Swain et al., 2018
Pain psychology is an area of study that focuses on understanding the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to pain. It also looks at how people think about pain and how they respond to it, in hopes of helping them cope with and manage their pain better, as well as take their lives back. It can involve several pain-related conditions such as headaches, low back pain, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and functional neurologic disorder (FND). It also takes a holistic view of you, your health, and your well-being
As the quote above indicates, the pain experience has many parts. Most people and providers only focus on treating the physical aspects of the pain. Unfortunately, that is like trying to fill a barrel with many holes, the water keeps pouring out. Treatment of many chronic illnesses (including pain) requires treating emotional and psychological factors for you to obtain benefit from the treatment. It can be hard to find psychologists, though, with expertise in pain and chronic illness. You are in luck, though, as I created this practice to help people just like you.
Pain psychologists use various techniques to help patients understand their pain, as well as address several factors that could be exacerbating their pain. This could include treating your stress, depression, anxiety, past trauma, sleep difficulties, unhelpful thoughts, and unhelpful behaviors. It can also include helping you find ways to manage and cope with your symptoms.
Chronic pain affects millions of Americans every year. If untreated, it can lead to unnecessary suffering and get in the way of your life. Fortunately, there are ways to manage pain without relying solely on medication, surgeries, and injections. One of these methods is through treatment with a pain psychologist. Decades of research and several national and international organizations suggest incorporating a pain psychologist into your treatment team is key to helping you improve. Through our work together, you can learn new ways to deal with painful situations by changing your thinking patterns, emotions, and behavior, as well as learning to manage your stress and sleep. We could also work to improve your relationships with others and make any necessary lifestyle changes (e.g., diet, activity, etc.) to help you live a healthier life. All these efforts will work to decrease your suffering and help you live a richer and fuller life!
Most people who experience chronic pain experience higher levels of stress (learn more here and here), as well as anxiety, depression, and symptoms of past trauma (including from when an injury occurred). Fear of causing pain through various activities is also common and sometimes problematic. Such difficulties can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness as your attempt to cope through ineffective treatments. However, emotions play an important role in managing chronic pain. The IASP defines pain as a physical and emotional experience, and research has demonstrated that leaving emotional difficulties untreated can interfere with and prevent medical treatments from being effective.
Additionally, emotions (such as depression) are some of the best predictors of who is likely to develop chronic pain and who is expected to have their chronic pain persist despite treatment. Conversely, positive emotions like happiness, joy, and love can improve pain management, as well as some emotional expression (ever swear when you were in pain, it can help for some pain). Addressing stress and emotional factors helps, and is key to helping you overcome your pain and move on with your life!
How you think about your pain influences your mood, how much you focus on your pain, the level of disability you experience due to your pain, and can maintain your pain. If you view your pain as overwhelming, unconquerable, and management, you are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. You are also more likely to keep your attention focused on your pain, which can worsen it. Both of these lead to the firing of neural networks in your nervous system that are believed to cause and maintain chronic pain. Furthermore, specific unhelpful thoughts have been found to interfere with the effectiveness of other treatments (similar to emotions).
For most people who experience chronic pain, pain is not the only issue; they have often lost essential parts of their lives in pursuit of pain relief. They often forgo loved and cherished activities in hopes of improving their pain. However, research suggests that too little and too much physical activity (even walking) can lead to pain flares and worsening pain, Working with a pain psychologist can help you better understand what matters most and identify ways to move your life again based on such values!
Sleep difficulties can exacerbate your pain. On the one hand, pain interferes with sleep for many people. These people often have difficulties falling or staying asleep due to their pain. Poor sleep also worsens your pain, symptoms, and mood. You can see how people with sleep difficulties and pain get stuck in an ongoing struggle. No worries, though, as first-line treatments for both include working with a psychologist, and finding one who has expertise in both can be very helpful! In my practice, I also research-based therapy for pain and illness and one of the best treatments for sleep (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia [CBTi]). It is an all-natural way to improve your sleep with results comparable to medications.
Navigating relationships when you have chronic pain or a chronic illness can be challenging! Some people become over-protective and over-accommodating due to their pain, leaving them to feel a lack of independence. Others dismiss your pain, making you feel rejected and lonely. The healthcare community can also leave you struggling with stress and emotions as you struggle to get your questions answered and find an effective treatment. A pain psychologist can help you navigate these difficulties, helping you to present your case in the most effective manner possible and helping you manage your stress response related to such situations.
Unfortunately, you may have heard that your symptoms are "all in your head." Rest assured, your pain is real, and your pain is likely affected by your stress and emotions. Many people, though, do not treat these components which causes their pain to continue. Research has shown that changes can be seen in how your brain processes pain by completing treatment with a pain psychologist. It can even make your medical treatments more effective! But more importantly, our work together will help you take your life back from your pain and illness! If you are still unsure if treatment from a pain psychologist is for you, you can learn more here OR book a free consultation here (while openings are available)