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Pain and the Brain: Coping with Chronic Pain’s Tricky Thoughts

Written by Anna Santowski, LCMFT

Clinical Psychotherapist, Relationship & Chronic Pain Specialist

Dealing with chronic pain? You're not alone. In fact, according to the CDC, about 21% of adults in the US experience chronic pain, with 7% of them experiencing it to the extent that their daily lives are impacted. Living with chronic pain can be an overwhelming experience, impacting not only your physical well-being but also your mental health. As a therapist who specializes in clinical work with chronic pain and illness, I’ve noticed some central themes with my clients that struggle with coping. Let’s break some of these thoughts down and explore some strategies for how to tackle them:

  1. "This shouldn’t have happened."

The frustration, anger, all-around grief of it all can feel astounding. When life gives us a curveball like a diagnosis of chronic pain, this massive shift packs a punch—both physically and emotionally. However, we actually create more suffering for ourselves when we engage with what “should” have been and all the infinite possibilities our brains love to come up with. If you notice you are “shoulding” yourself, acknowledge the underlying emotion (read: grief of our former self, ability, etc), and tap into what your heart needs in the moment. Sometimes just acknowledging the grief of it all can help you move through it. 

2. "I want to go back to how I was before."

Who wouldn't want to rewind the clock to pain-free days? It's totally normal to miss those carefree times. And. And. And. Spending excess amounts of time dwelling on the past can keep us stuck there. Try setting small, realistic goals for what you can do in the here-and-now. Celebrate even the tiniest wins along the way. It's okay to both grieve the past while finding the victories in the “new normal” of today. 

3. "I can’t cope with this."

Hopeless thoughts like this can creep up on us fast.  But trust me, you've got more strength than you realize.  Moving through tough moments is about little shifts over time. Do you find yourself unhappy with your life now that you are limited from doing the things that you once were able to do? Explore your underlying values in your beloved activities and find a new way to engage in them! Example- loved to hike but unable to walk for long periods of time? Ask yourself: what exactly did I love about hiking? Spending time in nature? Getting out of the house? And now: what can I do within my limitations that gets me out of the house in nature? Perhaps you could start with just sitting outside for 15 minutes each day.  No, it’s not completely the same as before, yet this is a critical way to help cope through feelings of stuckness. So, be creative and explore your options!

So yes, chronic pain is a handful. However, finding new ways to manage the thoughts that come with it can lead to us feeling more empowered within our circumstances. You've got this!

Seeking additional therapeutic support for coping with your chronic pain or illness?

Contact Anna Santowski, LCMFT at (443) 339-9431 or


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