Ask A Professional: How To Cope With Chronic Pain

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.]

HelpHOPELive chronic pain

Chronic pain can affect you both physically and psychologically.

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.

chronic pain physical symptoms HelpHOPELive

Acute pain alerts you to a problem. Chronic pain is persistent.

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.

HelpHOPELive chronic pain mental

There are psychological effects associated with 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.
HelpHOPELive chronic pain crossroads

Are your chronic pain reactions extreme and one-directional?

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.”

chronic pain HelpHOPELive fear

Your emotional response to chronic pain could cause you to feel trapped or afraid.

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.

isolate isolation chronic pain HelpHOPELive lonely

You may isolate and stop seeking out pleasurable activities because of chronic pain.

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.

chronic pain recovery fun HelpHOPELive

It’s healthy to rediscover your favorite activities — and enjoy them again!

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.”

recovery chronic pain first step journey HelpHOPELive relief

You deserve relief from your suffering. Are you ready to take the first step?

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.

10 responses »

  1. This is the right web site for anyone who wants to find out about this
    topic. You understand so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I personally would want to…HaHa).
    You definitely put a brand new spin on a topic that has been discussed for years.
    Woncerful stuff, just excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Apart from Mari, how many of you actually struggle with chronic pain? I thought I was going crazy when I first started experiencing my pain. Until my GP referred me to my present group of pain management docs. And even then I had one doctor at an ER basically tell me was a drug addict. The fact is, you will never be able to speak to something wholeheartedly unless you live it. We live it, so we know. One of my doctors who is a senior consultant tells his interns to always listen to the patients because we know our bodies. We have to learn our triggers, what helps and doesn’t help our pain. Thankfully I have found my group of experts to help me through my pain when I find I am struggling. They are not my doctors or even my family. They are my support group, my true friends and I feel blessed to have found people who understand what I live with 24 hours everyday.


    • You bring up good points that are shared by a lot of other patients. Because it can be so difficult to quantify and understand chronic pain, patients typically need to be strong self-advocates and self-managers in order to manage their pain effectively for the long term. A strong care team helps and so does social/family support. Good for you for advocating for your health and happiness and pursuing the pain management avenues that work best for you.


  3. Hi, great article that is, in my opinion, well articulated. I’m pleased to see that anticipation has been highlighted and I would go further to say in chronic pain a given expectation. By that I mean whilst we operate subconsciously we don’t have to think about every action we take so our subconscious places reactions/expectations/solutions (not necessarily in that order) in our “reference library” and when stimulus creates physical/mental reaction, hey presto “pain”. As everyone is different even though the symptom/signs appear the same what is causative in one is not present in another. Unfortunately, as individuals our descriptive language severely lets us down, so in between the medics questions and the sufferers answers we miss out a lot of the prudent information that would greatly benefit a potential discovery of cause. When we collectively have the ability to clinically orate our physical/mental feelings, and allow the other person to answer before continuing, there is no doubt in my mind that that will be the day of the cure discovery we all seek.


    • John — great observations. “Unfortunately, as individuals our descriptive language severely lets us down, so in between the medics questions and the sufferers answers we miss out a lot of the prudent information that would greatly benefit a potential discovery of cause.” Such an important point. We’ve been following recent efforts by the medical and technology communities to redefine universal pain scales so that they more accurately describe an individual’s symptoms. A step in the right direction. Fine-tuning our pain communication capacities is another important step.


  4. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a tool that helps you deal with chronic pain. This article is good but I think to a lay person it implies that lack of involvement in daily life due to pain is “all in your head”. Different wording would be more helpful in my own opinion.


    • Hey, Marianne — thanks for the feedback. Do you feel like the article is saying, chronic pain symptoms (like lack of interest in daily activities) can be eliminated through CBT or related strategies? That’s certainly not something we’d want chronic pain sufferers to take from the article. As Dr. Grinstead can confirm, chronic pain symptoms (particularly emotional ones) can be complex to identify and even more complex to alter. Chronic pain symptom management is a lifelong process, and the process may look completely different for each person. If you have additional insights to contribute or resources to share, please do so!


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