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MAKING IT BETTER: How Chronic Pain affects you psychologically

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Monday, June 6th, 2016

When pain lasts over a period of 6 months or beyond the usual time for recovery, it may take a psychological as well as physical toil. Chronic pain continues long after an initial cause or injury. Living with chronic pain means that you continue receiving signals from your nervous system (which is centre for most of our sensory activity) for weeks, months and even years. There might have been an initial event such as an infection or other injury, or there might be an ongoing cause of pain such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, sickle cell anaemia, stroke, surgery, chronic infections(HIV/AIDS), phantom limb(which is pain that can develop after an arm or leg is amputated), trauma, bladder problems and many other conditions. However some people suffer chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of damage on their body.

Chronic pain is quite separate to acute pain. Acute pain tends to be what most people identify with when thinking of pain. It is a normal sensation that is triggered in the nervous system to alert us that something is wrong or of a possible injury and it forces us to investigate. For example if you cut or burn yourself, or incur a sprain, you may feel acute pain and seek treatment.

Chronic pain on the other hand  can include back pain, pain from various illnesses, pain resulting from damage to the nerves or the central system(neurogenic pain), or pain not due to any visible sign inside or outside the nervous system or from past disease (psychogenic pain). Psychogenic pain is primarily caused by psychological factors such as depression, anxiety and is much harder to treat.

Living with a chronic illness is long term and sometimes it may never go away even though there may not even be any perceivable cause for the pain. Having a chronic illness might result in chronic pain, but this differs from an acute illness or pain which tends to be transitory and ends after a particular period once the initial cause has healed or run its course such as a cold, cut or infection. This also differs from the experience of someone with chronic pain who may never regain a sense of normal functioning again. This can be very frustrating and frightening.

Chronic illnesses or chronic pain can have an intense, detrimental impact on a person’s mental health. Living with the experience of feeling constant pain and how it impacts on your lifestyle and the limitations imposed can be extremely demoralising, isolating and soul destroying. It is very common for sufferers to develop depressive symptoms that can develop into more severe mental health problems if not addressed. There can be a tendency for sufferers to begin to see themselves as a shell of who they used to be, to lose a sense of being a whole person as they were prior to their pain. This may be as a result of a myriad of reasons such as an inability to perform or complete the tasks they did before such as work, home commitments, or social interactions.

In trying to cope with the psychological effects of chronic pain or illness, there is first and foremost a need to acknowledge the feelings you have and not be in denial about it. In other words behaving like it is not happening or that your life has not or may not have to change in some form or another only prolongs or makes the transition more difficult.

There may have to be lifestyle adjustments or changes which may allow for an easier way to cope with the situation as opposed to fighting against it and making life more difficult both physically and psychologically. It is vital to face and accept the new reality of the situation you are faced with. This does not mean giving up on life, or feeling sorry for yourself. Although feeling self pity might be one of the many emotions you experience initially when first faced with the challenges. As it is with the process of grieving there are stages involved such as shock, disbelief, denial, avoidance, confusion, fear, anger and then acceptance and resolution. These stages are not linear and as with grief, you may become stuck at one stage or another or move back and forth through the stages.

You may be faced with intense stress as a result of the pressure of adjusting to a new way of life which can also influence how you feel about life in general. Chronic stress can also lead to a spate of emotions such as hopelessness, anger frustration, loss, anxiety which can lead to depression.

As the persistent health and life changes take place it can also have a significant effect on family members, influencing and impacting on how they relate to their relative. Relationships between family members, spouses, can become fraught and difficult if not handled or treated with care and understanding. Maintaining intimacy between couples can become difficult and may require more attention.

There are specific support lifestyle factors that can be effective and helpful to sufferers with chronic pain and with their families in helping them cope successfully.

The options chosen will differ for each individual and family, however some of the more common factors that are generic are positive thinking, meditation, faith, positive affirmations which can all help to bolster the spirit and help with acceptance of the chronic condition. Laughter and finding a sense of humour even in the face of challenges can help to put things in perspective and work wonders.

Pain makes you feel tired, mentally muddled, irritable, and often moody or depressed. Thinking patterns can change, it can become negative, low, full of frustration, tempers can become short, memory and poor concentration can affect your mood.

The aim is to try to help yourself feel a sense of control of your life and to reverse some of the effects of the pain, to reduce depression and anxiety, improve concentration, memory and self esteem. To try to be creative in living as normal a life as possible despite the pain and most importantly for loved ones to be a part of the process.



Gloria Ogunbadejo writes a weekly column for Punch Newspaper. She is a Psychotherapist, a life coach, a holistic counsellor and an ordained Minister


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