The Connection Between Mental Health and Chronic Pain

The Connection Between Mental Health and Chronic Pain

Researchers have found that there is an overlap between physical pain and mental health problems. People living with chronic pain are at an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety, and people with depression, anxiety, or a history of trauma are at an increased risk of experiencing chronic pain.

Pain is a danger signal to get your attention when there has been an injury or structural damage to your body, but what about when the injury has healed but the pain continues? Acute pain lasts from a few seconds to three months and usually involves tissue injury. Chronic pain lasts or recurs for more than three months and is not always related to a specific injury. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five U.S. adults live with chronic pain.

Anxiety or stress can amplify the pain that is caused by an injury, even after the injury has healed. It’s similar to when a smoke detector is activated too easily. The smoke detector’s job is to let you know when there is a fire, but sometimes it goes off when you’re just making toast. It’s telling you that there is danger when it is actually safe. Our body can get to a place where it perceives a change or any physical sensation as a threat and that threat is experienced as pain. We can get stuck in a pattern that is sometimes referred to as the pain-stress cycle where pain causes stress and stress causes pain.

However, once we recognize that the body’s alarm system is going off too easily, we can use methods to calm the nervous system and determine if there really is a threat. Here are some self-help methods and professional treatments that can help:

Therapy: A therapist can provide the support needed to help address your pain. Therapy can also help you learn how to assess physical sensations you feel and develop new tools for understanding the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are associated with the pain.

Improved Sleep: This can be a challenge since pain can disrupt sleep, but research shows that 7-9 hours of sleep can decrease pain since it relates to the pain-stress cycle. If you can’t improve sleep on your own, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also known as “CBT,” is a verified treatment for insomnia.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness is paying attention the present moment on purpose and without judgment. Research shows that practicing mindfulness helps manage symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression and it can change some brain activity associated with pain. Try mindfulness exercises that focus on physical sensations, such as a Body Scan or Somatic Tracking for physical pain.

Relaxation Techniques: Various relaxation techniques can help interrupt the pain-stress cycle by calming the nervous system. Two very effective techniques are Diaphragmatic Breathing (Belly Breathing) and Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), a relaxation technique that involves tensing and then relaxing your muscles, one by one, in a specific pattern.

Increased Pleasant Activity: Finding meaningful activities can serve as a healthy distraction from the pain and improve your mood. Research shows that when people enjoy activities, they report a decrease in the intensity of pain.

Connection with People: Social isolation is very common with chronic pain and that can contribute to depression. Connecting with supportive and caring people can improve your mood and calm the nervous system, which can help decrease the pain.

Research shows that these methods may get rid of the pain or at least turn the volume down so you can enjoy a better quality of life. It can be overwhelming to navigate everything that is needed to address pain, so remember that you are not alone. Please talk to your doctor or therapist. You deserve the support. To schedule an appointment with Lone Star Circle of Care, call us at 1-877-800-5722.

Blog post written by Kahlyne Nolde, LCSW
Lone Star Circle of Care at Pflugerville


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