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Clinical Psychology

Often people who suffer from chronic pain will experience periods of depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, frustration, low self-worth, anger towards others and themselves, toward situations, and negative feelings that they are no longer able to interact with the world and perform as they were once able to. Chronic pain can often become debilitating both physically and emotionally.

Seeing a psychologist can help with management of chronic pain, either independently or in conjunction with medical pain reduction strategies. Psychological treatment focuses on helping an individual to predict their patterns of pain and learn how to manage by taking pre-emptive actions through the use of psychological and behavioural strategies and tools.

Pain management is not designed to eliminate pain, but rather to help an individual continue to live a meaningful life and engage in valued activities despite pain. Pain management strategies aim to help individuals to change negative feelings regarding pain into an attitude of acceptance, allowing the individual to function as best as they can in all aspects of their life, despite pain remaining present.

Seeing a psychologist about pain

Psychologists are experts in helping people cope with the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that accompany chronic pain. They may work with individuals and families through an independent private practice or as part of a health care team in a clinical setting. Patients with chronic pain may be referred to psychologists by other health care providers. Psychologists may collaborate with other healthcare professionals to address both the physical and emotional aspects of the patient’s pain.

Studies have found that some psychotherapy can be as effective as surgery for relieving chronic pain because psychological treatments for pain can alter how your brain processes pain sensations.

A psychologist can also help you make lifestyle changes that will allow you to continue participating in work and recreational activities. And because pain often contributes to insomnia, a psychologist may also help you learn new ways to sleep better.

Progressing and improving

Most patients find they can better manage their pain after just a few sessions with a psychologist. Those who are experiencing depression or dealing with a long-term degenerative medical condition may benefit from a longer course of treatment. Together with your psychologist, you will determine how long treatment should last. The goal is to help you develop skills to cope with your pain and live a full life.

Stress and chronic pain

Having a painful condition is stressful. Unfortunately, stress can contribute to a range of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety. In addition, stress can trigger muscle tension or muscle spasms that may increase pain. Managing your emotions can directly affect the intensity of your pain.

Psychologists can help you manage the stresses in your life related to your chronic pain.

Psychologists can help you learn relaxation techniques, such as meditation or breathing exercises to keep stress levels under control. Some psychologists and other health care providers use an approach called biofeedback, which teaches you how to control certain body functions.

In biofeedback, sensors attached to your skin measure your stress response by tracking processes like heart rate, blood pressure and even brain waves. As you learn strategies to relax your muscles and your mind, you can watch on a computer screen as your body’s stress response decreases. In this way, you can determine which relaxation strategies are most effective, and practice using them to control your body’s response to tension.

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but managing your stress will help your body and your mind and lessen your pain.

Tips for coping with pain

Consider the following steps that can be helpful in lessening your pain and improving your quality of life:

  • Stay active. Pain — or the fear of pain — can lead people to stop doing the things they enjoy. It’s important not to let pain take over your life.
  • Know your limits. Continue to be active in a way that acknowledges your physical limitations. Make a plan about how to manage your pain, and don’t push yourself to do more than you can handle.
  • Exercise. Stay healthy with low-impact exercise such as stretching, yoga, walking, and swimming.
  • Make social connections. Call a family member, invite a friend to lunch or make a date for coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. Research shows that people with greater social support are more resilient and experience less depression and anxiety. Ask for help when you need it.
  • Distract yourself. When pain flares, find ways to distract your mind from it. Watch a movie, take a walk, engage in a hobby, or visit a museum. Pleasant experiences can help you cope with pain.
  • Don’t lose hope. With the right kind of psychological treatments, many people learn to manage their pain and think of it in a different way.

Follow prescriptions carefully. If medications are part of your treatment plan be sure to use them as prescribed by your doctor to avoid possible dangerous side effects. In addition to helping you develop better ways to cope with and manage pain, psychologists can help you develop a routine to stay on track with your treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions about Clinical Psychology

  • What is a Clinical Psychologist?

    A clinical psychologist has an undergraduate degree in psychology, and a postgraduate degree specialising in the assessment and treatment of a range of physical and emotional difficulties. The clinical psychologist might also have a PhD in clinical psychology, but clinical psychologists are not medical doctors. They do not prescribe medication or carry out physical examinations.

  • What does psychology have to do with pain?

    When we experience pain after an injury, illness, or disease, we expect the pain to stop once the body has healed. Unfortunately, the pain does not always stop, and it can continue long after the body’s tissues appear to have healed. Medical treatments to relieve the pain are not always successful, and over time the experience of persistent pain can affect all parts of a person’s life. Chronic pain can be emotionally distressing, it can affect your ability to work or to participate in your hobbies and leisure activities, and because of those changes there can be negative effects on family, friends, and co-workers. Clinical research has shown that our experience of pain generally gets worse. Sometimes we can push ourselves to complete a task or finish a job, only to find that the pain flares up and we feel even worse.

  • How can a clinical psychologist help with my pain?

    Psychologists are experts in helping people cope with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that accompany chronic pain. They may work with individuals and families through an independent private practice or as part of a health care team in a clinical setting. Patients with chronic pain may be referred to psychologists by other health care providers. Psychologists may collaborate with other healthcare professionals to address both the physical and emotional aspects of the patient’s pain.
    When working with a psychologist, you can expect to discuss your physical and emotional health. The psychologist will ask about the pain you experience, where and when it occurs, and what factors may affect it. In addition, he or she will likely ask you to discuss any worries or stresses, including those related to your pain. You also may be asked to complete a questionnaire that allows you to record your own thoughts and feelings about your pain.
    Having a comprehensive understanding of your concerns will help the psychologist begin to develop a treatment plan.
    For patients dealing with chronic pain, treatment plans are designed for that particular patient. The plan often involves teaching relaxation techniques, changing old beliefs about pain, building new coping skills, and addressing any anxiety or depression that may accompany your pain.
    One way to do this is by helping you learn to challenge any unhelpful thoughts you have about pain. A psychologist can help you develop new ways to think about problems and to find solutions. In some cases, distracting yourself from pain is helpful. In other cases, a psychologist can help you develop new ways to think about your pain.

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