How does stress contribute to physical pain
How does chronic pain affect the psyche?
Pain is a warning signal from our body. We find it uncomfortable so that we can take care of the cause of the pain. In the case of acute pain, this is often resolved quickly: If we feel heat pain, we quickly put the teacup back on the table. This is different with chronic pain. They accompany us over a long period of time, influence our psyche and vice versa. But how does the interplay of pain and psyche work? How can we use this connection to relieve pain?
Pain and psyche
In the western world it has long been assumed that there is a clear distinction between physical and mental health. As research has shown, however, this subdivision is often not useful, as physical and mental factors influence one another. That means: Our physical experiences arouse certain thoughts, feelings and ideas and vice versa. This interaction is so natural that we hardly notice it in everyday life.
Do you fancy an exciting experiment?
In this thought experiment you can experience the connection between body and mind within a few seconds.
Imagine the following: In front of you is a table with a board with a lemon on it. There is a knife next to the board. The lemon is ripe, deep yellow and shiny. Take the lemon in your hand and cut it in half. Lemon juice runs onto the board and over your fingers. Cut another slice off the half. Your fingers are stuck with lemon juice and you smell the sour smell of the lemon. Now take a lemon wedge in your hand. The flesh is juicy and shiny. Bring the slice closer to your mouth and finally bite into it. The moment your teeth penetrate the pulp, lemon juice will begin to spread in your mouth. You taste the sour juice and notice how it spreads from the tip of your tongue over your entire tongue and mouth until you finally swallow it down. What happens in your body when you imagine this?
Thoughts lead to physical reactions
At the thought of biting into a lemon, your mouth will likely contract and your salivary glands will produce more saliva. Maybe you can even smell the lemon "in your head". That is an exciting observation. Thoughts and images that we consciously evoke in ourselves lead to direct physical reactions. Many people are also familiar with this from the field of sexuality, when fantasies directly produce physical sexual arousal. So what role do our thoughts play when we are in chronic pain?
Chronic pain and brooding
Pain awakens in us the natural need to find the cause of the pain and to avoid it in the future. That's what pain is for. But what happens with chronic pain, which often has an unexplained cause? People with chronic pain ponder why they are in pain, become anxious, and worry about whether and how they can live pain-free in the future. In terms of the signaling function of the pain, this is a desired consequence. But in the case of chronic pain, this agonizing search for causes is a decisive reason for psychological suffering.
Suffering, chronic pain, psyche
It is not the pain itself, but the thoughts and feelings it creates that cause problems for most people with chronic pain. In psychology, the distinction is made between clear and blurred pain, you can find out more about this in our article: What helps with fibromyalgia. If it is not possible to eliminate or alleviate pain in the long term, it is worth influencing the interaction between pain and psyche.
Thoughts affect pain intensity
"This pain will never stop, I'm a hopeless case." When people with chronic pain have thoughts like these, they can sometimes feel the pain more intensely. And the stronger the pain becomes, the more they hold on to the thought of themselves as a "hopeless case". A vicious circle arises from pain perception, thoughts, feelings and pain intensity. The good news: Even if there is no way of influencing the pain itself, it is possible to break this vicious circle.
Using the psyche to relieve chronic pain
In behavior therapy for chronic pain, clients learn, among other things, to separate “pure” pain from thoughts of pain. For example, formulations that are placed in front of the brooding thoughts help:
- The thought just occurred to me that I will always remain a pain patient.
- The thought occurs to me that other people are not in pain, that is unjust.
- I notice that I have the thought that I can no longer live like I used to.
By perceiving thoughts as thoughts rather than truths, their impact on the mood and self-image of the person concerned diminishes.
Chronic pain, psyche, better quality of life
At first it may seem frightening that pain is not only a very unpleasant sensation, but also affects the psyche. Fortunately, because this connection works the other way around, thoughts can be used to reduce the suffering of chronic pain. As a result, it is also possible that people with chronic pain no longer focus their everyday life completely on the pain. If the pain has less of an impact on their overall mental state, for example, those affected can do many activities that they enjoy despite the pain. These experiences improve the quality of life in the long term.
HelloBetter Chronic Pain
In our online pain training HelloBetter Chronic Pain, we have put together many other proven strategies and exercises that promote the positive influence of the psyche on chronic pain. You can find more information on the training page linked above.
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