Chronic Pain And Social Isolation: Coping Skills For The Psychological Effects Of Pain

By Dr. Mark Skellie

Chronic pain has many faces and a multitude of ways that it deeply affects those living with daily pain. One of the most insidious and powerfully distressing ways that chronic pain changes a person’s life is the tendency towards isolation when pain comes calling. People often feel that others cannot fully understand what it is like to live with chronic pain. The truth is chronic pain is so different than a “normal” pain, one of those mistakes that leads to a minor burn or twisted ankle, that is does take work for someone who has not experienced chronic pain to really understand. When people have normal pain, there is an obvious cause and effect typically (e.g. “I really need to be more careful or I will hurt myself again”) as well as the expectation of recovery. With normal pain, all you have to do is do some rest and recovery and that ankle will hold your weight again or that minor burn will eventually turn to fresh and healthy skin. Problem with chronic pain, is that prolonged rest and recovery does not have any curative effect other than hopefully reducing the intensity of pain. In some ways, working under the illusion that chronic pain will be healed by staying still actually increases the odds of pain continuing due to loss of muscle strength and weight gain over time. One reason many individuals living with chronic pain stop pursuing social time with friends and family is the burden of having to educate people about how chronic pain is so different than most other ways we experience aches or pains.

Another big barrier to having an active social life when living with chronic pain is that fact that your pain may affect others. For example, if your friends plan to go to dinner and then listen to a local band, you may fear that if you agree and have a pain flair up after sitting in an uncomfortable chair for an hour at dinner it could be a bummer or even make your friends uncomfortable if you have to go home early. Most people I’ve gotten to know who live with chronic pain acknowledge that when their pain is climbing that personal 0 to 10 pain scale, it is a major struggle to not slip up and be grumpy or outright angry with little provocation. So sometimes people living with chronic pain intentionally isolate themselves to protect their friends and loved ones from this crankiness and attitude. It is a tragic paradox that the combination of chronic pain being hard to fully grasp accurately by others and the side effect that chronic pain can have on a person’s temper often results in many well-meaning people feeling that they have no way to help and can feel rejected or angry after trying to help.

Social support, a popular term in psychology, is a way to describe how having loving and entertaining people in your daily life is one of the ideal ways to cope with distress. Humans are social animals that thrive in connections with other people that feel supportive and accepting of that individual’s personality. You can see how powerful the need for social connection is when observing infants who reach out for interaction and to be held close. Just like an infant, we all have a strong and desperate emotional need to feel a connection with our families and friends. The main difference is that adults have much more complex ways to reach out or reject connections with others. I will not bore you by listing research evidence that all lines up with the simple concept that rich and supportive social networks are related to greater resilience in the face of stress, while social isolation only increases the production of negative emotions and mental health challenges.

So I challenge you to fight against the thoughts that your loved ones are unwilling to understand how your pain effects your life or that your pain is just a burden to others. I would highly recommend taking time to connect with your friends and family or start new relationships. One great way to develop social support is to participate in a support group with other individuals living with chronic pain. There is a great new group based on the American Chronic Pain Association (theacpa.org) that is starting in June 2015 and will meet twice per month. The American Chronic Pain Association is focused on providing tools to individuals living with chronic pain to develop a group to share what they have learned and encourage others to create more satisfying lives. The group is facilitated by a Jim Walsh, a chronic pain patient for the past 30 years, who started the New Orleans Chapter of the American Chronic Pain Association. I will assist Mr. Walsh with this group and help provide relaxation training at each group. We look forward to you making the effort to try it out!

The American Chronic Pain Association:
New Orleans Chapter
The New Orleans Healing Center
2372 St. Claude Avenue (Room 252)
New Orleans, LA 70117
For more information call or email Jim Walsh at
(504) 858-7933 or piratesalleyjim@gmail.com

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