Our Unconscious Thoughts Can Make Our Pain Worse — Here’s How to Fight Back

Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash

In the film, The Matrix, characters can do amazing things with just their minds: flying, stopping bullets, and much more. Everyone would like the ability to change the world with thoughts alone, and anyone dealing with chronic pain would love it if our minds could make pain disappear like clouds on a sunny day.

Of course we don’t live in The Matrix, and we can’t just snap our fingers and have pain disappear. Chronic pain is extremely complicated, and it won’t disappear on a dime just because we asked it to (yes, even if we ask nicely!).

But our thoughts and emotions do affect our physical bodies and our pain. Think of how elite athletes use mental techniques like positive self-talk or visualization to keep their bodies performing at peak condition; similarly, paying close attention to our thoughts can help us better manage chronic pain in our bodies.

Negative thoughts and emotions can make our pain feel worse. For most people with pain, this isn’t too surprising: most of us have experienced a time when our pain goes up when we’re angry or upset. This helps to explain why depression can make chronic pain worse. This also explains why pain can fade when we’re happy, or why something as simple as the touch of a loved one can decrease the feeling of pain.

So how do we use this knowledge? As much as we’d like to, we can’t fully control our thoughts (if you’ve ever had a really annoying song stuck in your head, you know exactly what I mean). Still, sometimes we come to conclusions that we know are incorrect after a closer look. These incorrect conclusions, sometimes called “cognitive errors”, can make pain worse. But that also means that if we notice these errors, we can identify them and correct them. For example, say you’re in knee pain and you automatically think:

“This knee pain is never going to get better, and I’ll live the rest of my life unable to walk or do any of the things I love.”

Is that actually true? Does knee pain mean that you’ll no longer walk again, or that you can no longer do any of the things you love? In most cases, some or all of that is an exaggeration. Instead, consider what aspect of the thought is untrue, and how you can restate the same basic situation in a more positive way.  For example:

“This knee pain is bad now, but I know that I’ve had flare-ups in the past, and those have faded eventually.”

Or:

“This knee pain does mean I can’t play soccer anymore, but I can still coach my child’s soccer team, which I really enjoy doing.”

Studies show that practicing this skill of reframing negative thoughts can actually change the physical structure of the brain and help to reduce the pain you experience. It may not make the pain go away altogether, but it can decrease how much the pain affects your life and make it easier to participate in activities in relationships you find meaningful.

Looking back, have you ever found yourself making “cognitive errors” that could be increasing your pain? How can you turn those negative thoughts into more positive ones? Please share in the comments!


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