There are a variety of ways in which chronic illness, chronic pain and other disability can detrimentally affect mental health. Chronic conditions affect everyone differently and no two experiences will be identical, but there are some commonalities that many may share. Here are just 5 ways chronic pain can impact mental health.
Chronic Pain & Mental Health : A Painful Relationship
Chronic pain is a physical experience, but it’s also a mental battle. It’s important to note the difference between acute pain that is short-lived and temporary, and chronic pain that is regular and ongoing for a prolonged period of time. Nobody wants to live with any time of pain for any duration, but chronic pain requires a different level of management and involves wider-ranging ramifications.
Mental health and physical health have a two way relationship, with each able to affect the other. The majority of people who report chronic pain will have genuine, physically-induced pain, whether there’s a definitive cause that can be tested for or not. A small minority may have pain that’s the result of mental health in some way.
Chronic pain comes in different shapes and sizes, from limited-time episodes that occur on a regular basis, to continuous pain that never ends. The level of pain and what it feels like will also vary, as will how each individual experiences it and handles it. Each person has a unique experience of living with pain. There are so many variables that affect the overall experience, meaning no two people should ever be compared in how they’re dealing with pain, nor is there any ‘right’ way to do so.
Living with pain can be an ongoing learning curve. Practice can be required for pacing their daily lives and activities, and trial and error is typically needed for finding ways to manage or treat pain. It can require a lot of patience and a good dose of hope to keep going.
Chronic pain can be so invasive that it splinters lives and causes cracks in our mental health. This can be through biology, hormones and neurological changes from pain and/or illness, or it could be a result of how hideous putting up with pain is, or it could be through the knock-on effects to our lives, relationships and work. Pain can hinder our abilities and put restrictions on what we can do. The stark contrast between how our lives used to be or could have been, compared to what they are now with chronic pain, can be incredibly hard to accept.
It’s perhaps no surprise that chronic pain can be so harmful to our mental health and wellbeing generally. For the friends, colleagues, partners and families of those with pain, having some grasp of the impact can be very helpful. For those with pain, it’s good to know you’re not alone in how you’re feeling because it’s par for the course with so many pain sufferers going through similar struggles.
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5 Detrimental Effects Of Chronic Pain On Mental Health
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1. Chronic Pain Can Make Us Agitated
Chronic pain is ongoing and continual. It’s not acute and temporary, so we can’t tell ourselves it’ll be over soon because it won’t. Chronic pain may be constant or it may wane, and the level of intensity can likewise change over time or flare up with certain triggers. I live with chronic pain from nerve damage which is the most debilitating, alongside chronic migraines, widespread inflammation and fibromyalgia. Pain is constant, every second of every day since my first surgery in 2015.
Not having a break from it means it is relentlessly insistent. It’s like someone poking you in the eye with a ballpoint pen, over and over again nonstop for years. It drives you mad. It makes you irritable, highly agitated, frustrated, annoyed, at your wit’s end. It can be all-consuming, but of course you still have things to do so you keep going. You keep doing the chores, attending appointments, doing the shopping. You can’t make the pain stop, you can only try to manage it and distract yourself however possible.
Related Reading : 10 Chronic Pain Distractions For Less Stress / How The Small Joys Become Big Things With Chronic Illness, Disability & Pain
2. It Makes Us Feel Unheard & Disbelieved
Chronic pain is, for the most part, an invisible condition. What does “sick” look like? What does being in pain look like? You may use a mobility aid or allow a grimace to flash across your face, but otherwise, it’s likely a person living with chronic pain will look “fine” and “normal”. They’re also likely to be well practiced and skilled at putting up with pain and getting on with things as best they can in public, trying to hide it and put on a smile to show the world a veneer. Underneath that is pain so intense and debilitating, with mental health that is cracking and creaking under the pressure.
Looking fine while living with an invisible illness or other hidden conditions means there are likely going to be instances where others don’t believe you or don’t take you seriously, whether that’s in your family, wider society or with medical professionals. For some, these instances are many and varied. When you need medical support, you’re forced to rely on medical professionals and you can only hope that they will be open-minded, aware of the implications of chronic pain, and compassionate. Unfortunately there’s still a lot of ignorance, stigma and judgement around chronic pain, just as there is around age and gender when it comes to illness. If you’re not being heard and believed by those who are there to care for you, it means you can’t get the healthcare support you need and that is both angering and heartbreaking.
