How CBT Can Help You Manage Chronic Pain Symptoms

CBT practices can massively change our pain experience. Let’s go through how this works.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a form of talking therapy that links our thought processes and the impact they can have on our actions and physical sensations within our bodies. It’s all about changing the way we think to help us form healthier coping strategies for our problems; it’s commonly used to treat mental health problems as well as physical health conditions including chronic pain and, most importantly, is proven scientifically to work. There have been a great many studies on the matter with positive outcomes.

One study showed that

Results indicated significant improvements for pain, depression, pain-related anxiety, disability, medical visits, work status, and physical performance. 75.4% of patients demonstrated improvement in at least one key domain.

CBT doesn’t make your pain any less real

This is not in any way to say that your pain is ‘made up’ or ‘not real’ because the therapy focuses on how your mind thinks about it, quite the opposite is true. Your pain and your symptoms are completely real and entirely valid, as is your experience with your chronic condition. 

CBT is an important tool that can help you to deal with the symptoms that you struggle with everyday. It equips you with coping strategies to reduce those symptoms, to help you improve overall well-being.

CBT can be used in conjunction with other treatments such as your regular medication or other talking therapies, or it can be used alone to alleviate symptoms.

As a chronic pain patient myself, having suffered with Fibromyalgia for years now, I understand how sceptical you can become that anything can help to reduce symptoms, but CBT is backed by so much science and it truly can help you to live a better life with your chronic illness. There is not enough help out there for us that’s for sure and chronic pain needs so much more attention and research in order to give us effective relief and treatment;  we must focus our energies on the help that is available and that has evidence backing it.

How exactly can CBT help me?

CBT can help you to manage your chronic pain symptoms by:

  • Helping you to understand the root causes of your pain and how your pain works.
  • Giving you the tools to view your pain in a new way which helps you feel more in control.
  • Aiding you in managing your symptoms and having a better quality of life.
  • It can reduce pain symptoms and flare-ups
  • It can help you increase your level of functioning.

Let’s look at this in some more detail. When you are diagnosed with a chronic condition, it’s often all about what you cannot do, what you aren’t capable of, what you have lost among so many other negative phrases and connotations that you may hear or think yourself.

CBT helps us to understand the causes of our pain and to view our symptoms in a new and inherently more positive way, understanding how we can manage those symptoms and increasing our level of functioning. Fundamentally this allows us to see what we can do and what we are capable of, in turn allowing us to see ourselves and our potential in life in a whole new light. This has been proven over decades – for example, this 2002 study showed that CBT helped to reduce patients’ pain, distress, pain behavior, and improves their daily functioning.

CBT gives you a sense of empowerment and control

Essentially, CBT gives you more control over your body and your condition, empowering you to understand that you are able to set goals for yourself and achieve them, that you are capable of functioning; it gives you that sense of power back that you may have lost to a feeling of helplessness which is all too common with chronic illness. 

Often times with chronic pain, we are tense and expecting the pain at times when it is usually present or at it’s worst; CBT can help you to focus your thinking away from anticipating the pain and onto more positive areas of your life, therefore breaking the pain cycle. It’s about retraining your brain to understand the root cause of your pain and to view it in a new way, wherein you can deal with it in an effective and constructive way. 

A lot of the basis of CBT comes from breaking down what can seem overwhelming and impossible, into something that you are able to deal with in a very realistic way for your own situation. It works around your life and your symptoms, rather than just being a blanket treatment as standard. It can help you to break things down and deal with problems in a very step-by-step way, leading you towards your ultimate goal without feeling that you have to take on everything all at once; CBT shows you that change and improvement is possible. 

Seeing patterns in your symptoms can be so beneficial

The therapy can help you to monitor your pain and observe patterns, therefore helping you to figure out how to work around your pain more effectively; for example when you may need to rest and when you can plan activities, learning to utilize the times in the day when your pain is lowest and therefore, aiding you in getting more done. It also allows you to give the professionals who may be treating you a clearer view on the nature of your condition, in turn giving you a more accurate diagnosis and therefore treatment. Fundamentally, the more we understand about how our condition is affecting us and our lives, the better placed we are to deal with the symptoms and lessen the impact that our illness has upon our lives.

This sort of therapy can also help us to value self-care and to set aside time to engage in self-care activities within our days; this actively inserts positive experiences into our days, bringing more joy into our lives and helping to lower our stress levels. It’s a powerful tool to change how our brain’s process pain and stress – both of which are intimately related and serve to sustain each other.. By breaking this cycle and reducing the stress, we can enable our brains to access our natural pain relief responses more easily.

CBT is accessible to everyone

One of the most appealing things about CBT is how accessible it is; you can access CBT through your doctor in a face to face setting with a therapist, or you can access CBT at home through an app like ours (update Aug 2023: Pathways is now a web app! Start our program here). Both have options have distinct advantages depending on your individual preference and situation.

Being in a face to face setting with a CBT therapist allows you have that human interaction and the structure of being in a therapist’s office; for some this may be more effective. With an at home treatment, you can work at your own pace and without the stress of being in a doctor’s office,which could be more suitable for those who struggle to get to appointments or may find a medical environment stressful.

Either way, this sort of treatment allows you to effectively work on improving your symptoms,  enabling you to feel even more in control of your life, empowered in the knowledge that you are taking proactive steps to shape your own life in a more positive way, like the true warrior you are.

Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.


  • Spine Journal, McCracken, Lance M., PhD; Turk, Dennis C., PhD, (2002), “Behavioral and Cognitive–Behavioral Treatment for Chronic Pain: Outcome, Predictors of Outcome, and Treatment Process”
  • Science Direct, Judith A Turner, Susan Holtzman, Lloyd Mand, (2007), “Mediators, moderators, and predictors of therapeutic change in cognitive–behavioral therapy for chronic pain”
  • American Psychological Association, Vowles, K. E., & McCracken, L. M. (2008). Acceptance and values-based action in chronic pain: A study of treatment effectiveness and process.

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