Gain control over chronic pain

Good self-care can reduce pain and lift emotional well-being

By Michael Shrifter, PsyD, clinical psychologist, The Portland Clinic – South

Pain is more than a physical problem; it can have a major impact on emotional well-being. People in pain — whether acute or chronic — can develop depression, anxiety and other emotional struggles when pain affects their ability to function and their quality of life. In addition, people who suffer from anxiety or depression often experience pain more intensely. This can turn into a vicious cycle. Improving emotional well-being, on the other hand, can help people reduce pain, and reducing pain can improve emotional well-being — a much more positive cycle.

Several strategies can help you set this cycle into motion. One of the most important objectives in pain management is to develop “self-efficacy” — that is, the ability to feel that you have some control over your pain. Developing self-efficacy begins with good self-care. The following self-care strategies can help you begin to take control, and ultimately reduce your pain.

Pace yourself

Trying to cope with continuous pain can be exhausting; it’s important to find the right combination of activity and rest. Over-doing it can increase pain, but so can under-doing it. For example, staying in bed too long causes stiffness, which increases inflammation, which makes pain worse. Moving your body increases blood flow, reduces inflammation and helps reduce the intensity of pain. Gentle yoga, water aerobics, walking and tai chi may help. Be sure to assess your pain level regularly and adjust your activity accordingly. If daily tasks such as showering, cooking and household chores aggravate your pain, prioritize tasks with the understanding that not all of them have to be done every day. Do as much as you’re able while acknowledging your limits.

Eat to nourish your body

Eating nutritious food plays an important role in pain management. Both under-eating and over-eating can worsen pain. Some specific foods also may affect your pain, energy or stiffness. Keeping a food diary may help you identify eating patterns that make you feel better or worse.

Prioritize sleep

In another vicious cycle, pain can make it difficult to sleep, and poor sleep can make it harder to manage pain. To sleep better, try to maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time, limit daytime napping, minimize caffeine and alcohol, reduce screen time (TV, computers, etc.) In the evening, create a relaxing sleep environment, and find a more comfortable position that eases your pain in bed.

Try new coping strategies
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: tensing and relaxing individual muscles in a Sequence — for example, from your toes to your neck — can reduce pain caused by muscle guarding and tension.
  • Belly breathing: shifting from shallow, upper-chest breathing to deeper breaths that fill your belly and lungs can help you feel calm and less anxious.
  • Mindfulness: this powerful mental skill can help you dwell less on past losses and future worries and more on the present moment and what you can do, right now, to be proactive about reducing pain.
Seek support

Chronic pain can make you feel isolated and misunderstood, which compounds emotional distress. It’s important to stay connected to family members and friends who are genuinely invested in your well-being. Consider joining a pain-management peer-support group to connect with people who understand your experience of pain. A psychotherapist also can help you broaden your coping skills, gain some control over pain and emotional distress and build self-efficacy.

Many of the tips I’ve shared come from the excellent book, Master Your Pain: A Comprehensive Science-Based Method To Help You Live Well With Chronic Pain, by Jill B. Fancher. I highly recommend it.