Living With Chronic Pain

Anxiety and Pain

We all feel anxious and scared when faced with situations that can escalate our pain. But sometimes just thinking about a scenario can set us off as well. Worry and fears about what “might happen” consumes us. Getting out of our head and into the real world can be difficult. But it’s imperative if we are going to learn to live with our pain and enjoy our lives.

We all have moments where our thoughts and anxieties threaten to shut us down. But for those of us who suffer with chronic pain the two seem indelibly linked. How we see ourselves physically is intertwined with how we see ourselves emotionally. If we are limited, weak, or dependent, then anything we attempt is sure to fail. And those boundaries will shrink until any action is impossible and any attempt overwhelming. Our own thoughts become the shackles that bind us and exponentially increase our discomfort.

As discussed in past posts, the area of the brain that interpret sensations such as temperature, touch, taste and and pain are also the same regions that contribute feelings of anxiety and depression.

Thoughts turn into emotions that create behaviors and then physical reactions through a cascade of chemical reactions that worsens muscle tension and pain.

  • Thought – “I can’t possibly work a full day.”
  • Emotion- I feel angry, hopeless, weak.
  • Behavior- I crawl into bed, overeat, lash out.
  • Physical reaction- I hurt more, feel exhausted all the time, can’t function.

Next time a thought threatens to overwhelm and destroy your day, try these techniques to break through:

Use the 5,4,3,2,1 method. It will get you out of your head, ground you in reality and help bring you back to the present.

5. Acknowledge five things you can see. Any five things in your surroundings. The ridges and dark green leaves on a plant sitting on a table. The beautiful blue sky. The computer. A spot on the wall. The lights.

4. Acknowledge four things you can feel. The ground beneath you. A hand in yours. A tabletop. Your hair.

3 Acknowledge three things you can hear. The sounds of typing as co-workers input data. The buzzing fluorescent lights make. The chirping of birds. 

2. Acknowledge two things you can smell. The food cooking in the kitchen. Coffee brewing. Cleaning agents in the air.

1. Acknowledge one thing you can taste. What can you still taste from breakfast, dinner? Your favorite breath mint. A piece of gum.

Practice mindfulness

This focuses our awareness on the present, while letting our thoughts come and go without judgement or criticism. It lets us be present in the moment and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by external pressures or internal thoughts. Giving us a few previous moments to decide exactly how we want to respond. It allows us to change reflexive reactions that can be harmful or hurtful to more thoughtful and conscious ones.

Focus on your breath. Breathe in and out.

Slow down and think about what’s around you, where you are, who else is with you. Stay in the here and now. Appreciate the breeze on your skin, birds chirping, the clicking of the-keyboard as data is inputted. The fresh and clean scents left behind after a rain.

Be nice to yourself. Accept who you are. Limitations and all. Compassion, nurturing and kindness have to start within. Stop fighting with what you should be doing, feeling or accomplishing. Realize that anxieties and the chemical reactions they create are an over protective response to our fears. Let it be. Feel it pass through your body until it’s released at your feet.

Stop the negative and think about your strengths, accomplishments, value.

Take a piece of food. Any piece of food

Act as though it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a banana.

See how it looks, a hard outer shell in a canoe shape.

Feel the outer rind and then the soft, squishy center.

Smell its pungent odor when peeled.

Savor its distinctive taste.

It’s impossible to think of much else.

The body scan

Sit comfortably. 

Close your eyes.

Become aware of your breathing. Notice its rhythm.

How do your clothes feel against your body? What does the chair feels like against your back, bottom, legs. Feel the air around you, is it warm, cold, comfortable?

Think about your toes. How they feel in your shoes. Travel up the legs to your abdomen, arms, neck, and head. Focus on how they feel, letting go of tension before you move on.

Open your eyes and look around you. Stay in the here and now.

Remember to breath and use the five count method to relax any time, any where. 


Breathe in to the count of five. 

Hold to the count of five. 

Breathe out to the count of five. 

Hold to the count of five.

Observe your thoughts

Sit or lie down and close your eyes. Let your thoughts come and go at will. Don’t try to stop or force them. Just let them flow. Don’t focus on any one thought. Guide yourself back to the center if that happens. Don’t label them good or bad. Just let them pass from one to another as you breathe and relax your body, like clouds floating by for a few minutes.

Analyze your thoughts

Once you feel calmer, analyze your thoughts.

  • Are they positive? Negative?
  • The last time I had this thought what was I doing? How did I feel? Is the pain more related to an event? For example, I last felt this anxiety and pain when I had an argument with my spouse or a deadline to meet at work?
  • Is the thought true? Did the idea of exercising shut me down, not the actual act? Did I jump in and do too much, too quickly, setting myself up for failure?
  • Change the context. Reinforce what can be done, what is working.
  • Evaluate the results. Did starting slower make a difference? Do I have more energy? Endurance?

Negative thoughts are just like any other bad habit. They become the go-to response whenever we’re anxious, afraid or faced with a potentially painful situation. Recognizing them is the first step. Then practicing these techniques to shut them down will, with time and patience, keep them from limiting your life.

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