Distracting Your Brain From Pain
New cases of chronic pain are escalating in the United States, diagnosed in 52 of every 1000 Americans and outpacing rates of diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure, according to the National Institutes of Health. Chronic pain, whether from illness or injury, is defined as pain experienced every day or most days in a three month period, although, as most people living with chronic pain will tell you, the pain is more likely to persist for years.
Physical therapy and pain medications can help alleviate some symptoms of chronic pain, but a new body of research is exploring options for redirecting neural responses to pain. Focusing on pain can actually increase our perception of it – throbbing, aching, or burning. Conversely, focusing on a task that requires us to concentrate redirects our brain’s attention, resulting in what neuroscientists call “distraction analgesia” – a neurochemical response that reduces the intensity of painful sensations.
Activities that distract attention from pain lead to competition in different areas of the brain; one involved with sensing pain and one involved with processing information. Learning a new hobby or skill, especially one that requires us to pay attention for a long period of time, is an effective way to force our brain to split its attention, pulling away from its laser focus on pain. Crafts, games, art projects, doodling, and blowing bubbles are all activities that pain management specialists recommend. Using numbers in patterns (such as counting backwards in 3s) works well, too, However, making models and needlepoint pillows can only distract us for so long. Novelty seems to be an essential factor in effective long term distraction therapy, so trying new things over a period of time is a key factor to positively distracting the mind away from its tendency to focus on pain.
Counseling for Chronic Pain
If podcasts and puzzles are all we need, is there any merit to counseling for chronic pain? Absolutely, experts say. We can treat pain with pills, and we can subdue the sensation of pain with distraction, but the struggle and suffering of living with chronic pain takes a tremendous emotional toll. Working with a therapist who specializes in treating illness, injury, and chronic pain can be a vital way to learn how to live with pain. It can be hard to accept that some days are bad days, or even feel as though you are giving up when you give in to pain. It’s also hard for people who feel their pain hasn’t been taken seriously or who have suffered from addiction to pain medications to build trust with a counselor, just as it is difficult for a therapist to listen to someone’s story and not feel tempted to fix it or try to move on to other issues. Once that trust is established, however, therapy works to provide techniques, including mindfulness and distraction therapy, that can increase pain tolerance and lower pain intensity.
It’s Not All In Your Head
Counseling can also address the underlying causes of symptoms that manifest as physical pain but stem from mental or emotional problems. Pain symptoms may not correlate to any previous injury, but may be felt as different sensations throughout the body or may present as a headache, stomach ache, muscle tension or pain, or back pain. Historically referred to as “psychogenic pain”, or pain in the mind, the term is no longer used by clinicians, who realized many people who live with chronic pain with no acute or underlying physical cause were ignored, ridiculed, or dismissed, and their pain was not being seriously addressed. Whether from illness, injury, trauma, or mental health challenges, pain is real, and people in pain deserve to be taken seriously, treated, and understood.
Many therapists who specialize in treating chronic pain, trauma, illness, injury, addiction, grief, and other disorders provide telehealth options, reducing the physical burden of commuting to appointments.
Lifeologie Counseling was founded in 2000 with one goal in mind — to bring a fresh, innovative approach to the everyday problems of life. Creative solutions to stuck problems®. With our unique multi-specialty, collaborative approach, Lifeologie Counseling helps individuals and families heal their wounds and break out of old, unhealthy patterns.