Part of the definition of pain is that it is “a sensory and emotional experience” – in other words, emotions of the negative kind are integral to the experience of pain. Is it any wonder that poets and authors have written so eloquently about the anguish of unrelieved pain? As I write this, I’ve been pondering the way “psychosocial” has been used when discussing pain, as if those factors aren’t experienced by “normal” people, as if the way we feel about pain and the way people who struggle with their pain feel are two entirely different things.
Chris Eccleston, someone I admire very much, writes about a “normal psychology of chronic pain” and makes some incredibly useful points: that pain is a normal feature of human life. Pain is an everyday occurrence (watch kids playing in a playground – every 20 minutes kids communicate about pain, Fearon et al, 1996). In New Zealand one in five people report experiencing pain lasting six months or longer. Pain really is all around us – and it’s normal and indeed part of the experience itself, to feel negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, and such when we’re sore.
So why have emotions been lumped in with “other factors” as part of the negative way psychosocial factors are interpreted today? I personally think it’s partly a hangover, in NZ at least, from the way our stoic forebears viewed “weakness”. There wouldn’t be many families in New Zealand who haven’t heard something like “man up”, or “big boys don’t cry”, or “pull yourself together” with great All Blacks who played on despite broken ribs or arms – who didn’t give in when they were injured being held up as examples we should emulate. At the same time pain isn’t given much space in our health professional training programmes – and when it is, it’s primarily viewed in a neuroanatomical way, as we’re taught about spino-thalamic tracts, and nociceptors, and not much else. In fact, I think the gate control theory is still being taught as the main theory in some programmes (despite it being revised and replaced with more sophisticated models).
So what is normal? I really like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as you’ve possibly noticed. Amongst one of the many reasons I like it so much is its view of suffering. Within ACT, being psychologically inflexible is the problem – that is, working hard to avoid or control experiences we don’t want, getting caught up in thoughts as if they’re Truth instead of our mind’s opinion of things, being attached to someone’s idea of who and what we are, living in the past or predicting the future, and failing as a result to take actions that line up with what our personal values are. When we get stuck thinking there’s only one way to deal with a situation, and when we forget about what’s important in our lives because we’re working so hard to avoid certain experiences – these aren’t seen as pathological, but instead are just part of the way our mind/language and experience tangle us up. The beauty is that there are ways out of being stuck but they’re counter-intuitive.
What do I mean? Well if we all have negative emotions about pain, why do only some of us struggle with that experience and get stuck? For some people it’s because they’re trying so hard not to feel pain that they spend time and energy doing things to control it and in the process stop doing things that matter. Think of the many appointments and the ups and downs of hope that it will all go away with this magic thing – then despair as it doesn’t work. Just the amount of time people spend waiting for and attending appointments can take time away from being with family, working, living…Now to me, this is not psychopathology. This is what normal minds do – try to fix a problem using strategies that have always worked in the past.
At the same time, given pain is a negative experience, doesn’t it make sense to monitor what went on last time you tried to lift that box, go to work, drive the car… AND doesn’t it make sense to anticipate what might go wrong if you try it again? This isn’t about being depressed, anxious or any other kind of pathology – this is just what we’ve learned to do, and our minds are trying incredibly hard to make it work again.
When I mentioned that a solution might be counter-intuitive, what I mean is recognising that trying to control or avoid an experience that comes with us wherever we go because it’s part of us, can trip us up. Instead, we might do better if we soften our attempts to control or avoid our experience of pain. Maybe spending time exploring pain and doing things alongside pain is possible – especially if the things we want to do are important to us. Don’t believe me? Think about marathon runners – they feel the pain (hit the wall) and still keep running! Why? Because it’s important to them to get to the end.
Now I’m not suggesting that ALL people will find this approach helpful, and I’m NOT denying that many people with persistent pain experience depression, anxiety, rotten sleep and generally feel demoralised. What I AM saying is that if we approach everyone with the misguided idea that psychosocial factors exist only in “those people”, we’re wrong. Any one of us will experience negative emotions if pain is present – and even more if pain persists. This is a normal response to a challenging and inherently aversive experience. Of course, if we’ve experienced depression, adverse life events, turmoil in our home and work life, and the stigma of not being believed, the potential to then become angry, depressed, and fed up is only greater. Let’s not make a negative experience worse by stigmatising people with the notion that “psychosocial factors” makes them any different from anyone else.
Eccleston, C. (2011). A normal psychology of chronic pain. Psychologist, 24(6), 422-425.
Fearon, I., McGrath, P.J., Achat, H. (1996). ‘Booboos’: The study of everyday pain among young children. Pain, 68, 55-62.
Vowles, K. E., Witkiewitz, K., Levell, J., Sowden, G., & Ashworth, J. (2017). Are reductions in pain intensity and pain-related distress necessary? An analysis of within-treatment change trajectories in relation to improved functioning following interdisciplinary acceptance and commitment therapy for adults with chronic pain. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 85(2), 87.