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How to Cope With Chronic Pain and Depression: 4 Amazing Strategies

When I was at my lowest point of my life, I think I was  suffering from depression along with the chronic pain.

I couldn’t do anything or go anywhere.  Even my kids, who were very young at the time, were kept at an arm’s distance because the slightest touch to my left leg caused excruciating pain.

I desperately wanted to play with them or read a bedtime story as I tucked them into bed(like I did before my pain got really bad).

But I just wasn’t all there mentally or emotionally. I was done. Finished.

I know first hand that chronic pain and depression can be detrimental to your mental health.

In this post, I’ll talk about the relationship between the two and provide 4 effective strategies to help you if you’re struggling.

chronic pain and depression

Can chronic pain be caused by depression? 

Physical symptoms of depression

The short answer is yes. But the biological connection between physical pain and depression goes much deeper than one having a cause and effect on the other.

Many studies have been conducted on the relationship between chronic pain and depression but further research is required because both are complex issues in their own right.

Physical symptoms are common in major depression and may lead to chronic pain which can complicate treatment.

Major depression is often associated with painful physical symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Backache
  • Stomach ache
  • Joint ache

Pain and depression share the same neurochemical pathway in the brain so they both need to be treated together in order to achieve remission.

How does chronic pain affect mental health?

My left hip pain was really bad. Bad as in Thor taking his hammer and hittin’ the crap out of it. I took a leave of absence from work and I was housebound.

On top of that, I was relegated to using a walker in my home and I was very sad and lonely.

Here are a few ways chronic pain can affect someone’s life: 

Depression

When a person is experiencing long term chronic pain, it can lead to a few of the following:

  • Loss of interest
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Self isolation
  • Low self worth
  • Sleep interruption

Anxiety

Chronic pain causes many people to worry. You worry about how you’ll get out of bed, you worry about how the heck you’re going to bathe your kids never mind drag yourself into the shower. It’s a consistent worry.

You become fearful that the pain will never leave, you begin to second guess yourself and wonder if you’re overreacting. 

Insomnia 

Chronic pain  and insomnia can go hand in hand but insomnia can be experienced independently too.

Sleeping is so important to function well at work, in your relationships and with your concentration. It’s critical to get at least 7 hours each night. But getting a good night’s rest while in chronic pain is very difficult because chronic pain interferes with the chemicals in your brain required for sleep.

Fatigue

Fatigue and being tired are two different animals. When you’re tired, you lie down, take a nap and wake up refreshed. But it doesn’t work this way if you’re chronically fatigued.

Resting doesn’t usually help and may even make your fatigue worse. The simplest things such as going up and down the stairs can leave you exhausted

How do you mentally deal with chronic pain?

Strategy # 1: Exercising and being active

Every morning, I take my dog out for a walk because not only does she need to get out, I do too. When you don’t exercise,  your joints stiffen and become worse over time. 

Of course, you should always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. It should be tailored to your fitness level and be the right program for you.

A gym membership is not necessary because  you can workout from home in your living room. Besides, we’re in lockdown mode, so take advantage of Youtube for workout inspiration.

I love working out with Heather Robertson at home because her workouts get my heart rate up and I love the music.

Strategy #2: Learn to Relax

When you’re under a ton of stress, it places tension on your muscles. Your body gets tight, rigid and pain increases. Learning to relax your body can help control your chronic pain (and also help with depression).

Some of the activities you can engage in to help you relax are:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Walking in nature

Strategy #3: Seek Support

Chronic pain is a global epidemic and you may be surprised to know that someone close to you may also be experiencing chronic pain or suffered from it at some point in their lives.

Research shows that becoming involved in a support group is beneficial because you’re sharing your stories with others. They’ll most likely be sympathetic because they’re living their lives in pain too.

Strategy #4: Develop coping skills

Understanding chronic pain

Oftentimes, when someone receives a diagnosis, the first thing they do is get on Google and research about it. The seek answers to the following questions:

  • What exactly is this condition?
  • How do I cure it? 

Then they may ask families and friends for advice on how best to treat their pain. 

Sometimes the advice is good and sometimes not.

And in an effort to decrease the pain, a person just stops moving and the pain actually can become worse.

