Many people are surprised at the thought of seeing a psychologist for help with managing chronic pain.
Whether the pain is related to arthritis; cancer; headaches; back pain; injury; or surgery; low grade or acute; if it is an ongoing problem, it will eventually impact every area of your life.
Would you like to be able to live a full life despite having chronic pain? Would you like to feel that you control your pain – rather than your pain controlling you?
What we know about Chronic Pain
The occurrence of pain rises as people get older, and women are more likely to be in pain than men (1).
For people suffering chronic pain, day to day activities are a struggle, sleep is disturbed, work and social life is impaired, and relationships are negatively affected.
Pain is very real – it is not all in your mind – so please don’t think that seeing a psychologist implies that. Rather, psychologists are trained to help people cope with the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that accompany chronic pain (2).
When you come to see a psychologist about pain management, the first step is a comprehensive assessment of your current situation and your goals (eg returning to work). This will involve a detailed analysis of your current activities, medications, and treatments. Once this has been established, your psychologist will work with you to develop a strategic plan to help you regain control of your life.
There are many ways that a psychologist can help you with managing pain.
Pain and Medication
The first port of call for most people suffering from pain is to turn to medication.
However, when it comes to chronic pain, medication doesn’t always provide the relief your were hoping for, and there can be troublesome side effects such as nausea, constipation, dizziness or tiredness. There are also times when medication isn’t suitable, for example, during pregnancy.
There are many things you can do to help manage your pain – from simple stretches and exercises with the guidance of a physiotherapist or occupational therapist, to massage or acupuncture. Your psychologist can help you to consider all the alternatives, as this can be difficult to do on your own when you are worn out from suffering.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
When healing doesn’t happen and the pain just seems to drag on and on, your thoughts can become increasingly negative – about the pain itself, about its impact on your life, about the future – creating a downward spiral.
It is common for pain sufferers to develop “all or nothing” thinking – able to see only two responses to any situation, and both of them are bad. For example: “I have to be on strong painkillers or I will be in agony”; “I have to be cured or I will never enjoy life again”; “If you’ve had chronic pain, you’ll understand, otherwise you just don’t have any idea”.
A psychologist can help you to challenge negative thinking patterns, such as all or nothing thinking.
Pacing for Pain Management
No, this isn’t about walking back and forth and wearing out your carpet!
Pacing is about helping you to achieve a manageable and sustainable level of activity despite your chronic pain. Your psychologist can help by introducing tasks in a graded manner, in order for you to build skills, confidence and tolerance, so your activity levels can increase (3).
It is common for people with chronic pain to fall into a vicious cycle – overdoing it when they have a good day, followed by an increase in pain – a case of taking one step forward, but two steps back. Your psychologist can help you to learn how to budget your energy, alternating work with rest to help you best “pace” yourself (4).
Managing Stress & Improving Sleep
If you suffer from chronic pain, you are probably already familiar with how your condition seems to worsens when you are under stress. One of the most common reasons people – even those without chronic pain – seek out the help of a psychologist, is to find ways to better manage their stress. In addition to learning to reduce your stress levels, you will learn strategies to help relax and even improve your sleep.
There are just a few of the ways that a psychologist can help you if you suffer from chronic pain, so don’t lose hope!
Although the pain you suffer is not “all in your mind”, the mind is a powerful tool and can often help you to manage the pain and restore your life to where it should be. Why not come and see me and give it a try?
Author: Nicole Wimmer, B Sc (Psych), MA (Psych), PG Cert Mgmt, Grad Dip Safety Science, MAPS.
Nicole Wimmer is a Psychologist who has worked extensively in the area of workplace health and rehabilitation, pain management and adjustment to disability. Her approach to pain management is about helping you to become more active, less reliant on others, and to feel more in control of your life.
- http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Pain_management_adults?open .
- “Pain: a textbook for therapists” by J Strong, AM Unruh, A Wright, and GD Baxter. Elsevier Churchill Livingstone, 2002.
- European Journal of Pain, Volume 13, Issue 2, pages 214–216, February 2009. “A structured review of the evidence for pacing as a chronic pain intervention” by Joanna R. Gill and
Cary A. Brown.