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Living with Chronic Pain

By Dr. Vance Locke BA (Hons), M Psych (Clinical), PhD

Pain is a signal from the brain that we’re in danger and need to change something – like take our hand off the stove.  Pain motivates us to look for the source of the danger, to solve the problem at hand, and prepares our body for a response (e.g. muscles brace, blood pressure increases).

These basic systems work great to protect us in the short term, but over a long period they make us prone to anxiety and depression; they exhaust us and make it difficult to sleep.

Think of it like being in danger anywhere – if you saw a shark coming towards you while swimming, you’d find it hard to relax, and sleeping and eating would be the furthest things from your mind. Then think of being like this all day, every day. That’s what chronic pain does to us.

The critical thing is that pain is MEANT to motivate you to fix whatever your brain thinks is causing damage. But once pain becomes chronic (lasting longer than 3 months or beyond the normal healing process), it can become very demotivating because what has worked for us with acute pain (for example, resting) doesn’t work for chronic pain.  So what should you do?

What we currently know is that breaking this cycle is best done using a team to help you move better, pace yourself, use appropriate medication and reduce the danger signals and anxiety your pain is producing.   

Practical advice

First, what we also know is that the thoughts you have about your pain are critical. If we think “this is unbearable,” then our feelings will follow. So saying to ourselves “that dog will bite me” will make us more anxious when approached by a dog; or saying “I’ll never be able to play golf again” when in pain will make us feel sad/depressed.  Changing these thoughts takes time, and often support from a Clinical Psychologist. There are online resources that can help though and I’ve listed some below.

Tackling existing issues is also an important task as these can keep our anxiety and stress levels elevated leading to increased pain.

Second, find ways to reduce your tension. Bracing when we’re in pain is natural. Everybody knows what it’s like when you go for a filling and the Dentist says “this won’t hurt a bit.” Do we relax? No. Just in case, we tense our jaw and anything else we can clench.  Imagine doing that for months on end - it’s exhausting, painful and stressful.  Learning to stop bracing while we’re experiencing pain takes time.

Starting relaxation is as easy as lying down in a quiet space and slowing your breathing down. It’s best if you breathe into your stomach - what’s called diaphragmatic breathing – as this signals to the body that we’re safe, relaxed and not in danger.  There’s a link to some recordings and some information below. 

Mindfulness meditation is another technique you can use to address both anxiety and tension.  It’s not for everyone but it can be very helpful.

Finally, movement is critical. Physiotherapists and Occupational Therapists can help you develop better conditioning and strength in ways that can help you move better and increase you activity in everyday life.  This too can help you with anxiety and tension as your body learns that movement is safe – if done right. 

Chronic pain isn’t something humans are designed to deal with and it’s no surprise that many of us find it dramatically reduces our quality of life.  So I’d encourage you to get a team to help you develop the skills to cope better. Living with chronic pain is a tough journey – there’s no need to do it alone. 


Thoughts and mood: 

Centre for Clinical Interventions – WA Dept. of Health


 An online CBT course for pain through Macquarie University



University of Western Sydney




Provides a range of recordings – try them all.

Centre for Clinical Interventions – WA Dept. of Health



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