Pain is a healthy reaction from our nervous system, and acute pain alerts us to possible injury. In most cases, pain goes away after an injury heals. However, chronic pain is different. Chronic pain refers to the long-term experience of pain, where the body continues sending pain signals to the brain after the injury has healed. Sometimes, chronic pain can interfere with mobility, making it difficult to carry out daily activities. If left unchecked, chronic pain can disrupt nearly every aspect of an individual's life, including work, school, relationships, and sleep.
Although the physical symptoms of chronic pain can take a toll on your daily life, it's important not to ignore the mental health impacts that often come along with it. Fortunately, with psychotherapy and pain management interventions, it's possible to manage chronic pain, work toward positive mental health, and maintain a balanced, happy quality of life.
Chronic Pain and Mental Health Issues
Living with daily pain is incredibly physically draining and emotionally stressful. According to Mental Health America (MHA), stress changes the levels of certain hormones within the brain and nervous system, affecting your mood, thoughts, and behaviors. Chronic pain disrupts the body's balance of these hormones, contributing to even higher levels of stress and other mental health issues like major depression and anxiety disorders.
Along with stress, there are several ways chronic pain can disrupt your daily life. Chronic pain can affect your ability to function at home, work, or school. Some people living with chronic pain might find it difficult to maintain relationships or carry out daily activities, which can lead to low self-esteem. Many people with chronic pain also experience sleep disturbances, insomnia, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes. Without pain management interventions, lifestyle changes and high stress levels can further exacerbate mental health concerns and pain symptoms.
How To Cope With Chronic Pain
If you're living with a chronic condition, help is available. Mental health treatment along with regular appointments with your primary care team are essential in helping you find a treatment plan that works best for you. Effective pain treatment relies on regular screenings, counseling, and pain management interventions. Some helpful resources for pain management include:
- Talk to your health care provider. Let your health care provider know that you're experiencing chronic pain. If your clinician does not initiate a conversation about your mental health while treating your pain condition, bring it up yourself. Asking for mental health help isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and your pain treatment should incorporate talk therapy for the best results.
- Reach out to a chronic pain specialist. Although chronic pain is common, not all healthcare providers have the expertise necessary to treat chronic pain conditions. A pain specialist can help you cope using evidence-based physiological and/or psychological interventions.
- Work with a mental health professional. Even if you don't have a diagnosable mental health condition, talk therapy can help you find healthy coping strategies to manage chronic pain. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for chronic pain, helping individuals manage co-occurring mental health problems like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse disorder while finding ways to manage their pain symptoms. Sometimes, psychologists refer individuals with chronic pain to psychiatrists for pharmacologic therapies, such as antidepressants. Other times, if your pain management and mental health require that you see a therapist more than once a week, you may be referred to an Intensive Outpatient Program, which can be completed virtually.
- Join a support group. Living with chronic pain can be isolating, but support groups can provide a valuable source of support for people with chronic conditions. Research shows that support groups can be especially helpful for individuals with mental health conditions, substance abuse issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To find a support group, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program also relies on group therapy sessions to support our patients with chronic pain, including specialty tracks for patients living with chronic pain.
- Make healthy lifestyle changes. If you're facing stressors in daily life, healthy lifestyle changes are key to building resilience. Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, practicing mindfulness, and doing regular physical activity (if you're mobile) can help you feel your best, giving you the energy to cope with stressful situations and maintain good mental health. Of course, chronic pain cannot be solved with these simple lifestyle shifts. Chronic pain is a serious condition that requires more than small changes in day-to-day behaviors. However, any way you can decrease stress is a net positive.
Whether you're living with chronic headaches, managing cancer pain, or navigating life after a traumatic brain injury, chronic pain can take a significant toll on your mental wellness. Reaching out for mental health care isn't a sign of defeat. Finding the right mental health provider is the first step to feeling better.
At Charlie Health, we deliver accessible, evidence-based mental health treatment for adolescents, young adults, and their family members. Our intensive outpatient treatment program relies on a combination of group therapy, individual therapy, and family therapy to provide holistic support throughout the healing process. Our supportive team of mental health professionals will help you explore your treatment options and learn healthy pain management strategies to cope with chronic pain.