I’m in pain, so why is my doctor suggesting a psychologist?

Pain makes us human. It is a bell, fine-tuned by evolution, that often rings in moments necessary for our survival. Because of pain, we can receive warnings that trigger the reflexes to escape potential danger.

But what happens when that bell continues to ring? How do we respond to a signal when it interferes with the other elements that make us human?

Pain that lasts longer than six months is considered chronic, and it may not go away. With chronic pain, the bell’s ongoing signal gets your nervous system wound up and increases its reactivity to incoming messages. This can be quite distressing and anxiety-provoking. Additionally, the feelings of frustration or sadness when pain doesn’t go away can make pain worse.

What’s the link between emotion and my perception of pain?

Pain, depression, and anxiety travel through similar pathways along your nervous system and share many of the same biological mechanisms. One of the areas in the brain that receives pain signals — specifically, the limbic region — shares many of the same messengers as the mood signals. We know from research studies using neuroimaging that the parts of the brain controlling emotion and sensory features of pain are altered in people with chronic pain.

The connection between pain and emotion can also be seen with certain classes of medications. For example, some medications used to treat pain can cause side effects like euphoria, and medications originally developed for psychiatric conditions can be effective treatments for certain types of pain.

The medical community has come to appreciate a direct correlation between improvement in one’s emotional well-being and their experience of pain (and vice versa). Chronic pain increases the risk of depression and anxiety, and depression and anxiety strongly predict the development of chronic pain. This association is seen in conditions like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome, where behavioral and psychological treatment strategies have shown benefit in reducing symptoms.

What can a psychologist help me address?

  • Pain catastrophizing: This is when you magnify the negative effects of pain and focus on feelings of helplessness while ruminating about the presence of pain in your life. Negative thoughts and beliefs about pain often lead to worsened emotional and social functioning and a decreased response to medical interventions for pain.
  • Fear of pain: Concern or worry about an injury drives avoidant or protective behaviors. The anticipation of an increased sensation of pain may limit you from engaging in physical activity or attending social outings. Pain-avoidant behaviors can lead to physical deconditioning and further decreased quality of life.
  • Pain acceptance: This is a challenging, but highly effective technique focused on developing an accepting attitude towards the pain. It involves doing your best to nonjudgmentally acknowledge the presence of pain and minimize unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that won’t make pain better.
  • Trauma: The link between prior trauma and chronic pain is becoming better understood. Psychological therapies can address ongoing physical and emotional stress responses linked to traumatic experiences.

What type of therapies help with chronic pain?

There are multiple psychotherapeutic treatment options commonly used to help people manage chronic pain. Practicing meditation and becoming as active as possible have been shown to be effective methods that can be done on your own. Mental health professionals who specialize in working with people in pain can guide you with additional evidence-based treatments:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): talk therapy that helps to change your thoughts and behaviors related to pain and improve coping strategies. You can learn CBT techniques with a psychologist or as part of a therapeutic group, which may also provide a support network.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): a form of mediation where you learn to nonjudgmentally become aware of your thoughts and feelings and accept pain and other uncomfortable sensations as neither positive nor negative.
  • Hypnosis for pain (hypno-analgesia): a set of techniques intended to modify your thoughts, feelings and behaviors via subconscious suggestions aimed at altering your experience of pain. Hypno-analgesia differs from CBT, which is a conscious recognition of your emotions related to pain and a more self-directed, action-oriented approach.
  • Biofeedback: a technique where your body functions such as heart rate, muscle tension, and skin temperature are monitored to make you aware of your involuntary responses to stress. During biofeedback sessions you learn a variety of ways to control your physical reactions to stress and anxiety.

Where can you find help to manage the emotional aspects of pain?

It is always recommended that you have a primary care physician coordinating your care, and you doctor may be able to provide you with a referral to a pain specialist or psychologist. It is worth finding out what mental health services your health insurance covers as you navigate this process.

Additional resources for finding specialists in your area:

American Chronic Pain Association


American Pain Society


Will my pain ever go away?

This question is surely at the top of every person’s mind if they are in pain. The difficulty in answering this stems from the variety and types of chronic pain syndromes, as well as individual variability. What has been shown to make a difference in people managing chronic pain is trying a variety of approaches, such as cognitive and behavioral techniques, staying active, practicing meditation, and working with your doctor to find effective medical and procedural interventions. The more of these interventions you try, the more likely you will find something that makes a positive impact.

The challenges of coping with a chronic pain condition cannot be understated. The negative emotions that come from it can be self-perpetuating, as one’s feelings of pain can lead to depression, and that very depression can lead to worsening pain. In coping with this cycle, the goal is to take whatever steps are possible to continue to lead a fulfilling life, including getting emotional and social support.

Our understanding of pain continues to evolve, and with it may come improved personalized treatments and better understanding of chronic pain’s influence on the bodyand mind.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; For it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Psalm 90:10 (NKJV)

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 NIV 

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31 NIV 

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26 NIV 

I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:13 NIV

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Isaiah 40:29 NIV

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV 

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7 NIV 

But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 2 Thessalonians 3:3 NIV 

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. 1 Chronicles 16:11 NIV 

I love you, Lord, my strength.  The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Psalm 18:1-2 NIV 

But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble. Psalm 59:16 NIV 

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13 NIV 

Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you. Jeremiah 32:17 NIV

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. Habakkuk 3:19 NIV 

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 | NIV

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