Chronic Pain and Mental Health

Pain is a signal in your nervous system that something may be wrong

It can be an uncomfortable sensation that can feel like:

  • Throbbing
  • Sharpness
  • Soreness
  • Stiffness

What are chronic pain conditions?

Acute pain is actually meant to be a helpful and adaptive mechanism; like an alarm or signal that communicates that there is danger. If you’ve put your hand on a hot stove before, the pain you experienced warned you to quickly move your hand to prevent further injury. However, when pain becomes chronic, these pain signals no longer serve a useful purpose. In fact, your brain begins sending false alarms that communicate to your body that there is pain — even after body tissue is restored and healed.

Pain signals interact with several different areas in the brain including physical sensation, thinking, and emotion. Chronic pain impacts what you do, how you feel, and what you think.

Unfortunately, many people experiencing chronic pain share that they have felt dismissed and invalidated during their journey of attempting to find answers. It can be typical for an individual to see several different doctors, specialists, and have extensive testing done for diagnostic clarification given the severity of the pain they have experienced. If the results are suggestive of there being no organic cause for these symptoms, this can send the message to clients that it’s “all in their head”.  

First and foremost, it’s crucial to acknowledge that your pain and symptoms are real. Secondly, there is hope and tools are available for symptom management.

To manage chronic pain, it’s vital to learn how to function with pain in order to teach the body that the pain signal is a false alarm and not needed anymore, which eventually causes that pain signal to stop. This can be achieved through learning skills in therapy such as: relaxation skills, guided imagery, activity pacing, distraction, psycho-education on how the mind and body work together, and thought-based skills to reframe how you think about and respond to pain.

Pain is complex and multifaceted; the focus is not on reduction of symptoms, but on pain management and learning ways to improve quality of life. Nonetheless, it takes bravery to take that first step of reaching out to better manage these symptoms, especially if you’ve felt invalidated in the past by other helping professionals. Chronic pain is manageable, there is hope, and you don’t have to feel alone or misunderstood any longer.

About Shelby Negro

Shelby Negro, LLPC, earned her B.S. in Psychology from Grand Valley State University and has completed graduate coursework at Western Michigan University. She specializes in treating anxiety, ADHD, low self-esteem and depression in teens and young adults. She also works with adults living with chronic pain and somatic symptom disorders. She has worked in mental health for more than a decade, including as a psychometrist at Helen Devos Children’s Hospital, and advocates for undeserved and vulnerable populations. She is supervised by Rosann Raftery, LPC at Lifeologie Counseling Grand Rapids Cascade.

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