Do you hear yourself in any of the below statements?
“I don’t know if I’ll ever live painless and carefree as I used to?” “ I don’t think I can go to that party because the pain will flare up too much!” “The pain is terrible, it is never going to go away!”
If you suffer from chronic, persistent pain, you may find yourself thinking thoughts similar to these. That’s completely understandable, and I know how frustrating and uncomfortable it can be to live in chronic pain. In fact, my Healing Pain Summit is all about getting to the root cause and creating a pain-free life.
But there’s another critical aspect of healing pain that may just be the missing link in your journey: what you think about your pain and how you anticipate pain in the future may actually create more of what you don’t want. In other words, if you harbor negative beliefs about your pain, those beliefs can actually perpetuate and intensify the pain you have now and in the future.Pain Catastrophizing
One form of those negative beliefs is known as “pain catastrophizing”. Pain catastrophizing is a negative cognitive-affective response to anticipated or actual pain and has been associated with increased pain and poor functional outcomes. Pain catastrophizing is characterized by feelings of helplessness, rumination and excessive magnification of cognitions and feelings toward a painful situation.
Put very simply, how you think determines how you feel. Most of our thinking is unconscious, and we have a constant flow of “automatic thoughts” in our minds as we perceive and interpret events and the world around us. These automatic thoughts have the biggest grip on how we feel.
You might say, “yes, but I was injured (or I have herniated discs, etc) so there’s a real, physical cause of my pain!” That’s absolutely true, but it’s still what you think about the injury and pain (now and in the future) that determines the intensity of the pain.
There’s no doubt that pain is serious and real. You are not imagining it and its not in your head. Pain accounts for 80% of doctor’s office visits and costs about $100 billion per year between healthcare costs and lost productivity!
Some people may even feel frustrated or invalidated if they think they’re being told that it’s “all in their head.” But instead, it can be empowering to realize that when you change your thoughts, you can improve the success of your treatment, or even reduce or eliminate your pain without pills or surgery!
As author, Dr. Wayne Dyer once said, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
The Solution Is Just A Thought Away
Below are some steps you can take immediately. But first, see if you recognize yourself in some of the thought patterns associated with pain catastrophizing:
- thoughts that magnify the severity of the situation
- ruminating thoughts that make it difficult to shift attention away from the pain
- expecting negative outcomes in the future, based on past experiences
- negative feelings about yourself
- feeling helpless or hopeless
- inability to cope with pain
The solution to pain catastrophizing is rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy, and below you’ll find an easy adaptation of this that you can do on your own as an important part of your overall treatment plan.
So as you address the root cause of your pain, I also recommend taking the following steps:
1. Begin to notice your thoughts as they come up – simply being aware without judgment. Especially note negative thoughts.
2. Notice how you feel physically – not just at the site of pain but throughout your body. Whenever you notice tightness or tension, relax those areas of the body, and breathe deeply in order to relax completely.
3. Notice how you feel emotionally. If you’re worried, anxious or depressed, focus on thoughts, people, and places that make you happy.
4. Actively create more positive thoughts about your pain to replace negative ones. For example, the thoughts mentioned at the beginning of this post could be:
“My favorite thing that makes me feel carefree is [whatever that is to you]” (instead of “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as carefree as I used to.”)
“I’ll go to that party and will stay as long as I’m enjoying it” (instead of “I don’t think I can go to that party because the pain will flare up too much.”)
“I trust that we’ll find the root cause of this pain eventually” (instead of “Why can’t I ever get to the root cause of this pain?”)
5. Develop a meditation practice or participate in a guided meditation class. Meditation has been shown to improve pain and function.
6. Implement twice weekly relaxation techniques such as progressive relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing or various yoga breathing. Two twenty minutes sessions each week can release tension and pain. This will free more space for you to recognize your pattern of thinking about your pain.
It takes consistent practice to change your thoughts and beliefs, but with enough repetition, it can be done!
Next week I’ll continue this discussion with another aspect of negative beliefs and pain, which is fear. For now, the steps above will help you make that critical shift into a more positive state of mind, to create more wellbeing in your life.
Visit www.joetatta.com to learn more about strategies to alleviate pain and return to an active life.
Joe Tatta, PT, DPT, CCN is a doctor of physical therapy and certified clinical nutritionist. My mission is to help you arrive at a place where you feel stronger, pain-free and energized from the inside out. That means taking a bird’s eye view of your movement, nutrition, weight and intentions and doing it all naturally. Ultimately, you will get your body working for you, not against you. Once you turn around chronic patterns and optimize your health, you’ll never regress. It’s time to make the transformation to living more vitalized in your entire body.