Anyone who has experienced chronic pain knows that it can have a serious effect on your well-being. From fatigue, sleep disturbance, decreased appetite, and mood changes, it can hit every corner of your life. But did you also know that pain is more than a physical experience—and how we think about it can literally change the way we feel?
Experts agree that our beliefs influence the intensity of pain—for better or for worse. In other words, our thoughts can be a powerful pain reliever. Here are four ways to train your brain to ease your pain:
1. Get to know your thoughts. Pain catastrophizing is a mindset where you ruminate about how bad pain is or how bad it’s going to get. As your anxiety increases, so does your pain—and this can limit the effectiveness of medications and interventions designed to help, says Beth Darnall, Ph.D., a pain specialist and the author of The Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit. In this mindset, you are more likely to intensify your pain by repeating negative thoughts such as, “My pain is only going to get worse,” or “I’m afraid my pain will never go away,” says Darnall.
Try this: Become mindful of what you’re thinking and feeling to disrupt the cycle of negative thinking. Ask yourself, “What just went through my mind?” says Beverly Thorn, Ph.D., author of Cognitive Therapy for Chronic Pain: A Step-by-Step Guide. Try setting a timer or put a chime on your phone as a reminder to pause and check in with your thoughts throughout the day.
2. Restructure your thinking. In the pain catastrophizing mindset, we often get stuck in rigid thinking and see our circumstances in absolute terms, says Thorn. “The idea here is to challenge the negative thought and replace it with one that is more supportive or accurate,” adds Darnall.
Try this: Once you become aware of what you are thinking about your pain, begin to reframe and restructure those thoughts. For example, “My pain is only going to get worse” can be reframed as “Pain levels change. I will not stay stuck in this cycle. There are things I can do today that can help me feel better, so I’ll relax and choose one of those things to do now.”
3. Initiate a relaxation response. Engage in a calming behavior like deep breathing, which interrupts the pain catastrophizing pattern by prompting the body’s natural relaxation response, soothing the nervous system, and lowering cortisol levels that can contribute to pain and inflammation.
Try this: Sit comfortably. Take a slow breath in through your nose, to the count of five, breathing deeply so that your can see your belly move out as your diaphragm expands. Hold for a count of two, then release through your mouth for a count of seven. Repeat at least five times.
4. Create a go-to list of feel-better favorites. Darnall also suggests identifying at least ten self-soothing actions you can use to short-circuit the pain catastrophizing cycle in the moment.
Try this: Write down a few fun or calming activities—petting your cat, sketching, swimming, sitting in nature, listening to music, meditating—that make you feel good. Keep the list in your wallet or on your phone, and refer to it the next time you feel yourself spiraling into the pain catastrophizing cycle to change the pattern.
“Over time, these types of self-soothing techniques can help retrain the brain so that the negative thoughts become less automatic and supportive and self-soothing thoughts become more natural,” Darnall says. “Your brain is just like a muscle and it does require training. But the good news is that it is also wonderfully responsive to directions.”
Polly Campbell is Portland-based author and speaker specializing in psychology, resilience, and wellness topics. She is the author of three books: How to Live an Awesome Life: How to Live Well. Do Good. Be Happy; Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People; and How to Reach Enlightenment. Tweet her @PLCampbell.