Chronic Pain: Using Healthy Thinking

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

By Cal Robinson, PsyD, MSCP

Living with pain can be hard, especially if it’s long-term—or chronic—pain. Chronic pain is pain that lasts for 3 months or longer. It can make you sleep poorly, feel tired and irritable, and have a hard time being active or working. It may strain your relationships with loved ones too, making it hard to be the kind of friend, parent, or partner you want to be. You may feel stressed or get depressed or anxious. And these feelings may make your pain worse, because they can make it harder to manage your pain.

Learning how to control your pain can help with all of these things. In most cases, chronic pain can be managed so that you can get on with your life and do your daily activities. One way you can help manage and cope with your pain is through healthy thinking. Your thoughts are something you can control. You can learn techniques to make your thoughts more helpful and encouraging.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, also called CBT, is a way to help you stay well and cope with pain by changing how you think. And how you think affects how you feel. Negative thoughts can make stress and pain worse. Healthy thinking can help.

•CBT is often used to help people think in a healthier, more balanced way. The goal is to change the way you think about pain so that your body and mind respond better when you have pain.

•Another technique, called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), helps you cope with chronic pain by helping you learn to accept negative feelings. You learn to base your choices and actions on your personal values, rather than on negative feelings.

•Healthy thinking can take away barriers to being physically active, such as discouraging thoughts. This helps because pain can also improve with physical activity, such as walking and swimming.

•Changing your thinking will take some time. Be patient with yourself as you learn healthy thinking. It may not feel right at first, because you are trying out something new. But with daily practice, it will get easier and feel more natural. And it’s something you can start doing today.

How can you use healthy thinking to cope with pain?
Many people work with a therapist or a counselor to learn CBT techniques. But you also can practice some of them on your own.

Working on your own or with a counselor, you can practice these three steps:

• Stop. Notice your thoughts. When you notice a negative thought, stop it in its tracks and write it down.

• Ask. Look at that thought and ask yourself whether it is helpful or unhelpful.

• Choose. Choose a new, helpful thought to replace a negative one. Ask yourself: What effect does believing this thought have on me? What might happen if I tried to believe the more healthy thought?

The goal is to have encouraging thoughts come naturally. It may take some time to change the way you think. You will need to practice healthy thinking every day.