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Cry Love Learned

Is Your Chronic Pain Changing You?

If you suffer from chronic pain, whether it’s back pain, migraines or arthritis, then you know it doesn’t just place additional physical demands on your body. It changes how you feel and behave. Your loved ones may tell you that you’re becoming short and snappy with them. You may lose interest in activities you used to like, and you start to spend more time alone. 

Beyond an altered mood, there are many things in your life that suffer because of the pain you endure day in and day out. Here are five ways in which chronic pain changes you:

1. It lowers your patience threshold

When pain is a part of your daily life, acting as an invisible hurdle you must jump over before you can face the day, a big portion of your patience reserves are already used up. You have to make do with what little is left over to tackle everything else you may encounter. With a lowered tolerance threshold, small inconveniences can seem like big problems. You find yourself snapping at people, and feeling irritated at the slightest sign of trouble. 

Some organization and planning may help you ward off potential problems that could set you off. That way, there are fewer surprises and you are better prepared to face issues that do arise. Communicating your frustrations with loved ones could also help you feel understood, and reduces the chance that your outbursts could be taken personally.

2. It increases your risk of developing depression and/or anxiety 

Chronic pain that is unremitting and changes your quality of life can significantly impact your mental health. This effect is worsened when you lack social support, have low coping resources, and have trouble functioning. Loss of independence and unemployment in particular put you at a greater risk of developing depression. 

What’s more, you may find yourself stuck in a frustrating loop, where physical pain leaves you feeling helpless and demoralized. This can result in a bad mood which increases your experience and perception of pain. Sometimes, the psychological distress caused by pain can override the pain itself and become the primary health condition. This is why it is important to address any negative feelings you have associated with your condition.

Research shows that adopting a more active coping style, where you seek social support and confront the pain, is associated with less disability and depression. Whereas passive coping, which involves you giving up social activities and relying solely on medications and health professionals to ease the pain, is associated with worse pain, depression and overall disability. 

3. It literally changes your brain

Research suggests that the lasting mood disturbances induced by chronic pain not only affect outward behavior, but produce measurable physiological changes in the brain. What’s more distressing is that these changes themselves could lead to further emotional and cognitive impairment. 

Several studies over the years have found that chronic pain could result in reduced brain volume. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that each year of chronic pain causes a 0.2% shrinkage in your brain’s neocortical gray matter. Among the areas affected by this are the hippocampus, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and brainstem. Changes in these regions could lead to problems in emotional regulation, formation of new memories, abstract reasoning and planning – just to name a few.

Another study in the Journal of Neuroscience (2011) found that while reduced gray matter in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex did not prevent chronic pain sufferers from completing tasks, it changed how their brains reacted to a challenge. When compared with normal subjects, it appeared as though they had to use more areas of their brain to complete the same task. This suggests that pain makes it more difficult to process information and solve problems. 

It’s no surprise then that 67% of people with chronic pain report having impaired memory, and a good majority of sufferers seem to have reduced attention and slower reaction time. 

4. It reduces your ability to be productive

Being in some form of physical pain will obviously make daily tasks more cumbersome to complete, as your energy levels are sapped by whatever ails you. Your changing brain’s various impairments also do nothing to help the matter. 

But sometimes even if the pain itself is not standing in the way of you accomplishing your tasks, the way you think of the pain and its influence on your life can make you less interested in working or doing anything. This goes back to how appraisals of pain alone can lead to feelings of helplessness and depressed mood. 

5. It affects your relationships

When pain continues to interfere with many areas of your life, it will inevitably put a strain on your relationships too. 

By creating limitations and demanding adjustments, chronic pain can dramatically change the dynamics of your relationships. You may find that you have trouble connecting with others on a deep level. As a result, your relationships may be further complicated by feelings of guilt, loneliness or uncertainty.

The struggle is made all the more difficult when your pain is “invisible,” where the health issue causing you pain cannot be easily seen by others. You begin to feel lonely and misunderstood. This mental isolation may cause you to harbor resentment, which only helps keep you estranged from those around you. 

An important part of your pain-management plan should involve constructing an effective communication channel with family and loved ones. This way, your needs and their own are addressed, and miscommunications aren’t given the chance to strain the relationship.  

Additionally, it may be helpful to seek the support and council of others who suffer from the same pain you do. This can dramatically improve coping, and the benefits of this can spill over into your other relationships. 

