Living with chronic pain isn’t easy. You may have heard the expression “pain makes you feel alive”. I’m sure those of us living with it must be feeling incredibly alive right now! It is a physical experience and often one you can’t escape from, but it’s also an emotional journey that can affect our mental health and wellbeing.
Every individual has their own unique experience of pain, so any points discussed here are generalised and may or may not apply to different people. With that in mind, here’s a look at just a few of the ways in which the incessant nature of chronic pain can impact mental health.
Disheartenment From A Hopeless Situation
Chronic pain, by definition, is ongoing over a long period of time. For some people, their pain is constant and relentless, with not even a minute’s break because it is present every second of every day. For others, it may come and go, or intensity levels may fluctuate over time. Either way, it’s a prolonged experience with no end date.
Stubbing your toe or cutting your finger might elicit a loud swear word and instant pain for a minute or two, but it subsides pretty quickly. Some acute injuries and broken bones may be more intense in pain level and last over days, weeks or even months, but those too will typically heal and the pain will relent.
Imagine chronic pain that’s an ongoing deal. You can’t tell yourself that it’ll all be over soon. You don’t know if or when you may or may not get a temporary break from it, let alone for it to disappear entirely. There is no “get well soon”.
With this never-ending nightmare can come a sense of hopelessness. If you’ve tried various products, lifestyle changes and medications without them helping much, that too feels disheartening. If you’re searching for answers for an elusive cause of your pain, as many people do, that can feel hopeless. If your pain continues to get worse, the future can feel very unsteady and unsettling. It’s no wonder many chronic pain patients experience depression, both from the nature of pain and the changes in lifestyle, and the impact on your physiology and neurological functionality.
Chronic Pain Can Irritate
The incessant, aggravating nature of pain, whether it’s a dull ache, burning, a throb, or a stab, can needle away at you. It makes us stressed, tense, angry and antsy. The pain in my hips can be almost like an itch deep inside the joint, then it feels like it’s on fire and it’s so hideous with no way of stopping it that it starts to drive me up the wall.
It’s debilitating and it’s only one element that’s experienced alongside other pain, like being slammed with chronic migraines or feeling shattered by fibromyalgia pain. It can all really get under my skin and make me irritable at the best of times, an angry ogre at the worst. Sometimes you want to scream because you just want it to stop, just for a minute. Sometimes you want to be greedy and have a whole day free from it, but you can’t.
Sometimes, when I’m going around the supermarket, I want to just sit in the middle of the floor and have a screaming, snotty toddler tantrum because my hips are on fire and every inch of me hurts. But we adults can’t seem to get away with doing that in the way a 3 year old can. No fair.
Some patients with chronic pain live with other conditions and often different types of pain, and each aspect adds up. There may also be elements of a chronic illness that contribute to the sense of irritation, like fatigue or hormone imbalance. What’s more, certain neurotransmitters and nerve pathways are shared by both chronic pain and depression, showing how intertwined mental health and pain can be on a neurobiological level.
Such things just make it all the more difficult when trying to stay zen in the face of unbelievably annoying pain, like someone repeatedly poking you over and over again. With a rusty knife. In the eyeball.
Frustrations With A Pain-Limited Life
Chronic pain, much like with chronic illness or any other disability, can alter the landscape of your life considerably. In some instances, this may curtail the life you had, leading you to lose work, friends, relationships or hobbies. It may then limit the activities you can do now, or you might have to change the way in which you do things to make them more manageable.
To admit that you can no longer live as you used to, do the things you want and need to do, or even be the person you once were, can be surprisingly difficult. I found myself being rather stubborn in this respect, desperately trying to cling on to my pre-pain life, the life I had prior to my first surgery in 2015 before my health really took a rapid nosedive.
I then didn’t want to outwardly show how much I was struggling. I didn’t want to make adaptions, buy a walking stick, use painkillers or anything else that would mean I was admitting things were bad and that I couldn’t cope. There was always part of me, for years, that kept thinking things were going to suddenly get better. They never did. They just got worse.
Coming to terms with the limitations or changes can take time. Acceptance is another beast entirely. Even if you get used to it, it doesn’t mean there won’t be times when it frustrates you or when you feel resentful for missing out, or annoyed with your body for not behaving as it used to.
Chronic Pain Is A Lonely Road
Pain and illness can be very isolating experiences. Pain is an invisible condition because it’s not immediately obvious to others what you’re experiencing. You may use a mobility aid or have a grimace on your scrunched-up face from pain, but nobody else is going to know what it is you’re feeling or what your life is like as a result.
Even those close to you may not “get it”, even if they want to try to understand and empathise. Those same people that genuinely care may end up feeling shut out because they can’t fully understand, especially if you perhaps can’t or don’t wish to talk about what exactly is going on.
