Chronic pain is not all in your head

Without intervention, chronic pain can significantly reduce a person’s quality of life, lead to sleep problems, exhaustion, stress, relationship and work dysfunction, as well as mental health problems.

According to Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) one in five Australian adults suffer from both severe chronic pain and either depression or other mood disorders, costing the country $35 billion a year.

Despite this, it is only in the last two decades or so that chronic pain has received increased research and funding.

We now know much more about how we can support sufferers to manage their pain levels, reduce the vicious downward cycle of pain and improve quality of life.

Like most modern medicine, taking a holistic approach is considered best practice and this extends to chronic pain management, where practitioners take a biopsychosocial approach assessing the biological, psychological and social aspects of the person’s situation.

Many clients avoid seeing a psychologist as they are worried others will think “your pain is all in your head!” but cognitive strategies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and relaxation can be just as important as pain medication or physiotherapy.

Pain is a subjective experience and thus whatever pain the client describes is the true experience for them. Pain is certainly not “all in a person’s head” but the brain and body are closely linked and thus it is a great asset to learn how to access the brain’s natural medicine cabinet – how to assist the brain to relax and release helpful chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine.

A clinical psychologist can help work through the daily struggles that present, offering strategies to help an individual manage pain, improve mood and sleep, as well as recognise how unhelpful thoughts feed into the pain cycle.

This in turn leads to an increased quality of life. Many chronic pain suffers feel trapped within debilitating negative thoughts that influence mood, memory, function and ability to enjoy everyday life.

CBT has been extensively researched for its positive effect on managing negative thoughts associated with pain, through adaptive coping skills, such as distraction and relaxation.   

Another more recent technique embraced by health professionals around the world is mindfulness. Leading the way, Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness to the forefront of chronic pain management to separate the person’s thoughts, moods and emotions from the pain itself.