Furthermore, those who need or are taking painkillers like opioids find themselves between a rock and a hard place. For many people, such medications are a last-ditch route; they don’t “get rid” of pain by a long shot, but they might just help to take the edge off it and keep us mobile and somewhat function to get through our days. We don’t want to be on them but we need them if we’re going to get the basics done, and yet many patients have to fight to keep these very treatments that are keeping them alive. There are misunderstandings and prejudice caused by the so-called “opioid crisis”, where opioid use by those without pain is confused and tallied alongside opioid use by those with chronic pain. They’re very different. When that difference isn’t acknowledged, it’s the chronic pain patients that suffer that ignorance.
Related Reading : Invisible Disabilities : How Docs, Patients & Public Can Help
3. Chronic Pain Can Be Lonely
It’s hard to find someone who truly wants to hear about our experiences, especially when we’re struggling, and we don’t want to feel like we’re moaning or being negative. It’s harder still to find someone who really understands. You can’t entirely “get’ what chronic pain is like in its full scope unless you’ve experienced it for yourself, but you can of course empathise and learn. Not having someone who “gets” it or wants to try to understand means you feel very much on your own.
Living with chronic illness may mean we can’t do the things we used to, and you might find you can’t socialise or keep the friendships and relationships you once did. Loss of those social contacts further isolates a person with chronic pain and makes loneliness feel all the more poignant.
When you feel that you’re missing out on things others are doing, or that you’re behind in life because your path is completely different as a result of your health, you can feel detached from your peers and the world at large.
When you’re around others who don’t live with a chronic condition, the difference between “you” and “them” becomes apparent. You might feel like you owe reasons, excuses or explanations for why you are the way you are, for the things you can’t do, or for the lifestyle you lead. Nobody should feel like they owe such explanations, but in such situations it can feel like that explanation is regularly needed. We might feel paranoid, perhaps rightly so in some cases, about what others think of us.
There’s also the issue of personal boundaries and how these can weaken or blur, leaving us more vulnerable. We can learn to be more independent, to feel more confident in ourself, to speak up for our needs, and to assert self-respecting boundaries.
We already feel bad enough about the situation, but many of us add the concern of what others are thinking and how they see us. We might worry they think we’re being melodramatic, that we’re frauds or that we’re lazy. There’s all the same ignorant insults our inner critics might throw at us. And so the sense of isolation deepens.
Related Reading : The Importance Of Personal Boundaries & How To Set Them / Who Should You Tell About Your Chronic Illness?
4. Chronic Pain & A Vicious Cycle Of Poor Sleep
When you think of going to bed and catching some Zzzs, you think of getting comfortable, snuggling up and calmly dozing off. With pain driving you up the wall and finding you can’t get comfortable in any position, it can be hard to get to sleep. Some may go through periods of insomnia (or “painsomnia“), much like I did for a number of years. Some may wake up regularly or not be able to get back to sleep.
There are different ways in which pain can mess up sleep patterns but the outcome is often the same. This can include too little sleep, too much sleep, broken sleep, waking too early, not getting back to sleep, nightmares, etc. Poor, disturbed sleep (too little or too much) leads to more exhaustion and more agitation, making it harder still to get to sleep the next time or function enough with the pain, putting a strain on our mental and physical health. Cognition, concentration and focus can suffer, and relationships can come under increased tension. and so the cycle continues continues as we start to fall behind on to-do lists, feel resentment at having no time for pacing or enjoyment, and wear ourselves even more ragged.
There’s no quick fix and for many people living with pain it’ll be a case of trying to go with the flow and get by as best you can. Pacing yourself during the day is important, as is looking after yourself and prioritising self-care. Getting a little better at managing the pain, having a nighttime routine, considering supplements like using relaxing CBD oil, and finding ways to get more comfortable when you’re in bed may help make sleep more appealing and successful.
