Chronic Pain and its Impact on our Psychology

There are few things in life that are harder to deal with than chronic pain. Pain, chronic or not, is one of the most intense motivators of anxiety, frustration, anger, and depression. Chronic pain has been one of the most studied challenges that human’s face and yet, finding good ways to manage it has been extremely difficult. Clients often come to counseling looking for ways to deal with chronic pain while also working with pain management doctors, psychiatrists, and specialists in the field where their pain is located. Working with all these different disciplines is necessary to be able to manage these chronic pain conditions, but even all this effort seems to fall short at times for those who are struck with these debilitating issues. Understanding how chronic pain impacts our minds is the first step in trying to live good lives even with these intensely difficult situations. Let us start by looking at pain and its general impacts on our mental state.

Pain and the Brain

The biological process of pain is fascinating, but it is not necessary to have an in-depth understanding of the biological aspect to examine how it impacts our mind. We have all experienced physical pain. Some of it is a nuisance, like a bug bite, some is intense, like a broken limb, and some is so severe we do not understand how anyone can be functional while feeling it, like kidney stones or severe migraines. Mild to moderate pain is uncomfortable and distracting. Think of our minds as limited resources of energy, and mild to moderate pain drains a portion of those resources so we have less to give to everything else in our lives. Severe pain, however, changes our brain state completely. It does not just drain more mental resources. It puts our brains into a mode where the present and future have no other parts to them except the sensation of pain. Severe pain is luckily short lived and infrequent for most of us. This allows us not to spend too much time worrying about how we will deal with it or fearing it. Mild and moderate pain is far more common but not constant so we are confident we can handle it well enough to get through it.

So, pain ranges from being a drain on our mind to creating a mental state that is obsessed with it and unable to consider anything else. Why? Why would our brain have evolved to be so focused on pain? The truth is, there is a very healthy reason for this. Pain is so, well, painful, because our mind wants it to motivate us to change the situation that is causing pain. When I was young, I placed my hand on a lit grill. I was a young child and had never been burned and that childhood lack of common sense made me make a poor decision. The pain was quite severe, but my hand was on the grill for less than a second. The pain motivated my body to take quick action to get away from the painful stimulus. If my hand had stayed on the grill, the damage to my hand would have been far worse and maybe beyond healing. Pain is a motivator for change, and this is a good thing that we can often channel into healthy and positive action. The challenge of chronic pain comes from the fact that this motivation to change, even if properly channeled, cannot guarantee that the pain will go away. That impacts our mindset in other ways.

Chronic Pain and the Brain

There are quite a few conditions that cause chronic pain. Many have genetic components, and some others come from environmental factors like injuries. They are also diverse conditions. Some have outward symptoms that others can see while many other conditions are totally internal. Furthermore, some are well understood in the medical world while others are filled with mystery. The one thing all chronic pain conditions share is the mental strain they create. As previously discussed, pain is supposed to motivate us to change the situation we are in so that the pain stops. But if the pain is inescapable because it is due to a chronic condition, that motivation can turn into anxiety, panic, and eventually hopelessness. Many clients who I have worked with who have chronic pain report that they feel an often desperation to do something to escape their pain but find nowhere to direct this energy. It sits within them and becomes toxic and makes it very hard to relax. The brain’s normal circuitry is telling them to make a change, but no change has an impact on the pain.

Being in constant pain is also saddening. This requires no deep explanation; pain is unpleasant and consistent unpleasantness leads to negative feelings. Depression is extremely common with chronic pain patients. In fact, it may be more likely than not for chronic pain sufferers to endure bouts of depression throughout their lives. It is a bleak prospect, to have pain and depression be a normalcy for so many individuals. Have we found anything in the counseling world that can help? The good news is, yes, quite a few things.

Ways to deal with chronic pain with your Mind

Firstly, all chronic pain sufferers need to be under the care of medical professionals and see them often. Once a diagnosis is made, there are many treatments that can significantly reduce chronic pain’s frequency and intensity. Keeping a realistic outlook is important. Maybe your chronic pain is not fully curable but believing that your case is immune to all medical treatment is signing up for more suffering than necessary. Seek professional medical help from specialists and listen to their recommendations.

In the mental space, there are quite a few things that can help manage pain. Meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques, breathing techniques, and light exercise have all shown to reduce pain. Again, realistically these things will not eliminate pain but even a mild reduction in pain can make a huge difference in our mood. Many people find these methods to be less than what they hoped for. In time, perhaps we will find things we can do with our minds to truly eliminate chronic pain, but for now mild reduction is what we can offer and it is far better than nothing. But there are other things we know of now that may not reduce pain, but help people deal with the pain. While pain takes a lot of our mental resources, over time the brain does become at least somewhat accustomed to this new normal. Your mind will dedicate less energy to managing the pain as it becomes normalized, and this leaves your mental resources open to be directed to other things. Some may call it distraction, but it is more accurately described as living life. Spending time with others we enjoy, doing activities that we are capable of doing without exacerbating pain, dedicating our time to goals and hobbies or the professional world, all these areas are what make life worth living even with chronic pain.

No one chooses to be in chronic pain, but most people get to a point where they reach acceptance and live full lives. Many of us work with those with chronic pain and do not even notice. This is because chronic pain may be one of the most difficult things to manage mentally, but it is proven to not be impossible. Through understanding what pain does to our minds, and the importance of finding outlets for our energy, chronic pain can be managed well and not prevent us from living a full and happy life.

If you struggle with chronic pain impacting your mental state, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


LECS Counselor