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3 Ways Psychotherapy Can Help with Chronic Pain

I will never forget one woman who came to see me for help with chronic pain. This was a woman who stood tall—she gave off the image she was functioning well despite living with chronic pain. She had long, dark hair, perfect makeup, and a confident smile. As she sat down and spoke her first words of the session, though, her face crumpled and she began to weep quietly. She was in pain—and had been for six years. She was exhausted. She was overwhelmed. And she had no idea what to do next.

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It’s important to remember that no pain starts out as chronic pain. Pain starts off as new and unexpected—from a fall, an accident, a wrong motion, or sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. The typical advice is to try medication, physical therapy, or rest. But for a number of people, pain fails to get better with these treatments. Nothing heals according to their expectations. In these cases, the path is less clear; often doctors will recommend different medications, to wait (and often wait and wait some more) and see whether other treatments work. This wait-and-see process can go on for months or even years. But while people wait for medical treatment to fix their pain, their daily lives may crumble around them.

Many medical doctors don’t see beyond the physical injury. They can’t see that while you’re waiting for your pain to go away your household is falling apart, your boss is pissed off, and you are getting seriously depressed. Many people who have had to deal with doctors for a chronic condition end up feeling angry, dismissed, betrayed, and adrift.

A referral to a therapist can feel like your medical doctor is giving up or nothing more can be done. But that isn’t true. Where medical interventions fail is where a great therapist can pick up and help. Therapists can’t fix your pain, necessarily, but they can help you rebuild your life and help you figure out how to function again.

No one is born prepared to cope with chronic pain. And often by the time it becomes clear this pain isn’t going away easily, things have gotten out of hand. This is where therapy can help.

Therapy for chronic pain can help in three important ways:

1. Therapy is a place to experience nonjudgmental emotional support.

People in pain often feel isolated—family, partners, and children have trouble understanding the severity of chronic pain and accepting new (and very real) limitations. Doctors often end up frustrated that their tools aren’t working and can sometimes make the person in pain end up feeling somehow “at fault” for still being in pain. And worst of all, there is not much space to talk about the emotional pain that results from all of these changes.

A good therapist with experience helping people with chronic pain listens without judgment. Therapists create a safe space for people to talk about their experiences, frustrations, and any other feelings they have been keeping locked up inside. Talking to someone who “gets it” can come as a much-needed breath of fresh air.

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