Chronic pain is not only taxing on your body, it can be extremely difficult to deal with emotionally. It can feel as though chronic pain has taken over every aspect of your life, sapping away joy and making every action harder.
Mentally adjusting to being in long term pain and how that can change your life can feel overwhelming. Many chronic pain patients have comorbid mental illnesses due to the difficult nature of living in chronic pain. The great news is, there are lots of ways to help you mentally cope with chronic pain.
One of the first stages is learning to accept that you have a chronic condition. This can take a little while. When you are first diagnosed it can feel really scary. Many people may try to ignore their diagnosis, to search for other answers or even start blaming themselves or other people!
To hear that you have a chronic condition which isn’t going to go away anytime soon can feel overwhelming. Give yourself that time to come to terms with that idea. Once you have reached a state of acceptance, you can start learning how to live with your chronic pain and how to heal from it!
Learning about pain science
Understanding the science behind chronic pain can bring peace of mind. Once you understand how chronic pain is created, you come to understand that chronic does not mean forever! This is an integral part of coping mentally with chronic pain, to know that it can improve and even be completely recovered from!
Doctors, societal beliefs and even family members may contribute to how you perceive your pain. You may have been told that you ‘just need to get on with things’ and that chronic pain can’t be treated. You may have felt powerless against your pain, and it’s quite natural to fear pain as you believe it’s damaging your body.
Once you learn the science behind pain, you come to understand that chronic pain does not equal damage and that it can be treated. This understanding is so freeing. It can make chronic pain so much easier to cope with mentally. Frustration and fear can be replaced by empowerment, confidence and most of all, hope.
Talking about what you’re going through
It may sound cliche, but talking about any problem can help you to process it and can feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. It’s important to speak to somebody about what you are going through emotionally in relation to your pain. Whether it’s speaking to someone you trust like a family member or a friend, calling a hotline or even seeking counselling, talking things through can put you in a much more stable place mentally.
It’s also immensely helpful to find others with chronic pain. Being able to talk through your problems and feelings with other people who have been there themselves is invaluable. This sense of not being alone is very comforting mentally. It can allow you to feel part of a group, feeling included rather than isolated.
Speaking to others who already understand your struggles can also be extremely validating. You know that when you talk about how you feel, you are going to be met with mutual understanding and encouragement rather than potential stigma or confusion. Many people are more inclined to open up to others who are in similar situations.
You can find others with chronic pain through local support groups or online – for example, through social media. A great tip for finding others in the same situation on social media is to use hashtags, for example #chronicpain, #chronicillness or your specific diagnosis.
Being kind to yourself
It’s so important to be gentle and kind with yourself. It’s easy to get annoyed with when you’re not able to do the things you used to or when you struggle to complete a task. Try to remember that it’s not your fault and that you are trying your best.
Confidence and sense of self can take a hit when you are struggling with chronic pain. It can be hard to remember who you are since your life looks so different than before you were in pain. It’s hard not to be angry at your body for not allowing you to function in the way you really want.
Try to understand that these negative perceptions can actually worsen your pain and contribute to the stress and pain cycle. Instead, being kind to yourself and to your body, encouraging yourself gently and allowing yourself time to rest, is a far more positive approach. This can take a little time to get the hang of and you don’t have to be positive all the time, so don’t be too hard on yourself with this either!
Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones
Negative thoughts are often unavoidable when you live with chronic pain. The key is to reduce negative thoughts as much as possible and the most important thing is what you do when you have those thoughts. When you think something negative, for example “I’m always going to be in pain”, stop yourself (you can even say or think the word ‘stop’) and replace it with something positive, for example, “I know that chronic pain can improve, this feeling will pass”.
It’s important to realise that negative thoughts don’t have to influence your behaviour. You can continue to implement positive coping strategies despite any negative thoughts you may experience.
It can seem like chronic pain has taken all the joy out of your life, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Actively find things that bring you joy. You can find joy in small everyday things, taking the time to really appreciate them rather than rush past them. For example, if you have a tasty meal or if you enjoy a programme, take the time to really savour this and think about how much you enjoyed it. This can make a huge positive difference to your mood and can become a positive habit over time leading to a more positive outlook on life.
You can also find new hobbies which bring joy into your life and set new goals for the future. While chronic pain can make meeting your goals more difficult and it may mean that your future looks a little different than you had expected, it doesn’t mean you can’t set goals and achieve them!
Finding purpose and motivation is vital. Continuing to strive for your goals despite your chronic pain is not easy, so having things that you are really passionate about achieving can keep you moving forward and give you a reason to get up in the morning, even if you’re in pain.
Another way to have a more positive outlook on life is to find things to be grateful for. You can do this daily by listing things you are grateful for in your life in your head or writing them down. This could be family and friends, a roof over your head, a wonderful experience or a pain free day. Anything at all, however small or large it seems, can be included.
A lot of people keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, they write down two or three things that they have been grateful for that day. This act of actively looking for the positives in each day can contribute over time to a more positive mindset. When you’re struggling to find positives, it can be great to look back through your gratitude journal to remind yourself of things you have to be happy about.
When you’re struggling to cope mentally, one of the most useful things you can do in the short term is distract yourself. Changing your environment, even if it’s just moving to a different room, can help to shift your mindset slightly. Listening to loud cheerful music, watching a funny film, calling a loved one or going for a walk can all be useful. Essentially anything that is going to keep your mind, and ideally your body, busy to distract you and start to lift your mood a little is useful.
