Pain is a complex and highly subjective experience.
What may be considered painful for one person, may not be the same experience for another. Our experiences of pain arise from a combination of the biological, psychological, and social factors involved in our lives. While pain is often considered as a physical problem, there are psychological and emotional aspects that need to be considered. The below outlines key cognitive, behavioural and emotional factors that influence our perception and management of pain.
Perception and interpretation of pain signals:
Pain is the body’s natural threat alarm system indicating that a person needs to take care to prevent further injury or damage. Pain signals arise in the body and send messages to the brain via the spinal cord. However, the brain is responsible for the interpretation of these signals and can mitigate or amplify pain intensity based on several factors. Attention, previous experiences, beliefs and pain and expectations play a significant role in shaping how we perceive and interpret pain. For example, individuals who anticipate more pain report experiencing more intense pain. Likewise, individuals who observe a red-light report experiencing more pain than those who observe a blue light. This highlights the impact of cognitive processes on pain perception.
Pain and emotions are closely intertwined. Chronic pain can lead to emotional distress such as depression, anxiety, and frustration. The links between negative emotions and increased pain are well founded. The more an individual experiences intense emotion, the more likely they are to experience an increase in pain. Psychological interventions, such as cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT), can address the emotional factors associated with pain and improve overall well-being.
Pain in the brain:
Neuroscience research has shown that pain involves complex interactions within the brain. The brain's pain processing and emotional control areas interact to influence the intensity of pain via the gate control theory of pain (Melzack & Wall, 1965). Understanding these neural mechanisms can inform the development of targeted pain management strategies.
The role of expectations and beliefs:
Expectations and beliefs can significantly shape our physical experiences. For example, the placebo effect is one of the greatest examples of how positive expectations can lead to physical changes, even in the absence of active treatment. In contrast, negative expectations about our pain and pain catastrophizing can lead to increased pain. By addressing and modifying these beliefs, individuals can have a more positive influence of their pain experience and improve their daily functioning.
Pain and behaviour:
Pain can influence our behaviour and behaviour responses. For example, individuals can develop a fear of movement of activity. This can lead to a cycle of avoidance and inactivity, leading to muscle degeneration and more pain. Behavioural therapies, such as graded exposure and active pacing strategies, can help individuals gradually increase their engagement in activities and regain control over their lives.
In treating pain, we need to consider the psychological and emotional factors included in the experience of pain. By engaging with a psychologists, individuals can learn to harness the power of their brains to help them manage their chronic pain condition and live a more meaningful and fulfilling life alongside their chronic pain.