Chronic Pain and Mental Health: How To Be Okay When Things Don’t Feel Okay

chronic pain and mental health
Dr. Gary McClain
Written by
Dr. Gary McClain Mental Health

Terry woke up with kind of a vague feeling that something wasn’t quite right.  Her pain was basically under control, so it wasn’t exactly a chronic pain thing.  But life just felt hard.  Her medication regimen.  The uncertainty of her pain levels from day to day.  The pressures of work and motherhood.  Nothing specific.  Maybe just everything. She was struggling with the pressures of chronic pain and mental health. 

She’s had days like this before.  And they sure are difficult to go through.  Her energy felt lower.  And so did her mood.  She wasn’t experiencing pain at the level that she and her doctor might label as breakthrough, but still, she wasn’t feeling all that great either. 

Terry didn’t feel like she needed to raise any alarms with her doctor.  But still…   

In a way, Terry wondered if it wasn’t almost worse to feel just generally out of sorts than experiencing definite pain or the effects of the medications she was on.  Why?  Because she knew from experience that on days when she was a little off kilter, and without a clear reason why, her mind tended to go to dark places. 

“It’s not like you’re sick,” she told herself.  “You can still do the basics today, even go to work.”  But she couldn’t help but also ask herself: “Is there something going on with me?  Do I have a something else going on medically?”  And finally: “Is my body about to start failing me?” 

It wasn’t like Terry hadn’t talked to her doctor about the potential of having days when she wasn’t feeling at her best.  She had even told Terry about what symptoms to contact her about. 

Terry knows how important it is to stay optimistic.  So she couldn’t help but feel concerned about herself – her health, her emotions, her outlook. 

How about you?  Do you have days when you aren’t quite feeling yourself and can’t help but feel alarmed that your health might be headed south?  Scary, right?

Rational Mind is Your First Defense on Those Days When You’re Not Feeling Your Best

Here’s some help in coping on those days: 

  • Give yourself a pep talk. The last thing you need to do is to fall into self-criticism. Instead, be kind to yourself by talking back to any negative self-talk with words of encouragement. Remind yourself that you’ve had not-so-great days before. That you’re doing what you need to do to take care of yourself. And you’ve got a healthcare team you trust backing you up. A good pep talk can help keep your mind from wandering into darker territory.
  • Avoid catastrophizing. Use your self-talk to help keep your perspective on the big picture. Remind yourself that a day when you don’t feel at your best is just that: It’s a day when you don’t feel at your best. Nothing more. Don’t turn it into a catastrophe by giving it meaning it doesn’t need to have. Engage your rational mind.
  • Remember: Normal is a moving target. You can waver from feeling your absolute best self and still be at what, for you, is your range of what’s normal. Most likely, if you haven’t already discovered this, you will over time as you learn to live with your chronic pain and mental health. As you do, you will be more able to take a day like this in stride.
  • Talk it out. One of the best ways to regain your perspective, and stay focused on the big picture, is by talking things out with someone you trust, someone who can listen without judging you or telling you what to do. Someone who knows you can help you sort out how you’re feeling, and remind you of some of those other days, when you felt more like yourself, or even when you didn’t feel so great but found a way to cope. A question: Is it time to consider reaching out to a mental health professional to learn some new coping skills? Don’t go through this alone!
  • Distract yourself. When you spend too much time focusing on what’s bothering you, you can end up magnifying it and making it feel bigger, or even come up with some other reasons to feel bad. That’s the pathway to catastrophizing. So try some positive distractions. Getting involved in your daily tasks. Doing something you enjoy or that relaxes you. Socializing.
  • Push forward, but not too hard. The message here is to stay involved in your life. That’s what I mean by pushing forward. But be careful about pushing so hard that you end up making yourself feel worse by tiring yourself out or bringing on pain symptoms that weren’t there before. Take things one step at a time. Rest when you need to. Be nice to yourself. This is not a day to be a hero, so also consider asking for help.
  • Listen for a message. Keep in mind that a day when you feel out of sorts may be the result of pushing yourself too hard the day before. Listen to your body. Is it trying to tell you something?
  • Trust your instinct. There is a difference between pushing through a day when you’re not at your best and denial of symptoms you need to pay attention to. You know your body. If your instinct tells you something is not quite right, then do what you need to. Including calling your doctor and letting them know what’s going on.

Not quite feeling yourself today?  Not feeling all that okay doesn’t mean you’re not okay. Chronic pain and mental health can often be at odds. Stay focused on the big picture.  Each day – a good day, a not so good day – is another opportunity to learn: How to listen to the messages your body sends you.  How to take your chronic pain in stride.   

Take good care of yourself.  Always.

Dr. Gary McClain
Written by
Dr. Gary McClain Mental Health

Dr. Gary McClain, PhD, is a psychotherapist, patient advocate, and author, specializing in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses, as well as their families and professional caregivers. He works with them to understand and cope with their emotions, to learn about their lifestyle and treatment options, to maintain compliance with medical regimens, to communicate effectively with the medical establishment, to communicate better with other family members, and to listen to their own inner voice as they make decisions about the future. He writes articles for healthcare publications and websites, facilitates discussions in social health communities, and conducts workshops on living with chronic conditions, Chronic Communication. Visit his blog for more on mental health at Connect with him on twitter @drgaryjgd 

This article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice from your physician or health provider for your specific needs.

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