It’s important to understand that chronic pain isn’t going to get any better if left untreated. 

A medical professional or health coach can educate and provide a plan to help with managing chronic pain. 

What does chronic pain do to a person?

tired girl on a train

Effects of Chronic Pain on the Body

Deconditioning

When my chronic pain was through the roof, I didn’t want anyone near me. I was afraid of the slightest touch because I wanted to avoid even more pain.  What I was experiencing was fear avoidance (avoiding activity due to fear of worsening pain) which results in deconditioning.

Deconditioning occurs when the body loses strength and becomes weak because muscles are not being used from neglect.

If pain is experienced in one area, a person has the tendency to favor that part of the body and will take weight off of it in the hope to decrease pain.

But deconditioning leads to compensation. When compensation occurs, the rest of the body tries to make up for what the other body part is not doing. This results in overworked muscles and joints and pain in other parts of the body that was originally pain free.

Hormonal Effects

Our hormones are responsible for controlling many things like sleep, mood and metabolism. The endocrine system is affected by people living in chronic pain which can disturb biological processes.

Can chronic pain make you crazy?

If you live in chronic pain, and live with the psychological effects, please know that you’re not going crazy.

Pain can make you anxious, depressed, produce mood swings, impair your cognition and put your emotions on a roller coaster ride. Your body believes it’s under some form of continued stress so this perception causes a chemical imbalance in your brain.

Can chronic pain change your personality?

Pain and the stress response

Pain is a survival signal to your brain to fight or take flight.  This signal triggers your brain chemistry to change and release hormones so you can take on the challenge you face. 

Your heart rate gets faster and blood flow increases to your muscles. When the threat is no longer present, your body slowly starts to return to normal.

But with chronic pain, your body doesn’t return to a normal level and continues to experience a state of stress resulting in real psychological changes.

Chronic pain and anxiety

Your first natural instinct is to escape pain but this isn’t always possible when you’re living in chronic pain. Even if you get a break from the pain, you can become anxious because you fear it’s going to come back.

What are the emotional consequences of unrelieved pain?

When someone is suffering with daily chronic pain, it can destroy many areas of his or her life. 

In my case, my pain began gradually with a dull ache in my left hip. But over time, the pain gradually got worse becoming chronic and I needed to take strong medication to dull it.

Affects mood

Living in pain affects a person’s mood by causing them to be more receptive to emotional changes resulting in fear or anxiety. Some mood disorders can create a dependency on prescription drugs, such as opioids, to treat the pain.

Opioids can mask the feeling of pain by creating an euphoric high. But once the medication wears off, discomfort can come back and leave a person in a hard cycle to break free from.

Affects relationships

Chronic pain is physically challenging and a constant emotional and mental battle. 

You can become less patient with people and have a diminished capacity to empathize. The result of which can lead to self-isolation and no desire to be socially active.

If you have children, the pain can also interfere with raising them and being active in their lives.

What chronic pain does to your brain

Effects of Chronic Pain on the Brain

desk with a pink chair

Memory and cognitive effects

Did you know some people suffering from long-term, untreated chronic pain experience impaired memory and attention span? Long-term chronic pain changes the structure of the brain, reduces grey matter, and causes functional changes.

A person can also experience problems with their memory leading to problems with decision making. Additionally, if chronic pain is left untreated over a long period of time, it can lead to an increased risk of dementia.

Sense of self and confidence

Chronic pain can cause a hate relationship to develop with your body. You may become frustrated and upset that “it has let you down” and you mourn the loss of all of the activities you once took for granted.

Additionally, the activities you could do so easily are now difficult so you need to ask for assistance leaving you with a low level of confidence.

Final thoughts

Chronic pain and depression are both debilitating conditions to someone’s way of life because both can wreak havoc on relationships, our brains, and our bodies.

But there is hope.

Being active with exercise, learning to relax, seeking support and developing coping skills can help you if you’re struggling. 

You may be fearful of taking that first step to getting help. But find the courage and seek help.

Because the cost of not doing so is too great.

Do you need help and support with managing your chronic pain? Contact me to learn about my pain management coaching program.

Related: How to Use Meditation to Melt Your Pain Away

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