Pain. It’s part of life at every age and stage. But there are times that pain can become a constant, stressful presence – and when this happens, it can take over our emotional lives as well.
Recently I gained a personal sense of this when I experienced several months of severe discomfort from a rare form of arthritis. Every day I would wake up and wonder, “What will my pain be like today? How will this make things harder for me?”
The answers weren’t always clear, which filled me with worry and uncertainty. Fortunately, through changes in diet and exercise, the pain is now manageable. But the experience drove me to learn more about the mental health impact of living with painful conditions beyond arthritis – which include cancer, multiple sclerosis, back and neck difficulties, migraine headaches and the often-misunderstood condition known as fibromyalgia.
WHY CHRONIC PAIN OFTEN LEADS TO PSYCHIC PAIN
Medical experts tell us that, in general, pain serves a valuable purpose in our lives. Pain signals the brain that we need to stop doing whatever is hurting us, which prevents further harm to our tissues. (If we couldn’t feel pain, we might not realize that a kitchen knife might cut us, or that we need to be careful when striking a match.)
Pain that lasts less than 3 to 6 months is called acute pain, which is what most of us feel when we’re recovering from an accident, sports injury or surgical procedure. But for many people, pain becomes an ongoing menace that experts describe as chronic or persistent pain.
Research shows that people who live with chronic pain will face higher risks for depression, anxiety and other mental health effects. This is because living with daily pain is physically and emotionally stressful. Chronic stress affects the level of stress hormones circulating in our systems, as well as the neurochemicals found in our brains and nervous systems. These biological changes can affect mood, thinking and behavior.
WARNING SIGNS OF PAIN-RELATED DEPRESSION OR ANXIETY
As you may know, depression is condition that can cause low mood and energy levels, negative thinking, sleepiness, memory problems and even lead to thoughts of suicide. Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to cause feelings of keyed-up energy, restlessness and fearful thoughts. Both conditions can interfere with everyday life – and they are often found in combination with one another.
You may be experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety if you have:
- An overwhelming sense of sadness, fear or worry
- Fatigue that makes it hard to handle everyday tasks at home or work
- Difficulty concentrating, reading or making decisions
- Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Jittery, nervous energy that makes it hard to relax
- Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping much more than usual
- Persistent worries that you may never get better, or life isn’t worth living.
IMPORTANT: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, get immediate help. Contact your primary care doctor, visit your local emergency room or call 911. You can also dial the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 anytime, day or night, 365 days a year.
ADDRESSING PAIN’S EFFECTS ON YOUR OVERALL HEALTH
Diagnosing and treating chronic pain can be a tricky process, because pain is a subjective experience. All of us experience pain differently, and there is no precise test to help doctors locate and measure pain.
Chronic pain is often treated with oral medications, such as opioids, that can be highly addictive. If you are concerned that you or someone you love may be dependent on pain medication, consult your doctor immediately. (Here is a helpful checklist that doctors use to determine if patients may be facing opioid addiction.)
Although treating pain and mental health conditions may require two different courses of treatment, there are methods that can help both at the same time. These include:
- Antidepressant medications, which may relieve both pain and depression, thanks to shared chemical messengers in the brain.
- Stress reduction techniques such as exercise, meditation, yoga, journaling, music therapy and other soothing activities.
- Pain rehabilitation programs that provide integrated care for the physical and mental effects of pain.
- Talk therapy, which can help you understand what is happening and develop effective coping strategies.
As a mental health counselor working with adults of all ages in the Oak Park area, I am here to help you create a healthy, balanced life. If you are concerned about the mental health effects of chronic pain, click here to arrange an appointment with me.