Unsurprisingly the effect of chronic pain on mental health and well-being is huge. They are also inextricably linked – anxiety and depression make chronic pain worse and pain can make conditions such as depression, anxiety, panic disorders and insomnia worse, for example.
The cycle of pain and mental health issues can cause changes in stress hormones and brain chemicals (such as cortisol, serotonin and norepinephrine). As the pain continues over a prolonged period the number of areas in the brain affected increase (please see previous blog on central sensitisation for further information on this process).
So how can you improve/protect your mental health if you are suffering from chronic pain?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this – but the ideas below may be a good starting point!
1. Focus on goals rather than pain levels
Easier said than done right? But unfortunately for some, chronic pain will be a lifelong condition. This is why it’s important to have goals linked to outside of reducing pain and work towards them. If you focus solely on being pain free then the chances are that you will be chasing empty promises whilst also missing out on the things you find enjoyable and that make your life meaningful.
2. Keep an activity diary
This can seem like a contradiction to the first step; however it is something I often advise my patients to start. I will generally ask them to jot down quickly what they have done, how they felt during/after the activity, pain rating out of 10 etc. This is because overtime we tend to forget how things were and focus on the now. This can mean that we miss small improvements or activities that you once were unable to do that you now can. Looking back over the activity diary can help “jog” your memory and work as positive reinforcement when you are reminded of how far you have come.
3. Get a support network
I cannot overemphasize this one enough. It is good to try and focus outside of friends and family as well as within. Often those closet to us (who generally have no lived experience of a chronic condition) can struggle to empathise with us. Finding people who have been through or are currently going through what you are can help your experience be heard and validated. Not to mention, feelings of social isolation can also lead to increase sensitivity to pain. A quick Google may be able to point you in the direction of local support groups for your condition, as well as looking on social media. If you do struggle, let me know and I’ll see if I can help.
4. Reduce stress levels
This is one of those “easier said than done” ones again. It can be difficult to reduce your stress levels if your pain is having a limiting effect on your life. If you care struggling financially due to not being able to work or only being able to work periodically, then I would suggest you reach out for help. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau can be a great place to start and they can often point you in the direction of benefits or support that you are entitled to. Other stress reduction techniques can be things such as meditation or hobbies which induce a “state of flow” (essentially where you become so engrossed in the activity that you forget about everything else momentarily). I think it’s also important to mention that personal relationships can also be a source of stress. Your relationship with your partner (or others that you live with) may be under a lot of pressure if you are suffering with a chronic pain condition. If this is a case, counselling or other talking therapies may be appropriate to help you both come to an understanding and learn to assert boundaries.
This is the last but probably most important one. If you are in constant pain, it is EXHAUSTING. It is important that you learn to listen to your body and rest when needed. If you are struggling to sleep it may be worth talking to your doctor to see if there is anything that can be done to help – as the less sleep you get, the more pain sensitive you become. Do not feel guilty if you need to rest. Sometimes you can feel as if you’re being “lazy” or a “burden to others” if you can get everything that a “normal” person should get done in a day.
I hope you found this information helpful, if you are struggling with a chronic pain condition and would like some information/help, please do not hesitate to ask and I will do my best!