How Psychologists Help Chronic Pain Patients
Being referred to a psychologist as part of your chronic pain treatment plan does not mean that your doctor thinks you're crazy. And it doesn't mean that your pain is all in your head, and the doctor is just trying to get rid of you.
No, if your doctor refers you to a psychologist, it means that he or she is well-aware of the emotional effects chronic pain can have. It means that your doctor is taking a multi-disciplinary approach to your pain—one that may incorporate medications, physical therapy, and psychology, for example. Since chronic pain is a multi-faceted condition, it generally requires a multi-faceted treatment plan.
But a Psychologist, Really?
Chronic pain does involve an emotional component. In 1979, the International Association for the Study of Pain redefined pain. They said that it's a "sensory and emotional experience"1. A translation: pain has physical and emotional sides, and it exists even if there's no identifiable cause. The pain simply exists because the patient feels (or believes he or she feels) it.
Chronic pain can take a psychological toll on your life. The following list of thoughts are not atypical for a chronic pain patient.
- I can't work because I'm in so much pain, so I'm worthless to my family.
- I don't even feel like myself anymore because my whole life revolves around this pain.
- I feel so lonely and isolated because no one understands my pain.
- I'm complaining too much about my pain—I'm such a weakling! I should just put on a happy face.
- I can't even do the simplest tasks anymore. I'm a failure.
With thoughts like that dominating your mind, it can be difficult to fully deal with your pain. You may be taking proactive steps to deal with the physical components of your pain, but the emotional aspect can still make you feel trapped by the pain.
A psychologist can help you address the emotional impact of chronic pain.
Using behavioral therapy techniques, a psychologist can help you identify and change negative thoughts—thoughts that can exacerbate your pain. The psychologist can help you deal with any depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders often associated with chronic pain.
What happens in sessions with your psychologist is up to you, but it's a time to be completely and utterly honest about how chronic pain is affecting your thoughts, relationships, career, and self-esteem. The main goal is to help you live your life fully, despite the pain.