Pain is a part of the human experience. It reminds us not to touch hot plates, to be aware of our surroundings or not to act rashly. It’s our bodies’ way of identifying and reacting to things that may harm us or threaten our survival. It tells our bodies that there is a problem in our system that needs healing. Most of the time, it improves as the body heals. Chronic pain refers to pain that goes beyond the expected time of healing. Sometimes it can exist without any underlying cause.
There are two types of chronic pain:
- Organic: This refers to pain with a physical cause – i.e., some kind of injury or illness
- Psychogenic: This refers to pain with a psychological cause. Sometimes this pain persists after the injury has healed, and doctors may struggle to find the underlying cause. Our brains can often be fooled by our beliefs and emotions, and pain can seem more intense as our stress and anxiety about the condition may exaggerate it. Our bodies may hold on to unexpressed emotions or chronic stress and express that through pain.
Chronic pain can be unrelenting and lead to severe disability and a decreased quality of life. It can make it hard to do everyday tasks like go to work, clean the house, look after yourself and do things you enjoy. Oftentimes, the stress of living with pain can lead to anxiety and depression. It is important to find ways to manage your pain, improve your emotional wellbeing and treat any emerging depressive or anxious conditions.
Because pain can also have psychological causes, sometimes taking medication won’t completely eliminate pain. It helps to incorporate various strategies.
- Get some help: A doctor may have given you a referral to see a psychologist. In some cases, this may make you feel like they aren’t taking your pain seriously or believe it’s made up or imaginary. Talking to a psychologist can help you address any underlying sources of stress that may be making your pain worse and help you to learn strategies to cope with your emotional responses and pain more effectively.
- Maintaining a healthy lifestyle: There is a reason doctors always talk about eating a healthy, balanced diet, having a good night’s sleep and regularly exercising. While maintaining a healthy lifestyle may reduce stress levels by providing you with something distracting or enjoyable to do, it also helps create an environment in your body that is ready and open to change. Nourishing your body can help your immune system operate more effectively, help change the balance of chemicals in your brain that contribute to happiness and pleasure, and help to equip your body to cope with stress. For those experiencing pain, it’s important not to get impatient and overdo exercise or activities. Try gentle exercises like walking, swimming or tai chi, and remember to pace yourself.
- Practice mindfulness and emphasise relaxation: Meditating allows you to use deep breathing to anchor you in the present moment. This can help you to bring yourself back to the moment and clear your mind of worries about the future. Using deep breathing also sends a signal to your nervous system that it’s okay to calm down and take a break. This may help to relieve tension, dismiss unhelpful worries, and improve your mood. See our ‘Mindfulness Matters’ blog for some information about mindfulness and our top meditation apps! Engaging in enjoyable and relaxing activities are also helpful – try to spend time in nature and soak up some sunlight.
- Keep track: Keeping a journal and recording the ebb and flow of pain can be helpful – you may identify tricks or activities that you find most helpful or identify opportunities throughout the day to engage in tasks that might be strenuous at other times. This can also help in your communication with your doctor about medications and other forms of treatment.
Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible. (In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer) – Albert Camus