10 Ways to Manage Symptoms of Chronic Pain

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Thursday, September 17, 2015
By Todd D. Giardina, PH. D
September is designated as pain awareness month. With that in mind, it seems fitting that a pain psychologist offer some advice on how to manage the distress and symptoms associated with chronic pain. But unlike physical medicine doctors, I am providing you with 10 ways to reduce pain without pills.

Practice deep breathing (emphasizing slow and steady breaths deep into your stomach and diaphragm). In addition to relaxing your mental state, this has a physical impact on your nervous system, and can change the way you experience pain.

Seek out distraction (such as engaging in hobbies or spending time with friends). When your thoughts and emotions are focused on something other than pain, the physical sensations persist but you may find they fade into the background noise a bit, instead of being front and center.
Allow time for emotional venting (by talking to a professional, loved one, spiritual leader, or even to yourself in a diary). Studies show that unburdening yourself of psychological and mental distress by verbalizing it can have physical health benefits as well as emotional ones – so let it out!
Reduce your stress (perhaps by reducing your commitments, asking for help, or improving your time management. Studies show that greater psychological stress leads to greater pain). Obviously this is overly simplistic and hard to do in real life – but by pushing small things off your plate, or altering your expectations for yourself, the little changes can really add up. Less really is more.

Find meaning in the pain (many patients find that understanding the “why” makes pain more tolerable. This “meaning” or benefit of the pain may involve spiritual growth, improved communication of your needs, a closer connection to others socially, etc.) While this involves more of a personal journey than a quick fix, I do find my patients can tolerate the pain more if it makes sense, so to speak. If you can find the silver lining, it is easier to make pain part of your story.

Discover your happy place (this sounds like a bad therapy joke, but the use of imagery – a type of daydream or fantasy – can allow you to take a mental vacation from your pain momentarily). A form of mental distraction, this involves focusing your mind away from the pain. Just 10 minutes of elaborate and detailed recall of a great meal you once had, or an image of your favorite place described in a novel – this can provide much needed relief from the painful reality you may be living.

Plan for the pain (if you know the rhythms of your body or the activities/events that trigger your pain, you can use this knowledge to structure your life in a way that avoids unnecessary pain flare-ups). Instead of pretending the pain is not there, this coping technique involves close attention paid to your pain and behavior patterns. If you know that rainy days mean greater physical discomfort, or that more than one hour of walking will result in two days laid up in bed – then you can re-arrange your life and make choices that give you back greater control over your body.

Engage in mindfulness (this is an Eastern practice that involves increasing your awareness of all of your senses – so, yes, you notice the pain more, but you also notice the pleasant or distracting sounds, sights, smells, and sensations that you may have missed because the pain seemed so “loud”). This is the old saying “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” If you block out sensations and “zone out” or “go numb” then you might escape some pain signals but then you also miss out on the better aspects of life. Allowing yourself to tune into the pain in your arm also means you are better able to feel a loved one’s touch on your arm, or the feel of nice fabric on your arm, or the coolness of the ocean on your arm.

Plan activities (many pain patients have nothing to look forward to but more pain, but if you can anticipate a trip to the mall, a dinner with friends, or an upcoming trip, then you can look past the pain to the next thing on your schedule). This is the same coping technique many people without pain use to get through the work week! By being able to say “I just need to get through two more days and then I will…” you are psychologically more able to cope with your present circumstances – you create hope.

Argue with yourself (odd, yes, but it works. Instead of just saying “I can’t do this,” say also “yes, but you can do that.” Don’t say “I am worthless,” but say “I may be limited physically and out of work, but I am still a mother, a spouse, a friend.”) This is a means of avoiding only focusing on one [negative] side of things. By appreciating yourself and your circumstances holistically, you can better appreciate both the good and the bad, the pain and the pleasure, what is lost and what remains. All or none thinking is unhealthy, and if you don’t change your thoughts, then they may grow into beliefs and emotions.

Dr. Todd Giardina, is a licensed psychologist with the Coral Gables Counseling Center and a staff consultant at University of Miami Hospital. Dr. Giardina aims to educate patients and empower them to take charge of their lives and take responsibility for improving their own, individual situations. Dr. Giardina teaches coping skills, largely using cognitive behavioral techniques and mindfulness. You can contact the Coral Gables Counseling Center at 305-445-0477 to schedule an appointment.