thoughts away from the pain can be a very effective coping mechanism.
Staying hopeful. While this is easier said than done, working with a psychologist or therapist can help you maintain optimism regarding your condition and help you think about it in a different way.
Curious about working with a psychologist or therapist to reduce or overcome your pain? At Bhatia Psychology Group, our team is here for you. We’ll tailor treatment specifically to your needs, goals, and preferences. Together, we can help you move forward into a pain-free future. Contact us today for more information.