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!
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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
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Edited by Viveca Shearin