Life is full of stressors, from jobs or co-workers we don’t like, to cars that break down, from teenagers who act out to bills to pay. How anyone copes with stress is important but it is particularly important for people who also suffer from chronic pain. Here’s why.

Chronic pain disorders are not understood or accepted by many. Pain impacts self-image and interrupts life plans. It stops people from enjoying activities they used to do and creates stress and anxiety. Chronic pain may also disrupt relationships. Understanding and treating the impact chronic pain has on your life is an important part of healing.

Our experiences create neural pathways in our brains. Left to its own devices, the brain will focus on the pathways that are familiar. For people with chronic pain, this means the brain focuses on pain pathways, making them even deeper and stronger. But if you can train your brain to focus on pleasure instead, you can remap neural pathways in the brain and override the pain pathways. For this reason, coping mechanisms and self-soothing are important concepts in neuroplasticity.

We first begin learning coping mechanisms from our parents. Unfortunately, many of us learned unhealthy ways to self-soothe from our earliest role models: smoking, pouring a glass of wine or opening a beer at the end of a stressful day, overeating, or escaping reality by watching TV, playing video games or surfing the web for hours. Ask yourself, “How do I cope with stress?” If these soothing mechanisms sound familiar, it’s important to explore healthier ways of managing your stress.

Think back to when you were a child. Sucking your thumb, stroking a favorite toy… these are all common ways that children self-soothe. Unfortunately, as we grow up we are often conditioned and encouraged away from self-care. We are taught to be stoic, “tough it out,” or to “pull ourselves up by the boot-straps.” But denying yourself soothing activities isn’t healthy and it won’t help you cope with pain.

There is a lot of research about the role that one’s state of mind plays in a sense of well-being and physical functioning for all of us. In this context, we know that there is a great deal of variability in the emotional lives of people. Further, emotions have many different dimensions to them–some stronger than others. For example negative states of mind tend to make pain last longer and brings about more stress for the person.

During high pain periods, we seem to have an inability to sustain any positive sense of well being. This in turn results in our struggling with more stress, sadness, and negative emotions. At these times it is easy to forget that positive emotions helps to foster a quicker, compared to negative emotional states, recovery from pain. What this means is that it is important to become more aware of both our negative and positive emotional states when we are stressed by high pain and disability states.

How positive emotions can arise in the context of chronic pain and disability is critically important. Research has suggested that the ability to know the difference between positive and negative emotions when stressed and in pain is important and be of a benefit in helping one cope better over time.

We know that when a person has ‘mood clarity’, they have the ability to both identify and understand the specific emotions. This requires that learning the technique of ‘psychological mindfulness’ is central to being able to recover from difficult times. We know that the ability have a trait known as ‘psychological resilience’ can become more stability and allows for the ability to overcome and bounce back from difficult times.

This means that those with greater mood clarity (mindfulness-personal awareness of emotions) and trait resilience can (1) experience positive emotions even when facing problem situation, and (2) draw on the experience of such difficult situations to develop tools to rebound from stressful times quicker.

Mindfulness and Clarity

Practice makes perfect. We need to work on identifying both positive and negative emotions when we are not stressed by a situation. This requires working on it many times to make sure we have really learned it so our response becomes more automatic. We need to know what is called the ‘two dimensional view of pain patients’ emotional well being.’

Mindfulness is stopping and asking ourselves what emotions and feelings we are noting at a present moment before we start to act, or react, on them. Others may tell us that we should not pay attention to our emotions. Mindfulness requires we develop the ability to ‘stop denying’ and start paying attention to how we feel and are reacting to situations BEFORE we jump in and react.

Personal Intervention in Chronic Pain

A focus on positive emotions has many benefits in pain treatment over time. Mindfulness training broadens our awareness and helps maintain a positive emotional focus especially during periods of high pain What is known is that positive emotions serve to counteract catastrophizing negative thinking that frequently trigger, and prolong, pain episodes. For example, we know that those patients with Fibromyalgia pain syndromes tend have more negative emotions and seem to lack any positive emotions that could help one cope and function better in both difficult and good periods.

It is hard to not be negative in the face of problems, disability, and/or high pain periods. So having a ‘two dimensional’ view of experiencing pain can help one with a better sense of well-being over time. It is not how ones sense of well-being is defined by the experience of pain or disability but by also how well one pays attention to their personal goals and social relationships that give meaning and value to life even in the face of one’s ongoing limitations and problems.

The Question of Why?

It is natural to want to ask why ‘this’ problem is happening at this point in time–especially when we have been ‘doing so well.’ Maybe a better way to asking such questions is to look to the manner in which we paced ourselves, or the stressors in our lives, that we faced before this problem developed. Many times, setbacks happen because we have pushed ourselves more when feeling good.

We have forgotten the importance of pacing ourselves or we feel that we have to push hard when feeling good to get things done before the bad happens again. Pushing ourselves only insures we will have more difficult times later on. We have to find a middle ground and now over do things.

We also have to know that stress–from work, family, friends, and other pressure, are very potent forces in bring about setbacks. It is also to point out that stress can be positive or negative with each one adding to our overall stress and physical-emotional endurance levels. Setbacks will happen and should not be a surprise to us. We need to use periods of setbacks to learn more about ourselves and functioning.

Remember, it is important that we work on how to keep a more positive emotional state even in the difficult times. This will take practice and time. It is about learning new skills that can help us with a better overall sense of well-being even when facing difficult times.

Photo credit: Pixabay/shauking