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5 Psychological Tips for Coping with Chronic Pain

Research is increasingly demonstrating how a person’s response to chronic pain is affected by their state of mind. More specifically, it appears that remaining calm and maintaining a positive outlook can not only improve a person’s ability to cope with chronic pain but also reduce the intensity of the pain they experience. Here, Dr William Van Gordon, Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology at the University of Derby, and online MSc Psychology student Andrea King, discuss five psychological tips for coping with chronic pain.

By Dr William Van Gordon - 9 July 2020

Andrea and I have both undertaken work examining the applications of contemplative psychology techniques for reducing chronic pain in research and applied settings. In this context, we have frequently observed how, by tending to their pain with awareness, compassion and understanding, individuals with chronic pain can fundamentally change their relationship with pain, limiting its impact on the quality of their life.

As part of a programme of research Andrea and I are involved with, specific contemplative psychology techniques have been shown to be helpful in the management of chronic pain. For example, in separate studies I’ve published focussing on the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, such techniques have helped to improve (amongst other things) pain intensity and pain perceptionself-compassion, sleep quality, psychological wellbeing and general ability to function effectively. In some of these studies, it was observed how a person’s psychological flexibility, as well as the extent they were able to let go of and not be attached to themselves, played an important role in maximising the effectiveness of the therapeutic technique in question.

Based on insights from our work, here are five psychological strategies aimed at helping people cope with chronic pain:

  1. Accept that pain exists: It appears the effects of chronic pain can be aggravated when people seek to run from their pain or become bitter because of having to contend with it. Therefore, it’s important for those with chronic pain to accept that pain exists and that it’s part of their life. Without fully accepting this, it’s unlikely that any strategy to work with and manage chronic pain will be effective. In other words, try not to judge the pain – relate to it simply as something that exists, rather than something that is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
  2. Stay positive and change perspective: Try not to let chronic pain take over your life and aim to manage the condition rather than let it manage you. Chronic pain presents some significant challenges, but these can also reflect opportunities for growth and understanding. There is a saying in ancient Eastern contemplative literature that just like a lotus flower that grows from mud in the dark depths of a pond, suffering (such as chronic pain) can be a catalyst for wisdom and growth. For example, living and coping with chronic pain can present an opportunity to cultivate patience (including with oneself), resilience and a greater awareness of the body and mind. Therefore, rather than feeding chronic pain by dwelling on it or having a defeatist attitude, try to embrace the condition and use it to foster personal growth.
  3. Try body scanning: Body scanning involves mentally scanning each part of the body as a means of allowing the body – and any pain that exists – to relax while being ‘bathed’ by mindful awareness. Sit comfortably with your back straight (or lay down if this isn’t possible), breathe normally and close your eyes. Begin to mentally scan down from the crown of your head, noticing any sensations that are present. Consciously focus your awareness for a minute or so in each section of your body, such as the head, shoulders, arms, chest, back, abdomen, legs and feet. While doing this, observe if there is any tension, heat, tenderness, aching or tingling. Then allow that part of the body to loosen and relax. As you scan through each part of the body, don’t forget to acknowledge any pleasant sensations or areas that already feel relaxed. Also, pay attention to some of the bodily functions that we sometimes forget to notice, such as the heartbeat, rising and falling of the diaphragm, and expansion and contraction of the lungs.
  4. Practise walking meditation: Body scanning while remaining still is useful for becoming aware of what’s happening inside the body and releasing tension. However, sometimes it’s useful to take the mind off the body by being more active. Walking meditation can be helpful in this regard and involves focussing attention on the process of slowly placing one foot in front of the other. As you raise each foot, breathe in and pause for a second before breathing out and gently placing your foot on the ground. With each step, remain aware of your contact with the floor beneath you and notice how your weight changes as you move forward. If you become comfortable at this, you can allow your awareness to steadily expand and begin to take in your surroundings. During each step, what can you see, hear, smell, taste and touch? However, try to relate to such experiences as ‘passing observations’ without getting distracted or carried away by them. Stay psychologically and physically grounded by keeping part of your attention on the process of placing one foot in front of the other.
  5. Don’t over-exert: Research shows that over-exerting or not getting enough rest can have a knock-on effect in terms of a person’s pain threshold and the intensity of their pain. Therefore, while its important to be proactive and engage with life as much as possible, know your limits and rest when needed. Coping with pain uses a lot of attentional resources so remember to keep some energy in reserve. It’s much better to maintain a calm and steady pace rather than be indisposed for days at a time due to intense pain and exhaustion caused by over-exertion.

The nature of chronic pain means that pain continues to arise over a long period of time. However, research indicates that by using strategies such as the above in order to change one’s relationship with chronic pain, it can minimise the extent to which the condition prevents a person fully enjoying their life and using the circumstances in which they find themselves as a catalyst for personal growth.

If you are concerned about chronic pain, talk to you GP or find more information on the NHS website.

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About the author

Dr William Van Gordon

Dr William Van Gordon
Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology

Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology, Dr William Van Gordon is a Chartered Psychologist and international expert in the research and practice of meditation and mindfulness.

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