Dr. Stephen F. Grinstead is a chronic pain management expert and author of multiple chronic pain management books including “Freedom from Suffering: A Journey of Hope.” We spoke to Dr. Grinstead about separating physical pain from psychological pain to improve your quality of life.
[Pain management is a complex and sometimes controversial topic. A chronic pain patient explains her own perspective at the end of this article.]
The Physical Side of Pain
Reports from the Institute of Medicine state that at least 100 million Americans are affected by some degree of chronic pain.
The term ‘chronic pain’ typically includes any pain lasting for 12 weeks or more. While ‘acute pain’ acts as an alert to draw attention to an injury, chronic pain is a persistent condition that can last for months, years or even decades. Chronic pain may cause sleep disturbances, a stifled appetite, changes in mood and limitations to a sufferer’s movement and flexibility.
According to Dr. Stephen F. Grinstead, because chronic pain may stem from various areas within the nervous system, chronic pain can impact multiple parts of the body at once. Chronic pain is a side effect associated with a variety of conditions including fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and some cancers.
The Psychology of Pain
“Pain doesn’t just hurt,” said Dr. Grinstead, “it changes the most basic neurophysiologic processes in the human body.” Your mental state may create the difference between a mild pain response and what Dr. Grinstead defines as suffering.
“Pain is a physical sensation…suffering results from the meaning or interpretation your brain assigns to the pain signal,” explained Dr. Grinstead. When you view your pain as awful, interminable, constant and beyond help, you are experiencing the psychological side of chronic pain.
Dr. Grinstead identified several methods for combatting your mental and emotional responses to chronic pain.
Step one: recognize that your thoughts generate an emotional response.
When your thinking is distorted, you’ll quickly feel uncomfortable emotions like fear and anxiety. These negative emotional responses can lead to self-defeating thoughts, like:
- My pain is never going to stop.
- My pain is horrible, awful, terrible.
- My pain is killing me.
- My pain is torturing, grueling or punishing.
- My pain is distressing, excruciating or agonizing.
Step two: recognize that uncomfortable emotions such as fear, shame, anger or depression can intensity your chronic pain response.
Anticipation, fear and negativity can alter your body’s response to pain. Sometimes just thinking about a certain activity that might exacerbate your pain will “activate the physical pain system,” said Dr. Grinstead. “This way of thinking contributes to the development of emotional reactions that amplifies the pain response. These reactions can make you believe you are trapped in a progressive cycle of disability.”
Step three: reach out, connect and engage.
It is very common for individuals with chronic pain to stop participating in activities that have the potential to improve their mood. In such cases, said Dr. Grinstead, it is important to engage in ‘seeking situations’ that can provide distraction from pain and improve your frame of mind and quality of life.
Seeking situations may include social, recreational, spiritual or educational pursuits. Once you can clearly identify problematic thinking and uncomfortable emotions, you can learn how to challenge this thinking, manage your emotions and engage in healthier behaviors.
You have a right to overcome your suffering.
“People suffering with chronic pain have a right to be free from that suffering,” Dr. Grinstead said. “They also have a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones to seek out appropriate treatment options and take authentic action to implement those options so they can move beyond just surviving to thriving.”
Chronic pain patient Marianne noted that awareness is key. “Certainly, it can be easier to tolerate pain with better control of our thoughts,” she said. “I encourage everyone to learn how to be more accepting of that as part of their ‘new normal.’ CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] is a great tool.”
“So many people, though, think that there is a magic cure to chronic pain, be it a pain medication or surgery or another avenue,” Marianne cautioned. “Lack of interest in daily activities or similar symptoms do not necessarily stem from a lack of effort on the part of a chronic pain sufferer. CBT is a helpful tool, but it’s not a cure. I do all I can to learn to live WITH my pain. I know it will never not be a part of my life.”
How is your chronic pain this week? Are any tools helping you to manage your body and mind more effectively? Check in with us on Facebook or on Twitter. You can learn more about Dr. Grinstead’s chronic pain management approach by visiting his website.