Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Managing Pain Anxiety: A Vicious Cycle

At one time or another, everyone experiences some sort of physical pain.  Living with pain is an extremely challenging experience as it impacts all areas of our lives.  Often one of the most difficult aspects of living with pain is the anxiety that comes with it.  When people experience pain together with anxiety, the pain can be especially intense and difficult to alleviate.

This anxiety is often rooted in the fear of one’s condition worsening.  Not wanting to experience more pain or become further disabled is, of course, understandable and a valid concern.  Unfortunately, this fear can sometimes have the opposite of its intended effect.  When we make decisions based on fear, we hold ourselves back from saying yes to positive events and opportunities in our lives.

Rather than immediately acting on this fear, it is often helpful to shift your focus to listening to your body.  This is not as easy as it may sound.  Listening to your body is more than stopping an activity when it does not feel good.  Listening to your body requires a level of awareness that is only possible if you set the intention to focus on physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.  

Attention to your physical sensations may bring up uncomfortable emotions.  Often we disconnect from that which hurts us as it is easier to distract ourselves than to tolerate pain.  On the other hand, pain has a way of making us at times more aware and more sensitive.  Fear has a way of leading  to hypervigilance.  People with chronic pain sometimes describe being constantly alert or on guard, aware of the many triggers that can make pain worse.

Pain is strongly influenced by how the brain processes its signals.  Our beliefs about these pain signals matter as they lead to emotional responses.  We may respond to pain with fear or terror.  We may see pain as a nuisance.  We also have the option to view pain more simply as communication.  Pain reminds us to be careful about irritants that are making us feel worse.  It also reminds us to make sure to seek out healing measures that make us feel better.

Anxiety and pain often coexist in a vicious cycle.  Anxiety can cause pain and pain can cause anxiety.  People living with pain often develop anxiety symptoms because of the added stress that pain adds to their lives.  Sometimes the pain gets better but the anxiety still lasts, especially if only the pain is treated.  Attention to both is key as you work toward healing.

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