5 Psychological Steps Towards Overcoming Chronic Pain
March may be the healthiest month on the calendar—or at least the most obsessed with health observances. From Brain Awareness Week and Patient Safety Awareness Week, to National Kidney Month and my personal favorite, Nutrition Month, early spring is a good time to get your fill of health and wellness.
On that note, I want to address an overlooked health issue at this time of the year that’s a common concern for people in recovery from opiates and other prescription drugs: chronic pain and the challenge of coping with chronic pain. As many as one in two working adults in this country reportedly suffers from chronic back or body pain, so the issue is widespread.
As a therapist, I’ve come to believe that physical pain is often inextricably connected with psychological and emotional pain. Some of the latest science into the mind-body connection confirms this belief, as does the work of doctors like the late Dr. John Sarno, M.D.. (While Dr. Sarno’s findings are not recognized as mainstream by the medical establishment, they have helped countless people overcome chronic pain issues. One of them was the 20/20 reporter John Stossel, who featured Sarno and his program in a 1999 report.)
Below are five psychological steps—or coping devices—for dealing with chronic pain that can help you in your recovery journey:
First, rule out any medical explanations for your pain.
It’s always good to consult a doctor as to whether your pain could have a legitimate physical cause in the form of an illness or injury. Here, though, proceed with caution. Hospital studies have reportedly found that two out of three people with no history of chronic pain have a herniated or bulging disc in their back. In other words, often there is not a correlation between pain symptoms and a structural abnormality in the body.
Second, consider that the purpose of your pain may be to distract you from repressed emotions like stress, anger, or fear.
Your physical pain may in fact have emotional roots or at least be exacerbated by these repressed emotions that your brain is wanting to distract you from. What you may in fact need is to explore what’s really eating you up emotionally. That may require sitting down with a talk therapist or spending regular time, maybe 15-20 minutes daily, in mindful meditation, self-reflection and/or journaling.
Third, when you feel pain coming on, ask yourself what may be bothering you emotionally.
You may want to do a quick mental check-in with yourself. Say that you’re driving and you sense a sudden shooting pain in your leg. Rather than getting hooked into the painful sensation, gently explore potential emotional triggers. Maybe another car just cut you off or you had a hard conversation with your spouse. (This advice and the example appear in YouTube video testimony from someone who reportedly overcame chronic back pain with the help of Dr. Sarno’s program. Check them out!)
Fourth, let go of the belief that your pain will be with you forever because there is something wrong with you.
If you’ve been able to rule out a medical explanation for your pain, it may be time to dispense of the notion that you’ve got something wrong with you—or, the notion that because a doctor told you that you have a chronic pain condition, you’ll always be in pain. Inevitably, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking will only aggravate your pain, causing it to feel worse. Besides, this rationale may be based on faulty logic. For example, it’s possible that your pain first started to flare up during a season of immense mental and emotional stress; yet you may have misattributed the pain to a physical condition. Let go of unhelpful presumptions about your pain.
Fifth, adopt the attitude of a healthy person.
This doesn’t equate with signing up for a marathon if you’ve never run a marathon before and have been struggling with chronic pain for months or even years. But it does mean that you may need to ask friends and family to stop checking up on how you’re feeling, so that you’re constantly being reminded and getting subliminal reinforcement of the fact that something is wrong with you. A healthy, pain-free person will be doing the things that give them joy. Try to recall what you loved to do when you weren’t feeling pain all the time. Then start doing those very same things again, even if it means very gradually and incrementally getting back into the rhythm of what “healthy” felt like. Or, take up a new hobby that you’ve always wanted to try.
With these five steps, you’ll be on your way to alleviating and overcoming chronic pain and boosting your recovery.