Each year, millions of people are forced to cope with the physical and psychological effects of chronic pain. Viva therapist Regina Tosca, LICSW, knows this well—with her background in palliative care and hospital social work, she’s worked with many clients who deal with chronic pain in their daily life.
In the following post, Regina breaks down the definition of chronic pain, its effects on the mind and body, and a few simple self-management strategies.
What is Chronic Pain?
According to 2012 data from the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain (defined as any pain that lasts longer than three months) affects roughly 11.2 percent of American adults. It is commonly related to conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraine, arthritis, and lower back pain, but in many cases, the exact cause of chronic pain is unknown. The pain one feels may be intermittent, and it often varies in severity.
Chronic pain can have a significant impact on one’s quality of life, impeding physical functioning and interfering with activities of daily living. It can also increase a person’s risk for mental health struggles or substance use.
How to Manage Chronic Pain
Modern medicine’s approach to treating chronic pain is focused on the use of pharmaceuticals, including opioids, corticosteroids, muscle relaxants, neuropathic agents, and more. While there is a role for medication, non-pharmaceutical self-management approaches can also be effective.
What’s more, self-management strategies can help counter the feelings of helplessness and lost control that are often associated with chronic pain. Research has shown a relationship between the use of self-management strategies, improvement in an individual’s ability to cope with chronic pain, and reduction in their psychological distress.
The body’s conduit for pain is the peripheral nervous system. When the body experiences an injury, the nervous system sends a signal to the brain saying it’s in trouble. The brain then determines whether and how it will respond to the information. In the case of chronic pain, that system becomes locked in a feedback loop that tells the brain the body is constantly in pain.
When providing therapy to my chronic pain clients, I find that self-management techniques and strategies can go a long way towards alleviating some of the normal mental health struggles that accompany their ongoing suffering. Although I pick and choose particular strategies with clients for a more custom tailored plan and better outcomes, 2 of my favorites are listed here. You may find that they do the trick for you or a loved one living with chronic pain—but if they don’t, that’s ok. Each human system is unique, and even if one strategy doesn’t work, another one can.
- As you are able, lay on your back or in a comfortable sitting position with your feet flat on the floor. Place your arms at your sides.
- Notice areas of tension in your body outside of where you feel the pain. Take 2-3 minutes to untighten those areas so that the body is more relaxed.
- Focus in on the pain. If there is more than one place in the body that feels pain, focus on the area of greatest discomfort.
- Take a minute to focus on the shape of the pain, and assign it a color. People often choose red or black, but you can choose any color that resonates with you. Hold this image in your mind for a few moments.
- Next, imagine a soothing color that represents comfort, relief, or the absence of pain. People often choose blue or white.
- Over the next 5 minutes, slowly focus on shifting the color of your pain to the color of relief. Notice the variations in the color as it goes from one hue to another. Imagine the shape of the pain changing as the color does.
Try this practice daily or on a regular schedule that you can reasonably maintain. You may start by practicing every other day or every few days, but see if you can gradually increase your engagement. Notice whether you feel a change in your level or experience of pain.
Pranayama (yogic breathing)
- As you are able, lay on your back or in a comfortable sitting position with your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your belly.
- Take ten slow, deep breaths through your nose. Focus on trying to push your belly out on the inhale, and then let it fall slowly on the exhale. Deep breathing takes practice, so inhale and exhale only to the edge of your comfort zone.
- Begin to imagine yourself breathing in from your feet and moving oxygen through the body, up into the legs, arms, shoulders, hands, stomach, face, ears, top of the head, etc. With each inhale, imagine your breath moving throughout the body. Do this for 3-5 minutes.
- For the next three minutes or so, as you inhale, imagine breathing into those parts of the body that experience pain. Breathe deeply, and imagine your breath surrounding and dissolving the pain.
- Shift your breathing back to the whole body. Imagine the energy of your breath flowing through each part of you. Do this for three minutes.
- Gently redirect your breath to the areas of pain. Again, focus on infusing those areas with the energy of your breath and dissolving the pain. Alternate once or twice more between areas with and without discomfort.
- Breathe into the whole body. Imagine the flow of energy bringing light and healing to every part. Breathe like this for a few minutes.
Try this practice on a regular schedule. Begin to notice if you feel a change in your level or experience of pain.
Living with chronic pain can be deeply stressful, but there are ways to manage your pain and improve your experience. I hope the above methods help you feel empowered in your everyday life. You are not alone; together, we can discover more ways to help you thrive.
Regina Tosca, LICSW, is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including loss of companion animals, as well as those who experience grief and trauma from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “Grieving the Loss of a Pet” and “The Queer Mental Health Movement.”