There are sadly many patients who struggle to get the healthcare support they need. They can be fobbed off by doctors and disbelieved by specialists, strengthening this feeling of isolation.
When others don’t “get it”, you can also get the sense, be it true or not, that the person you’re with or talking to thinks you “look fine” and that your pain can’t be that bad. You might not want to talk to them about it for fear of them thinking you’re over-egging the pudding, so to speak, even when you’re not even coming close to explaining how bad it is. This can lead to you feeling self-conscious, even worthless, and all the more worried about what others think of you.
Add to that the way some people can lose friends, family and colleagues, and suddenly your life can feel smaller and emptier.
The online world, be it through blogs, Facebook groups or elsewhere, can be priceless in this respect as you’ll typically find a warm chronic pain community from all over the world ready to welcome you. They’ll “get” what it’s like and they’ll be there without judgement. It won’t be the same as offline relationships but it’ll fill a little of that void perhaps as you realise you’re not as alone as you may feel.
Pain Piques Anxiety & Deflates Self-Esteem
The aforementioned irritation from relentless pain can ratchet up anxiety. This may be further increased by any lifestyle adaptions you have to make, medication side-effects, chronic illness symptoms or hormone imbalances. It can also be heightened indirectly by knock-on problems you have to contend with as a result of your pain and health issues, like money worries from losing a job.
There’s a lot of stigma around illness, pain and disability when it comes to employment and benefits, so if you’re unable to work, you might lose confidence in your abilities and your usefulness. Another layer of guilt, depression and feeling worthless gets slapped on top.
With anxiety and stress comes mental and physical fatigue, which can impair your concentration, ability to think clearly or keep a level mood, and your ability to calm yourself. It can impact your self-esteem and affect those around you and your relationships, which leads to more anxiety. The more pain you get, the more knock-on problems crop up, the more isolated you feel, and the worse you feel about yourself.
You might find you’re less able or willing to look after yourself and invest in self-care, which only makes you feel worse. Your sleep and eating can suffer. You start to feel more shut-off from the world. That can lead full circle to heightened pain and the cycle continues.
Self-Doubt & Gaslighting
With such invisible illnesses and hidden disabilities come real or perceived scepticism from others. Unfortunately pain patients don’t always get the supportive response they should from friends and family. Many also hit a wall with medical professionals. They may doubt what you’re telling them. They may claim you’re too old, young, tall, short, or whatever else for there to be anything amiss with you. They may acknowledge your pain, but be uninformed about the underlying health condition if there is one, or they may be unsupportive of the medication you need.
It’s also possible for patients to experience gaslighting by some medical professionals, the same ones who’re employed to help, not hinder, their patients. This prevents those patients from getting the diagnostic tests, referrals, treatment and support they need, leaving them in a horrible, painful limbo.
After some time of fighting, feeling judged or receiving scepticism, you can start to doubt yourself. I have nerve damage from metal tacks in my back, and that causes the debilitating pain in my back and hips. I get other symptoms from nerve damage, as well as the all-over pain that earned me the fibromyalgia diagnosis. Even now, fibro itself still receives mixed reactions and disbelief from some specialists.
Whether it’s a well-known and better understood issue or not, patients can struggle to be heard and believed. I spent several years being fobbed off with bowel issues, and even now that I have a myriad of problems and somewhat better documented causes, it’s incredibly hard to find specialists who understand what I’m dealing with. It’s never easy to challenge confident scepticism from the medical professional you’re seeing when you need them for tests or treatment.
Give it enough time and you’ll start wondering whether it really is in your head, or whether perhaps it’s not as bad as you think and that you should put up with it and suffer quietly.
But you know your body better than anyone else. You know what it feels like and you know what you experience. Self-doubt and gaslighting are real dangers because such responses start to erode our mental wellbeing and self-belief. It may be over a course of months or years, but keep an eye on self-doubt because it needs to be addressed. Have confidence in your feelings and shore up your resources because your health is worth fighting for.
While I want everyone to remember that the chronic pain community has their back and that they should be confident in asserting themselves for the sake of their healthcare, this post isn’t designed as a pep talk. Nor is it supposed to be a pity-party.
It’s merely a look at the ways in which chronic pain can impact a person’s mental health, giving those on the outside a better understanding of it, and those living it a little comfort in knowing that others may also being going through what they are.
Related Reading :
- Why The So-Called Opioid Crisis Is Dangerous For Chronic Pain Patients
- Pain, Fog & Fatigue : The Reality Of Fibromyalgia Symptoms
- The Reality Of Living With Multiple Chronic Illnesses
- 10 Chronic Pain & Stress Distractions