Related Reading : 4 Things To Remember When Pacing For Chronic Illness, Fatigue Or Pain / 12 Products For Chronic Pain Relief & Management
5. Chronic Pain Can Lead To Or Worsen Anxiety & Depression
Chronic pain & mental health are intricately interwoven. Any chronic condition can be a catalyst for creating or worsening the likes of anxiety and depression. Pain already chips away at mental health day to day through its continual nature. A person with chronic pain can start to feel the weight of it on their shoulders and the sense of despair at not being able to reduce their pain enough, let alone get rid of it. The future can feel disheartening with no end to pain in sight. Research suggests that those living with chronic pain are 4x more likely to suffer with anxiety and depression than those without pain.
There’s increased stress and frustration having to continually fight for your health with medical professionals. If you’ve lost work through your condition, that’s another layer of guilt, financial pressure, feelings of loss, feelings of not being useful or good enough. Chronic conditions can lead to people losing many things in addition to work and career intentions, like friends and social life, family, hobbies, and their whole lifestyle. This is all on top of disturbed sleep, changes to appetite, feelings of loneliness and so on. It all adds up.
How many chronic pain patients are heard? How many can even get a smidge of the help they need for their mental health or with some of the issues adding undue stress? Not enough. Not nearly enough.
Related Reading : How Chronic Pain Can Impact Mental Health / Chronic Illness & Depression : 8 Trigger Points
If you live with chronic pain, in what ways has it affected your mental health?
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Hi Caz. I don’t know if you remember me, but we were communicating for a short while, sometime ago. I have Crohn’s disease, but not as severely as your IBD. I am constantly moved and inspired by your gumption, by your articles, by who I perceive you to be given what you share on Wordpress. Please feel free to reach out to me at any time. I would value the connection.
Wendy, don’t be silly, of course I remember you! We talked a lot and I always enjoyed your posts and your friendship. It’s good to hear from you 😁 Though I’m also thinking maybe things have been pretty tough for you with your own health. I’m not sure what email address you’d want me to use – perhaps you could either leave it in a comment and I’ll delete it afterwards, or just drop me an email any time you’d like – it’s firstname.lastname@example.org 💜 Take good care of yourself and speak soon hopefully. xx
I really feel this post, Caz. Thank you for all you do to educate people on the effects of chronic illness. What you do is so important.
I’m glad – and sorry – that you ‘get’ what this post is about. And thank YOU for reading and commenting and always being so awesome, Kymber 🙏 xx
I don’t have chronic pain or debilitating ilness, but for the past months have been in pain from an arthritic hip which began to make itself felt last December and was finally x-rayed in April. Exercise helped at first, but pain of some kind is now a constant companion and one thing I have noticed is how wearing it is.
Everything is harder work and I’m finding my patience wears thin when things take longer or go even slightly wrong.
I feel grateful it is only one hip that is affected. My husband suffered from arthritis in both hips – now replaced. It’s been made clear I have a way to go before I qualify for that, so I’ll have to grin and bear it.. Good thing I have a high pain threshold; it’s the grinning that’s difficult.
I’m sorry, Cathy. It’s one thing to live with short-term pain, but another thing entirely when it’s ongoing. Like you, I also have a pretty decent pain threshold and immediate, brief pain is no biggie to me, I’ve never really cared about it at all. This constant, every-second pain for years on end has been a challenge to say the least. It does wear you down, and the impact it can have shouldn’t be underestimated. I get easily frustrated and annoyed with things taking longer or not being able to do them at all, and trying to accept things are different now isn’t easy. I would say go easy on yourself because sometimes just having someone say that can take the edge of frustration off, but it never lasts long.
I’m glad your husband has both hips replaced and hopefully got on okay with the replacements. I’ve read people say how life-changing it is once you reach that point and need the surgery. Has your doctor given you anything for it, pain relief or anything? If it gets too much, please do consider asking what they suggest for the pain and difficulties you’re facing. Sending gentle hugs your way. xx
I hate that there are so many health professionals with shitty attitudes who don’t believe patients and aren’t willing to medicate them properly. If people want to be assholes, they should really go into fields other than health care…
I agree. I think there should be a psych survey conducted prior to entry to such jobs. The first question : “Are you misanthropic at heart?” Those shitty attitudes and rigidity of thought are a big part of the problem, not just budget cuts and the like. xx
It’s all those things and more. I really wish I could wave a wand and you no longer had any health issues.