Do you suffer from chronic pain? Do you feel like your pain has changed you in any way? Let us know in the comments below!

References 

Poppy, B (2016). How Pain Can Seriously Affect Your Brain. Retrieved from http://www.painphysicians.com/blog/how-pain-can-seriously-affect-your-brain

Dueñas, M., Ojeda, B., Salazar, A., Mico, J. A., & Failde, I. (2016). A review of chronic pain impact on patients, their social environment and the health care system. Journal of Pain Research, 9, 457–467. http://doi.org/10.2147/JPR.S105892

Tidy, C (2014). Chronic Pain. Retrieved from https://patient.info/doctor/chronic-pain#ref-4

Libbey, J. (2017). How Chronic Pain Affects Your Brain. Retrieved from https://www.algonealaska.com/blog/how-chronic-pain-affects-your-brain

Psychological Effects of Chronic Pain. Retrieved from https://www.painmanagement.org.au/2014-09-11-13-35-53/2014-09-11-13-36-47/178-psychological-effects-of-pain.html

Jr, D. T. (2013). How Chronic Pain Affects Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.everydayhealth.com/pain-management/how-chronic-pain-affects-relationships.aspx

 

 

Edited by Viveca Shearin

6 Comments

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  1. Hi, I have chronic pain, have had it for 3-4 years now and honestly reading this and also reading articles in general about chronic pain just sorta makes me feel worse about myself and capabilities. I know this is probably nit what your intent was but, that’s just my reaction.
    I really love the stuff you guys make and put out there, so I wanted to give an opinion. Hope you don’t take offence to this. 🙂

    • Hi Eilidh! None taken, I appreciate your honesty!

      I am really sorry to hear that you have chronic pain and that reading about it hasn’t been encouraging. Coming from someone who also suffers from chronic pain, I know how demoralizing it can be. But this is why I wrote this piece and included tips under each section; I did it to underscore the importance of garnering support. How you judge the pain in your mind can have a significant impact on how you feel generally. It is very important that you seek support, whether from family or a health professional, to help you reframe the pain and its influence on your life. It also helps to think that things could always be worse.

      I know in some moments, nothing anybody says makes any difference. But I have found that in the darkest moments, we truly get to know who we are and how strong we can be. Suffering can bring out parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed!

      Fianlly, my advice to you is to reach out to other people who suffer from the same kind of pain- they will understand what you are going through perfectly, and simply sharing stories can be a great relief.

      Best,
      Einas

  2. Had chronic pain since I was 12. It has changed me and made me very depressed and suicidal. People don’t care at all especially if your black and obese. They make it worse because it’s a game to them. I’m not social in anyway shape or form. I reach out for help, I get cussed out and forced to leave. Thanks for reading my mess.

    • Hi Arthur,

      Thank you for your comment. I am very sorry to hear you’ve been suffering and haven’t found support. I can’t say I know exactly how you feel, but perhaps knowing that I wrote this article because of my own experience with chronic pain will bring you some measure of comfort. I know how lonely and isolating it can be, especially when people don’t understand the kind of pain you’re experiencing. But it helps to think there are others out there who do know how we feel; we aren’t truly alone. We are all fighting our own battles, and whether or not we succeed is irrelevant. Our constant effort and willingness to continue fighting despite the difficulties we’re facing is what truly matters. You are a much stronger person because of what you have endured.

      I hope you find relief and/or better ways to cope with your pain. I am sorry this has been so difficult for you.

      Best,
      Einas

  3. Hi!
    I’ve lived with chronic back pain for 6years now (I was eleven when it began) and it’s only getting worse.
    One year after it started, I started being depressive, suicidal and I developped social anxiety.
    This article helped me to get a better understanding of the changes I’ve noticed since it started. As my family is still not understanding (and not even trying to be), this helped me to feel validated.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Hi Noémie!

      Thanks a lot for your feedback; I’m very happy to hear this resonated with you and helped you feel less alone! I hope you get relief from your pain and find effective coping strategies to help you overcome its effects.

      Best,
      Einas

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Written by Einas Salamin

I am a Palestinian freelance writer with a great passion for psychology! I graduated from the American University of Sharjah with a BA in journalism, and hope to continue my studies in the field of psychology.

I have always loved writing and telling stories, and being curious is definitely in my DNA. I am always searching for answers to the many psychological and behavioral phenomena we are affected by in our daily lives, and telling others about my findings is something I enjoy immensely.

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