We’ve all struggled with some degree of pain. Maybe right now you’re dealing with a crippling headache, or something more persistent like chronic pain. Or it could be more acute, like recovering from major surgery.
In those moments of agony, the pain can seem overwhelming…like there’s no way out. We’re desperate for any sign of comfort — hoping we could almost think the pain away. But what if we could? Is it possible to control pain using just your thoughts?
Can You Manage Pain With Your Mind?
The short answer is yes. Using certain techniques, it is actually possible to alleviate some forms of pain with our minds.
Christine Tolman is a licensed clinical professional counselor and Talkspace therapist based in Idaho. She explains: “There is a great deal of evidence that suggests we can control our pain level with our thoughts. How we view our pain and how it impacts our everyday life can alter the way that it impacts us.”
Of course, it’s not as simple as thinking your pain away. The degree to which you can alleviate your pain depends on the type of pain you’re experiencing, and the technique you use.
Only Certain Kinds Of Pain Can Be Controlled With Your Mind
It’s first worth noting that not all kinds of pain can be tackled with our minds. Acute pain and chronic pain can, however, be addressed with your thoughts, Tolman says.
“Now keep in mind if you walk into therapy with a broken arm, it’s not going to take that pain away,” she says. “But chronic pain and pain without a source can be managed with your thoughts. There is a big emotional tie between pain and your thoughts, and by altering your thoughts you can alter the pain.”
The CDC estimates that 20.4% of US adults live with chronic pain. And STAT reports that the most significant drivers in chronic pain are migraines, arthritis, and nerve damage — as well as emotional trauma.
Jeannie Sperry, a psychologist who specialises in pain rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic, said that it’s rare for people to have chronic pain without also having anxiety or depression.
“Often times, a person who experiences chronic pain will report that this pain becomes a part of their identity,” Tolman says. “Therapeutic techniques can alter how one views themselves as a person with pain. It can also alter how they view the limitations of their pain and the day-to-day impact of it.”
These Are The Mental Techniques That Work On Pain
Tolman says that “certain therapeutic techniques have been shown to decrease reports of pain or the intensity of pain.”
A 2017 review published in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine found that “mindfulness meditation improves pain and depression symptoms.” But it concluded that more research is needed to provide a decisive estimation of just how much it can affect chronic pain.
How Exactly Do These Techniques Work?
Tolman points out that these therapeutic techniques can be effective but they don’t erase pain.
“Rather, they alter the way that the brain perceives pain which can lead to a decrease in reports of pain levels,” she explains. “They can also change how a person views their identity as a person with chronic pain, or alter the perception of the impact the pain has on their everyday lives.”
It’s all about changing how we perceive pain.
According to Harvard Medical School, mind-body therapies might be able to alleviate pain because pain involves both our minds and bodies: “How you feel pain is influenced by your genetic makeup, emotions, personality, and lifestyle. It’s also influenced by past experience. If you’ve been in pain for a while, your brain may have rewired itself to perceive pain signals even after the signals aren’t being sent anymore.”
Changing Your Thought Patterns Could Alleviate Pain
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking. It allows you to look at difficult situations more clearly, and respond in a more effective way.
CBT is the most common psychological intervention for people living with chronic pain, according to a study published in the Medicine (Baltimore) journal in 2018.
There is increasing evidence that forms of CBT are effective in managing chronic pain, according to a 2017 review in The Journal of Pain.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health in 2016 discovered that “mindfulness based stress reduction and cognitive-behavioral therapy may prove more effective than usual treatment in alleviating chronic low-back pain.”
Tolman explains how CBT might be working on pain: “CBT focuses on your thoughts and actions, and how they are related. For example, if a person with chronic pain continues to focus on their previous level of functioning, and maybe the “why me?” thoughts, they are more likely to experience higher levels of pain. By changing those thoughts into focusing on the current level of functioning, and maybe engaging in activity that supports that level of functioning, they are more likely to experience decreased pain levels.”
Find The Approach That’s Right For You — But Don’t Expect Magic
Dr. Ellen Slawsby is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who helps people learn techniques to alleviate pain.
“I tend to think of these techniques as similar to flavors in an ice cream store,” she writes. “Depending on your mood, you might want a different flavor of ice cream — or a different technique. Practising a combination of mind-body skills increases the effectiveness of pain relief.”
Tolman cautions that these approaches don’t provide a miraculous solution.
“There is no one pill that is going to work for everyone, and this is certainly not magic. Typically you can’t do one session and be completely pain free. It takes work, and it takes a great deal of mental control.”
So if you struggle with pain, chronic or otherwise, this growing body of evidence and expert insight should give you hope.
As Dr. Slawsby points out, the key is to experiment with techniques to find the one that works for you. Whether it’s CBT or mindfulness, if you put in the work and stay committed, you could find that you’re able to manage pain with the power of your mind.