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Beliefs, emotions, and chronic pain

Posted by on Aug 13, 2014

DSCF2250It’s natural to perceive your chronic pain as mainly a physical problem. It feels as though something is wrong with your body. Your arm hurts where it was injured at work, or your jaw hurts because of something wrong with a nerve, or you ache all over and so there must be something wrong with your muscles or joints. But the amount of pain you feel does not necessarily reflect how badly your body has actually been damaged. Two people with exactly the same injury can experience very different levels of pain. In some cases, no physical problem can be detected, despite pain that is very real.

One thing that influences how severe your pain will be is your set of beliefs about the injury or illness that caused it. These beliefs activate certain emotions, which in turn influence how much pain you experience. For example, if you believe that your injury was caused by someone else’s negligence, then you may feel angry, and the emotion of anger may then worsen the pain you experience.

Here are some examples of the many beliefs about chronic pain that can feed anger and pain:

  • This shouldn’t have happened to me.
  • This is unfair.
  • I don’t deserve this.
  • People should be more understanding/accepting/accommodating/supportive, etc.
  • No one cares.
  • No one believes me, because the pain doesn’t show.

Anxiety is another emotion that contributes to pain. We feel anxious when we think that we might not be able to cope in the future. Anxiety and pain are fed by thoughts such as these:

  • What if the pain gets worse?
  • What if I never get back to work?
  • What if my family gets sick of taking care of me?
  • I need help, but I can’t bear to ask for it. I’m the one who always helps others.
  • Will people still like me if I sometimes have to say no when they ask for favours?

Anger and anxiety are very common reactions to chronic pain. If you’re experiencing either of these emotions, try to notice what beliefs or thoughts are feeding them. Noticing such beliefs and thoughts can be a step toward hurting less. In a later post, I’ll give some tips for managing the beliefs and thoughts that fuel your anger and anxiety about your pain.