8 Mental Techniques to Cope with Chronic Pain

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 10 June 2019
  • 3 minute read
8 Mind Tricks to Cope with Chronic Pain | The Health Sessions

This blog post contains some affiliate links to products you may find useful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own. 

There’s an overwhelming amount of advice available about how to reduce pain. But how exactly do you deal with pain that won’t go away?

Millions of people around the world suffer from pain that continues beyond the expected period of healing. When you experience chronic pain, your body is in a constant state of fight-or-flight. This on-going stress damages your body and even changes the neural circuits in your brain. Chronic pain can also lead to depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders and avoidant behavior, which in turn worsen your existing pain.

Everyone copes with pain differently, but some ways are more effective and constructive than others. When it comes to chronic pain, there’s one group of strategies you may easily overlook: how to manage pain with your mind. 

“It’s all in your mind”

Feeling pain involves both your body and your mind. When you hit your toe or touch something hot, your nervous system sends warning signals to your brain, urging it to take action. Depending on the type of pain, different regions in your brain light up and pain-reducing chemicals like endorphins are being released into your bloodstream.

But when the pain continues for weeks, months or even years, your brain may become rewired to perceive pain signals even after the cause of the pain is gone.

What’s more, pain doesn’t just cause a physical sensation. It also evokes an emotional reaction, like feeling angry, upset or fearful, and triggers thoughts like “what’s happening to me?” and “will this pain ever go away?”. 

The fact that pain has a psychological component does not mean you’re imagining it, making it up or are overreacting.

It simply means that both the pathways in your brain as well as your thoughts, beliefs and emotions about pain also play a role in the continuation of chronic pain. And that makes your mind one more entry point to start managing your pain levels.

5 Ways That Mind Tricks Help You Cope with Physical Pain

  1. Being mentally engaged takes your mind off the pain.
  2. Performing mental techniques can override the pain signals to your brain.
  3. Psychological strategies can help prevent a negative cycle of pain sensations, unhelpful thoughts and behaviors.
  4. Mind-body techniques relieve tension in body, which in turn lessens your pain.
  5. Emotion-focused coping strategies can stop anxiety and depression from developing.

If that sounds helpful, take a look at 8 psychological strategies can you use whenever you are in pain.

8 Mind Tricks to Cope with Chronic Pain | The Health Sessions

8 Mental Techniques You Can Use to Cope with Chronic Pain

1. Positive distraction

Your working memory can only process a limited amount of input at once. In the case of chronic pain, that can be a good thing. Because when you focus your attention on happy thoughts or fun activities, there’s less capacity available to handle pain signals.

However, as anyone suffering from chronic pain knows, the reverse is also true. Being in pain makes it more difficult to concentrate on other things. Learning a new skill or solving complex problems can be too much to ask for when your body’s aching. So choose positive distractions that require just the right amount of brain power, like playing games or reading a short story.

2. Listening to music

We’ve all experienced how listening to your favorite tunes can make you feel better. But did you know that music also affects your ability to handle pain? A controlled study showed that listening to music twice a day helped patients with chronic pain to significantly reduce self-reported pain and their intake of medication. What’s more, music listening is associated with lower stress levels, less anxiety and depression, and more perceived control over pain.

Scientists aren’t sure yet how music exerts its effects, but in the meantime, you can safely prescribe yourself a playlist with upbeat and relaxing songs to help cope with chronic pain.

3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

It’s the most commonly used psychological technique to manage pain: cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that successfully reduces pain and emotional distress by identifying and correcting unhelpful pain-related thought patterns and behaviors. For example, pain catastrophizing – excessive worrying about pain and your inability to deal with it – leads to greater dysfunction in daily life, even when you take pain and depression levels into account.

Naturally, it’s best to do CBT under professional supervision. However, you can try to examine your automatic negative thoughts and beliefs about pain yourself, and challenge them. That doesn’t mean you’re denying the intensity, severity or the source of your pain. You’re simply creating more helpful thought patterns to improve your pain levels and daily functioning.

For more information about using cognitive behavior therapy to cope with chronic pain, please contact your doctor to learn about treatment options in your area.

8 Mind Tricks to Cope with Chronic Pain | The Health Sessions

4. Progressive muscle relaxation

When we’re stressed and in pain, we automatically tense our muscles, preparing us for action. But tight muscles actually experience pain more intensely than relaxed muscles. Even worse, tension in one part of your body, for example your neck, can cause pain in other parts, like your head, shoulders and back.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a mind-body technique that focuses on releasing tension from your body. By systematically tensing and then relaxing every muscle group, you’ll feel more comfortable. This deep state of relaxation may also improve your tolerance of pain.

You can perform progressive muscle relaxation whenever you’re hurting, but it can be particularly useful to practice it before bed to help beat ‘painsomnia’.

5. Hold hands

Sometimes pain relief is just a touch away. According to research, holding your partner’s hand can decrease your pain levels. That’s probably because touching allows a couple’s heart rate and breathing to sync up, creating a pain-relieving effect.

But don’t worry if you’re aching and there’s nobody nearby. Another study showed that looking at a photo of someone you love also makes pain more manageable. Simply feeling supported helps to reduce your perceived pain.

6. Breathing through the pain

We’ve all seen movie scenes of women in labour ‘puffing’ away the pain. But did you know that the way you breathe also influences pain processing in everyday life? Deep belly breathing activates your body’s natural relaxation response, releases stress and calms your mind. Slow diaphragmatic breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, a nerve that’s recognized for relieving pain.

Here are some exercises that can help you breathe through the pain:

8 Mind Tricks to Cope with Chronic Pain | The Health Sessions

7.  Sensory Splitting

What does your pain feel like? Is it throbbing, burning or stabbing? Do you experience pins and needles? Is the pain localized or does it radiate to other body parts?

Sensory splitting is a mental technique that helps you divide your pain into different components, like the type of pain, intensity, location and duration. By splitting pain in several sensations that change over time, you’re less likely to be absorbed by worries about pain. And less stress means less pain.

8. Visualization and guided imagery 

Imagine yourself sitting on a quiet beach, with your feet in the sand and a breeze through your hair. Feels pretty calming right?

Visualization and guided imagery can be powerful tools to unwind. Even more so, painting a vivid picture may redirect your thoughts away from the pain. Because visualizing peaceful scenes relaxes both your body and mind, it works well to target the vicious cycle of pain, stress and anxiety.

So the next time you’re in pain, engage all your senses to imagine a place you find relaxing, whether that’s a cabin in the woods or a tropical beach. If you have trouble visualizing relaxing scenes or staying focused, the Flowly app will take you on a journey through different Virtual Reality worlds designed for relaxation. Through a combination of guided breathing, voice-over and biofeedback, Flowly teaches you helpful tools like controlling your heart rate and breathing to manage your pain. Flowly is backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is currently studied as a device for pain and anxiety management.

Which mental techniques do you (unconsciously) use to cope with chronic pain?

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