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Emotional Aspects of Chronic Pain

By Amy Austin RN, Psy.D., LMFT

Individuals suffering from chronic pain assume that the pain symptoms are purely physical. There are many times though that clinicians scratch their heads to identify painful symptoms when nothing structural presents itself in an effort to prove a mechanical problem as the pain culprit.

Dr. John Sarno, author of Mind Over Back Pain and Healing Back Pain-The Mind Body Connection, posits that “neck, shoulder, and back pain syndromes are not mechanical problems to be cured by mechanical means. They have to do with people’s feelings, their personalities, and the vicissitudes of life.” Dr. Sarno has described the symptoms causing painful episodes as “tension myositis syndrome.” If his viewpoint is relevant, then conventional treatment protocols such as medication and physical therapy may not be solely appropriate for many people who suffer from chronic pain issues.

If a person suffers from chronic pain syndrome, all aspects of a life are affected and need awareness and attention. If a structural problem cannot be identified, then one might address emotional and stress-related issues, as well as the effects of trauma on the body as pain initiators. Trauma-related occurrences may be those experienced in childhood such as sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect and abandonment; from a “painful” marriage and divorce; or from being a caregiver to a challenging loved one. They may also stem from the death of a loved one, or can be work related.

If we conceptualize ourselves as ‘human beings’ and not just ‘human doings,’ there is a greater capacity to explore that some physical complaints may originate from something other than the physical self.

This is not to say that physical symptoms are not experienced. They are. Pain usually is a detection device that signals a person to seek help for the associated symptoms. And, when pain ensues, one may exacerbate symptoms by not exercising, when exercise might be the order of the day.

If you are suffering from chronic pain, the following might be helpful:

  • If nothing structural or physiological is found to be wrong, check with your doctor first, but begin some type of exercise protocol. If not for the body’s benefits, your mind will thank you.
  • Remember, you are not your pain. People forget that chronic pain can change a person. Identify when thoughts are obsessive and gently redirect your thoughts to a more positive place. It can be done!
  • Try alternative forms of healing such as yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, massage, reflexology, acupuncture, seeing a naturopathic clinician, etc. All alternative methods of healing should be checked out by your internist and/or pain management doctor for approval. They usually say, “Go for it!”

Finally, have a heart to health talk with the pain. You are so much more than the pain you are experiencing and life can be full regardless. Also, know that you don’t have to figure this out on your own. Stuffing “painful” feelings can generate painful physical symptoms so give yourself permission to share your truth and begin living a life of true and deserved authenticity.

Dr. Amy Austin is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFC # 41252) and doctor of clinical psychology in Rancho Mirage. Dr. Amy can be reached at (760) 774.0047.

Comments Welcomed





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