Chronic or persistent pain: Seeing a psychologist can help you~ By Arissa Brunelli, Psychologist
“The mind is not separate from the body. My belief, is that the only way you can really separate mind and body is verbally. They are two aspects of the same underlying reality”
~ Dr Andrew Well (MD), founder and director of Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona College of Medicine, Jones/Lovell Professor of Integrative RheumatologySeeking professional help for a problem can sometimes seem a bit daunting, especially if you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that everyone else has it ‘all together’ or that you have to be on the brink of a breakdown to seek professional help. Many people with chronic pain do not seek help from health professionals and suffer in silence for many years. Untreated chronic pain can lead to increased disability, increased risk of fall, depression, sleep deprivation, reduced quality of life and social isolation (Cornally & McCarthy, 2011). Chronic pain is more common than many realize, in fact studies have indicated that the prevalence of people living with chronic pain is greater than cardiovascular disease and cancer combined. So, you are not alone in your suffering! Pain itself is not a “bad” thing per se, as it serves an important purpose by alerting you to injuries such as a sprained ankle or burned hand. However, chronic pain is often more complex, and unfortunately, alleviating it isn’t always straightforward. Many people who suffer with chronic or persistent pain (eg. Fibromyalgia, low back pain) often don’t feel as though others understand the extent of their pain. Having thoughts that “nothing works” and feelings of hopelessness are very common among sufferers. Chronic pain is real, and affects more than just the person in pain, it can significantly affect their work life, social life and family life too.
“People often think of pain as a purely physical sensation. However, pain has biological, psychological and emotional factors. Furthermore, chronic pain can cause feelings such as anger, hopelessness, sadness and anxiety. To treat pain effectively, you must address the physical, emotional and psychological aspects.”
~ American Psychological AssociationChronic pain can often develop as a result of a mental health condition, and it is a more common symptom of psychological concerns than many people may realize. Chronic pain and depression are also strongly correlated; the stress of living with chronic pain can often lead to depression, and because some people may manifest depression in the form of physical symptoms instead of psychological ones, depression can also result in chronic pain. Headaches, muscle fatigue or pain, shooting nerve pains, back pain or tension can often be reactions to unexpressed or suppressed emotions, needs, or desires. This unconscious conversion of a mental state into physical symptoms is known as somatization. This results in actual physical pain, and the symptoms may be severe enough to affect your work, relationships, and daily life. Furthermore, the pain can lead you to feel more stressed, tense, anxious, or depressed which in turn causes more pain. So, it can be very helpful to discuss all of this with a professional, such as a psychologist, who is familiar with pain. Undergoing psychological care can help you better understand and manage the triggers, thoughts, emotions and behaviours that accompany your discomfort and can help you cope more effectively with your pain – and can often help reduce the intensity of your pain. In addition, training the brain to think about pain in different ways and practicing various non-pharmacological strategies can make a big difference to the way you experience your pain. One misconception is that meeting with a psychologist says that your pain lacks a physical cause. None of us wants an encounter that might suggest our pain is not real. Psychologists do focus on the brain functioning and mind, but they also know that pain is not just ‘in your mind’. Psychologists understand that there is a physical basis to chronic pain and are involved in the treatment because they know your pain is real. They can offer effective strategies for the management of this pain, and they also know that many people that suffer from chronic pain are stuck in a vicious cycle. Another common misconception is that seeing a psychologist for ‘pain management’ means terminating the relationship you have with your medical provider, or that a psychologist will not support the use of medication in the treatment of chronic pain. Psychologists who specialise in the treatment of pain are not against the use of pharmacological treatments – even though their treatment does not involve drugs – they support a comprehensive, multidisciplinary team approach. Furthermore, insights from research and clinical practice on the best treatment for chronic or persistent pain strongly recommends a team-based, multi-disciplinary and holistic approach. In all cases, the basic goal is to improve functioning and help people live more meaningful lives, as opposed to just eliminating pain symptoms.