Have a fabulous day and week, Caz. Big hug. ♥
Thank you, Sandee, that’s very kind of you. I hate to think how badly some people suffer. I often think how much worse others have it even though I also know you shouldn’t compare because it’s not helpful. I just hope more people can realise they’re not alone in the way they feel, the negative emotions that can bubble up, the negative impact that health issues can have on our mental health even though it’s not popular to talk about it.
I hope you & hubby have a lovely week, Sandee! xx
I can’t imagine how people cope with chronic pain. I’ve not had to deal with it (not yet, anyway), but I admire those of you who make it through each day,
I’m very glad you don’t have to deal with it and I hope you never, ever have to know what it’s like. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you 🙏 🤞 It’s hard now for me to remember what it’s like without pain, which is a bit weird! x
Thanks for this informative article! I don’t suffer from chronic pain, but your blog helps me understand what people who do go through. And the more we understand each other, the more we are able to offer the help that people need to cope. Your blog is so helpful in educating people about living with chronic pain!
Oh Ann, your comment has made my day 🙏 If my blog can help educate in any little way, I’m thrilled. You’re absolutely right in that the more we can appreciate and empathise and understand the experience of others – such as that involving chronic pain – the more we can help those people. At the very least, we can be more appreciative and mindful of such issues and that will indirectly help, too. Thanks lovely – I hope this is a good week for you 💜 xx
Great post Caz! I agree with everything you point and explain in this post. I felt chronic pain for many years due to my thyroid disease and it really affected me in so many ways, mantal health being a major one. I still feel chronic pain these days, but fortunately is not so bad and severe as it used to be.
I’m sorry you know what it’s like living with pain and the impact it can have on your mental health, though I’m glad at least it’s not quite as severe as it used to be for you. I think the full impact is under-appreciated and I imagine it’s rare patients get anywhere near the kind of support they need. I’ll keep my fingers crossed it either stays that way or continues to lessen in future 🤞 💜 xx
Excellent post, Caz!
Thank you, Terry, I’m really glad you think so 🙏 x
Really true said Terry. Your thoughts are so amazing👍
If only they had some kind of machine to measure pain! Maybe that’s what it would take for medical professionals to treat it with the seriousness it deserves. We recently started watching the old medical drama “House” and at least every few episodes Dr. House pronounces one of his mantras, which is, “All patients lie.” It’s not played entirely seriously in the show but you know that’s what at least some of them are thinking, at least some of the time …
You’re right, a pain-measuring machine would be awesome. “Off the charts” would often be recorded I think. There’s also an assumption that if you’re struggling with pain, you must have a low threshold (utter nonsense, I have a decent threshold and I’m not averse to short term pain, but constant pain is another matter). Some kind of “proof” for the pain level in a more objective way would shut many doctors and healthcare bodies up pretty quickly I think. And you’re also right in that some doctors do seem to think the best approach is to disbelieve their patients first, and reluctantly consider they may be telling the truth only if they really have to.
Lulu: “We hate to think of anyone being in nonstop pain, all the time.”
Java Bean: “Yeah, if we could fix it with tail wags, no one would ever have to suffer that again.”
Charlee: “Or if we cats could fix it with purrs! Right, Chaplin?”
Chaplin (shrugs): “Depends. What’s in it for me?”
Lulu: “You are such a cat.”
Your purrs and tail wags are priceless, guys. As for you Mr Chaplin, you sound just like my Virgil! 😺 x
Sometimes you don’t have to understand completely what’s going wrong with someone. Just listen and be there. So many illnesses are looked over because the doctor or loved ones can’t see a physical decline in someone so they ignorer their struggle and pain. You states that very clearly here.
We all have to do better and be better. I hear and I feel you. Blessings to you my friend!
You’re right, very well said! Just acknowledging and realising someone is unwell or in pain (mentally or physically) is the first step, and just being there – showing up, listening, showing you care – can be priceless. Not noticing or even being willing to be around that person to support them (silently if needs be) can be very damaging. Thanks for the comment lovely.xx
Absolutely!!! Silence is loud!!!!! And you are so welcomee beautiful!
