Not just “management”: treating chronic pain with psychotherapy

| Amy Schere, LCSWA

If you have experienced chronic pain, or any kind of medically unexplained symptoms, the phrase, “it’s all in your head” might sound infuriatingly familiar. YOU know your pain is real, and we know it too! Chronic pain can take a significant physical and emotional toll. The grain of truth in this statement, however, lies in the fact that all experiences are processed and perceived by the brain, including pain. New research is shedding light on the fact that many forms of chronic pain are generated and maintained by neural pathways in the brain, and that this pain is VERY real – it is an important danger signal that provides information.  

Because pain is often a learned danger signal, it may be telling you something about your emotional state. And since pain can be learned by the brain, it can also be unlearned. This is where therapy comes in. Much like therapy can help you unhook from the danger signals your brain creates when you experience anxiety, it can also help you unlearn many forms of chronic pain. A recent study using this approach showed that a technique called Pain Reprocessing Therapy was effective for significantly reducing or eliminating chronic back pain in the majority of study participants!  

Psychotherapy can be effective for helping with distress manifesting in both the mind and the body. Here’s a bit of what to expect in a session addressing chronic pain:

  • Assessment around how distress manifests in your body and relates to your mental health and life situation.
  • Education on mind-body concepts and how they relate to your situation, especially how pain is related to fear and anxiety. 
  • Mindfulness practice as it relates to pain and other body sensations.
  • Techniques to address other causes of anxiety that relate to the pain. 
  • Practices to increase positive physical and emotional feelings in the mind/body such as body scans, breath work and self-compassion practice. 

If you are dealing with chronic pain, there is hope for recovery, and working with a therapist is a great way to start your healing journey. 

Today's the day to make a change.