Pain is a very debilitating feeling and prolonged pain can have a significant impact on one’s mental wellbeing. Experiencing pain is typically linked to experiencing emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, guilt and shame. Resulting mood fluctuations or emotional instability can then influence one’s experiences, how they process information and ultimately how they behave (for example becoming more impulsive or socially withdrawing). In this blog, I will be exploring the psychological effects of chronic or persistent pain, while the following blog will be focusing on techniques that can support an individual experiencing chronic pain.
It is normal to try and avoid situations that make us uncomfortable. When one lives with chronic pain however, this is often difficult or impossible to do. This can lead to anxiety related to when the pain will return and fear that one will not be able to cope with it. When such anxiety is repetitive and prolonged over a period of time, it can lead to significant loss in the person’s quality of life.
When the pain experienced is external, it is natural to try and avoid the possibility of that happening again, and instead staying in a safe space where one cannot get hurt. However, when the pain is internal, such escape is difficult if not impossible. As a result, although there is a link to genetics and other factors such as a person’s resilience, prolonged pain has been associated with an increased risk of symptoms of depression.
Cognition and processing
Experiencing prolonged pain has been associated with detriments to one’s ability to think, process and understand experiences. This means that the ability to receive information (input) and be able to think and understand this information (process) can be limited because of pain. More simply, if one is experiencing pain, one is less likely to be able to understand exactly what is going on around them and respond appropriately, because the pain is too present to think or do much of anything else.
While this might sound very bleak and like there is no way out, there is hope in the brain’s neuroplasticity. Simply put, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to grow and change over time.As a result, there are ways in which the brain can be supported to rewire itself in order to manage and reduce the impact that pain can have on one’s quality of life. In the next blog, I will explore some techniques that have been found to support chronic pain management.
Petra Borg is a Trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist currently reading for a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy from the Gestalt Therapy Institute Malta (GPTIM) and working at Willingness as a Trainee Psychotherapist. She has experience as a Triage Officer and has also worked closely with Willingness over several years, coordinating the international internship programme and providing support over diverse events and initiatives.
Cosio, D. (2019, October 29). Anger expression and chronic pain. Practical Pain Management (18)3. https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/resources/clinical-practice-guidelines/anger-expression-chronic-pain
Padgett, A. (2019, June 10). Do it for your mind – If not for your body: The psychological effects of chronic pain. Augusta Pain Center. https://augustapaincenter.com/mind-not-body-psychological-effects-chronic-pain/
Simons, L., Elman, I., & Borsook, D. (2014, February). Psychological processing in chronic pain: A neural systems approach. Neuroscience Biobehavioural Review (0), 61-78. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3944001/