This is a brilliant post Caz and I wish that everyone without pain would read it. Chronic pain is not just about living with pain because the pain brings so much with it. It can become so frustrating and, you’re right, we seem to feel the need to explain ourselves. Some people will hear us and empathise but others won’t be interested. Chronic pain must be one of the most misunderstood and underrated chronic illnesses. People hear chronic pain and think we’re ‘just’ dealing with a bit of pain but it is so much more than that. When you have pain literally all the time, it’s impossible not to let it get you down at times.
I feel for you so much, Caz. I have a lot of pain, but I wouldn’t say it was chronic, so I’m grateful for that. It must be awful to be in such debilitating pain all the time. Worse still, when you’re not being taken seriously by doctors and specialists etc. Perhaps, if some of them had to live with unrelenting pain and debilitation, they would be quicker to believe you and to understand. I can understand how it would affect your mental health, which brings a whole other set of symptoms. You must be absolutely exhausted so much of the time, and I’m so sorry to know that. It’s horrible when you can’t sleep, either. Somehow the night really drags on when you’re lying there awake all night. It’s probably easier for me despite my mental health not being good currently. Still, at least, my disability is obvious because I use a wheelchair, so it’s difficult to dispute that it’s real. I do hope you manage to get some decent sleep tonight. Sending you love and comforting hugs. Xx 💝
Hi, Caz. I just wanted to let you know that I left you a comment yesterday, but it appeared to disappear into the ether as it’s not showing on your blog. If you receive this comment, and I do hope you do, it might be worth checking your junk folder to see if it’s landed in there. Thanks. Much love to you, Caz … Ellie xx 💙💐💚
Tried to “like” but it wouldn’t take. Excellent article.
This is such a great and important post Caz, thank you for raising awareness about this. Physical and mental health really are so closely linked. When my physical health worsens my mental health does too. Chronic pain is so much more than just pain. It’s so misunderstood and the impact it has on everyday life and mental health really is so underestimated by others. Living with chronic pain and illness is hard enough. Having others doubt you and becoming isolated from others makes things ten times harder. I hope you’re holding up ok. Lucy xx
What a great post, as someone who suffers from back pain and vertigo daily, I can relate to these!
For so long mental health was a taboo subject in many cultures. It’s taken so long, with so many people publicly sharing their experiences, that we’ve even come to a slightly wider understanding of how mind and body work very intimately together. Thank you for your part in this.
Dealing with chronic pain every single day is very exhausting and the toll it takes on my mental health is awful. When I get really bad fibro flare ups I tend to feel depressed more as I can hardly move and when I do, I’m done in. So important to highlight this, thank you for sharing.
Hmm that’s really a very bad experience but you guys are great who deal with that. Stay calm Dear Jordanne.😊🙏
This is an excellent post from a chronic pain person’s view. Depression and pain are indeed connected. Thanks for this. Deb
Still reading this …but I personally use a form of accupressure.
Wonderful post dude. You highlighted a very crucial but one of the most important sections of human life. Just keep going😊👍 and stay connected.☺
I’ve faced all 5 of the effects you’ve outlined for at least 3 years. Thank you for bringing this to the light, Caz! Every point you’ve highlighted has framed my own experience of chronic pain as being fundamentally misunderstood for so long. I didn’t start to feel more human until I could get some sleep, challenged medical practitioners and released the need to over-explain myself. Such a fantastic post x
Caz, thank you for shedding light on the detrimental effects of chronic pain on mental health. Chronic pain can lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health issues. It can also lead to a decrease in overall quality of life and a lack of motivation. It’s important for individuals to seek help from mental health professionals to manage both the physical and mental effects of chronic pain.
This I thought was a truly superb article. Not enough is said nowadays about chronic pain.
So many people struggling with this debilitating condition too.
As a Holistic Practitioner, people often visit me with physical pain that seems to have no basis. Nothing has been found in blood tests X-rays scans etc, yet the person is still in terrible pain.
I love the way your article talks about the feelings that go with it such as shame, guilt, helplessness etc and other emotional difficulties.
Thank you once again for this wonderful post.