5 Tips to Cope With Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can be in your neck, back, and anywhere else. It can disrupt your work, your relationships, and, by extension, your mental health. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers five tips to deal with the common challenge of chronic pain.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #75

Tip #3: Track your pain.  I know, I know, you don’t even want to think about your pain, much less keep track of it. But keeping a pain diary can help you make connections between what you do and how you feel.  

So, take a week or two to track your activity during the day and how much pain you feel. You don’t have to track every detail—just broad strokes like “sat at my desk all morning” or “grocery shopping” will do. Then rate your pain—the classic from your doctor’s office is the 0-10 scale, where 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you’ve ever experienced. Don’t be afraid to use the whole scale; you don’t want an unhelpful chart loaded with 5’s and nothing else.  

Once you’ve tracked your pain for a week or two, look for patterns. Maybe you feel worse after time on your feet, after sitting at a computer, or on days after you’ve pushed yourself.  

Use your newfound data to modify your environment and schedule. If sitting at your desk at work is killing your back, ask to have your chair evaluated or even aim for a standing desk. If your joint pain flares from preparing dinner, break it up into smaller chunks or delegate when you can.

Tip #4: Don’t push through it. It will get worse, I guarantee. So, resist getting indignant and showing the pain who’s boss. You may push through and accomplish everything on your to-do list, but the next morning you won’t be able to get out of bed.

Instead of strong-arming your pain, try a technique called pacing. The rule of pacing is to stop an activity before you’re in pain. Go by time, not task. Time how long you can comfortably do activities that are challenging for you, like typing, driving, or cleaning. Once you know your limits, aim to do those activities for less time than your limit, and then take a break before your pain flares.  

For example, instead of powering through the dishes, do them for five minutes, then take a break and pay a bill. Then wash for five more minutes, and take a break to fold some laundry while sitting in a chair. Finally, finish up with five more minutes. It takes some work to change your habits, but it’s much easier to prevent pain than it is to quell it once you’re in the throes.

Tip #5: Question your beliefs about your pain. This is the big one. Your thoughts may be working against you. Remember what we said at the beginning: own your pain.  One way to do that is to question your old beliefs about pain.  You may find yourself saying, “This will never get any better.” “My pain makes me a bad mom.” “I should be able to muscle through this.” “If I can’t work, I can’t ever let myself do something fun—that would be too indulgent.”  

Shine a bright light on your beliefs and ask if they’re really working for you.  Chances are, you’ll find some duds.  Re-calibrate: “I can have an impact on my pain.” “I face more challenges than the average mom, but I’m not bad, plus I set a good example by trying hard.” “I don’t have to power through; I’ll outsmart my pain by pacing.” “Even if I can’t work, doing fun things gives me the energy to keep fighting my pain.”

To wrap up, know you’re not alone: 42 million Americans’ sleep is disturbed by pain more than once a week, 26 million Americans suffer from frequent back pain, and $600 billion dollars annually are either spent by the health care system on chronic pain or lost due to decreased productivity and disability.

In short, if you’re in pain, you’re in good company. And it’s not all in your head. Well, okay, unless it’s a headache, but you get the picture.

Weigh in on how you manage chronic page on the Savvy Psychologist's Facebook page.


Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education, Institute of Medicine.  (2011).  Relieving Pain in America, A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education and Research. The National Academies Press.  http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13172&page=1.

National Sleep Foundation.  (2000).  Sleep in America.  (http://www.sleepfoundation.org)

National Centers for Health Statistics.  (2006).  Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans 2006, Special Feature: Pain. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus06.pdf.

Chronic pain image courtesy of Shutterstock


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

You May Also Like...