Living with bipolar disorder as well as chronic pain, I find distraction a vital tool to fight negative thoughts and a drop in mood. It can sound like something small, but it truly can give you that little bit of relief from what’s going on inside your mind, which can be enough for you to start getting a handle on your emotions again.
Taking good care of yourself is vital to cope well mentally. There are many ways you can practice self-care, for example taking time to do something you enjoy, maintaining social connections and allowing yourself to rest. Three of the main self-care actions which can aid with coping mentally include:
Not only does exercise reduce chronic pain symptoms and help to maintain general health, it’s also fantastic for your mood! Exercise can provide a distraction, an aspect we discussed earlier. Doing exercise can also be grounding, helping you to stay focused in the moment and therefore reducing stress levels and tackling anxiety.
When you’re exercising, endorphins are released into your bloodstream. Endorphins are chemicals that lift your mood and promote a feeling of general wellbeing and positivity. Exercise also increases serotonin in your body which contributes to keeping your mood stable, as this study from the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience explains.
What we put into our bodies through our dietary choices has a big impact on both physical and mental health. The body and mind need the right fuel to function properly. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help to provide your body with all that it needs to keep your mental health stable and boost your mood. For example, this study on nutrition and depression found that, “Deficiencies of folate, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and selenium tend to be more common among depressed than nondepressed persons.”
Doing your research to ensure that you are eating the right foods as well as limiting junk food, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine as much as possible, is something proactive you can do to help yourself cope mentally.
Having a regular sleep routine gives your brain the rest it needs to function properly. Although more research is being done all the time into why the association between a stable mood and a good sleep routine is so significant, what we know to date is that the correlation is undoubtable.
This article from Harvard Medical School explains that, “neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep deprivation sets the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.”
While sleep can be difficult when you live with chronic pain, there are ways you can help yourself to have a more regular, restful sleep pattern. Some examples of ways you can contribute to a better sleep routine include:
- Going to sleep and getting up at roughly the same time every day, no matter how well you’ve slept the night before.
- Being as active as possible during the day to tire your body out in a healthy way.
- Winding down before bed, for example practicing meditation, taking a relaxing bath or reading a book.
- Making your bedroom a comfortable, calming space.
Mindfulness is about letting worries go and focusing on being present in the moment. Mindfulness can involve meditation, mindful movement, breathing exercises and visualisation exercises. You can use guided mindfulness, which is lead by someone else who will talk you through the exercises. You can access this online, through a pain relief app like ours (links above) (update Aug 2023: Pathways is now a web app! Start our program here), or attend mindfulness classes in person. You can also apply mindfulness to your everyday life and practice it at home.
Mindfulness can reduce stress and increase your general sense of well being and relaxation. Mindfulness has also been proven to increase gray matter within your brain, which enables you to better control your emotions, to solve problems and to cope better mentally with issues in your life.
Whether it’s through art or music therapy, or done at home on your own, finding a way to creatively express yourself can be great for your mental health. Not only is being creative fun, it also allows you to get your emotions out in a different way than talking about them. It can be a great distraction tool and provide a sense of purpose.
Creative expression can also be very relaxing, helping to reduce stress and promote a stable mood. There are also so many options, from dancing, painting, pottery and more; there really is something for everyone!
One of the things that I have found most helpful in coping mentally with my chronic pain is finding humour in hard times. This can be giggling at silly things you’ve forgotten due to the cognitive issues that often come with chronic pain (fibro fog in my case). It can even be making jokes about physical aspects of chronic illness!
Everyone’s sense of humour is different, and this might not work for everyone. If it doesn’t feel appropriate for you then that’s completely valid too. For me, having a good sense of humour is how I get through most of my challenges in life, and I’m blessed that my husband has the same sense of humour as me!
Thinking of yourself as a warrior
You are a warrior and your chronic pain is your foe. Thinking about yourself as a warrior helps you to feel strong and empowered. Like going into battle, you’re going to use all the tools in your arsenal to fight your chronic pain, and you are not going to let it defeat you! I find this state of mind helps to enhance my sense of determination.
Seeking treatment for mental illness
If you have a mental illness as well as your chronic pain, things become a little more complex. While these coping strategies can still be really useful, you might need more help to deal with your mental illness.
Many treatments for mental illness are effective and there are plenty of options out there. You can talk to your doctor about medication such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers. You can also seek psychological therapies which can help you to deal with core issues and equip you with the tools you need to manage and overcome your mental illness.
Seeking treatment for chronic pain
Finding treatment for your chronic pain can help you to more effectively manage your pain. Psychological therapies, medications and other treatments can help to reduce symptoms. Not only does seeking treatment help you to get a handle on your chronic pain, it also helps you to cope mentally!
Knowing that you are actively doing all you can to manage your chronic pain is empowering and can build your confidence. Engaging in treatment which reduces your symptoms and increases your functioning ultimately increases your quality of life, which contributes to a more positive mood.
Knowing that you are working towards reducing your chronic pain and getting your life back can give you hope for the future. This more positive state of mind can allow you to start making plans and following your dreams again!
- Biological Psychiatry, Volume 58, Issue 9, Pages 679-685, Lisa M.Bodnara, Katherine L.Wisner, (2005), “Nutrition and Depression: Implications for Improving Mental Health Among Childbearing-Aged Women”
- Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, Simon N. Young, (2007), “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs”
- Harvard Medical School, (2019), “Sleep and mental health”
- BioMed Research International, Maddalena Boccia, Laura Piccardi, Paola Guariglia, (2015), “The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies”
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.