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Chronic Pain

Mind-Body Approaches to Coping With Pain

Pain treatment can be optimized by involving mind and body.

Key points

  • Chronic pain can wear you down emotionally and mentally.
  • Focusing only on the physical element of pain is one of the factors in many cases of narcotic overuse, with serious consequences.
  • An anti-inflammatory diet that includes whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein, and berries can reduce inflammation and help decrease pain.
  • Neuroscience research tells us that becoming mindful for less than an hour during your day can help ease symptoms.
Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

If you’ve ever stubbed your toe or touched a hot stove, you’ve experienced acute pain. An injury or natural process can cause this type of pain, but it goes away relatively quickly.

If your pain lasts three months or more, most healthcare providers agree on calling it chronic pain. It’s something you live with for a while and doesn’t go away. This experience can wear you down emotionally and mentally. Many common conditions, such as arthritis, migraine, fibromyalgia, and cancer, involve chronic pain.

Pain’s mental and emotional toll

A sudden injury can be scary. You may experience shock or even post-traumatic stress.1 Living with chronic pain can create anxiety, depression, and overuse problems with medication, alcohol, and other substances.

Experiencing pain affects our thinking and emotions. In turn, these responses can affect your healing. When Dave, a firefighter, strained his back at work, a doctor prescribed pain medications and time off. On leave, Dave filled the hours by catching up with his favorite sports teams and drinking a few microbrews to relax.

Then his mother died suddenly. Dave began drinking more and more. His back pain was intensified by the stress of grief and sorting out his mom’s affairs, and he requested more pain medication.

Fortunately, Dave’s doctor practiced whole-person health. “What’s going on?” he asked. Dave was otherwise healthy, and his physical therapist had reported the injury was healing well.

That simple question was enough. Dave broke down in the office talking about his mom. Then he and his doctor created a mind-body approach to his physical and emotional pain. It included returning to work on light duty and scheduling some sessions with a counselor who was experienced in helping people with loss and grief.

Finally, Dave talked with his younger sister about how sad he was. As the older sibling, he had always filled the role of protector, never admitting to weakness. Talking with his sister allowed her to offer support for a change. Together, Dave and his sister worked on clearing out their mother’s home and preparing it for sale.

We can easily imagine a different path. Focusing only on the physical element of pain—Dave’s back—is one of the factors in many cases of narcotic overuse, with serious consequences.

Optimize pain treatment with mind-body approaches.

If you burn your hand on a hot stove, your first impulse is probably to cool the burn. You may wave your hand through the air to create a cooling draft or stick it under cool water. Then, you may try to distract yourself from the pain by watching a favorite show or talking with a friend. Using these mind-body approaches can calm your mind and relax your body.

The strategies we naturally adopt with acute pain can help with chronic pain as well. If you have been in pain for three months or longer, ask yourself, “How is my treatment working?” Communicate with your healthcare provider about what the options are.

Aaliyah, who has chronic migraine, used this approach. She scheduled a video visit to ask her doctor about her prescribed medication and ask about other options. She also asked about her use of non-prescription medications, which can lead to a condition called rebound headache.

Next, Aaliyah advocated for a mind-body approach. Using a migraine app to track her headaches showed that she tended to get one after being around a particular coworker, in a pattern often called the “let-down” headache.

Talking with coworkers about the problem helped her relieve some of the tension of working with her stressful colleague. She adjusted her workstation so she could stand and move around during meetings with this coworker, releasing stress.

Aaliyah planned to take a short walk after the meetings that typically made her tense up. She also spent a few minutes outdoors to get some sun and relax in nature. Eventually, she took the practical step of transferring to another team.

Aaliyah still has the occasional migraine and keeps her new migraine medication on hand. But the mind-body approach she took works far better for pain than medication alone.

Find the pain management that works for you.

A whole person approach is ideal for managing pain. Here are some evidence-based strategies to try.

Consider your biology.

Biological women have more chronic pain than biological men.2, 3 Research has shown several reasons for this, including hormone shifts over time, being victims of trauma and abuse, and tending to prioritize the needs of others ahead of their own.

Avoid foods that cause inflammation.

Inflammation in the body can worsen pain. On the other hand, an anti-inflammatory diet that includes plenty of whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein and berries—and yes, small amounts of chocolate and red wine—can reduce inflammation and thus help decrease pain.

Try a short meditation.

You may think you don’t have time to meditate. But neuroscience research tells us that becoming mindful for less than an hour during your day can help ease symptoms. In one study, patients who practiced mindfulness-based meditation or had cognitive behavioral therapy had less pain than those who did not add a mind-based practice to their treatment.4

Try a free, relaxing mindfulness meditation. Bonus: it includes a gorgeous nature video to help you reset mentally. You can use it for acute or chronic pain.

Be careful with tech.

The technology that surrounds us can cause pain. Have you ever experienced “text neck” or strained your arms, wrists, or fingers by typing too much? Erik Peper, Ph.D., is the author of Tech Stress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives. The book includes strategies for using technology without causing pain, including ergonomics that can help.

Taking control of your pain

No matter what type of pain you have, taking a whole-person approach can help you feel better. As we saw in Dave and Aaliyah’s stories, pain is much more than physical. Having a compassionate provider you can talk with about what else is going on in your life, as Dave did, and advocating for yourself, as Aaliyah did, can make an enormous difference in reducing or eliminating pain and creating the best health possible.

This post is drawn from the pain management resources available through the How We Heal Campaign by Dr. Wayne Jonas.


1. Van Loey NE, Klein-König I, de Jong AEE, Hofland HWC, Vandermeulen E, Engelhard IM. Catastrophizing, pain and traumatic stress symptoms following burns: A prospective study. Eur J Pain. 2018 Jul;22(6):1151-1159. doi: 10.1002/ejp.1203. Epub 2018 Mar 9. PMID: 29436110.

2. Hurley RW, Adams MC. Sex, gender, and pain: an overview of a complex field. Anesth Analg. 2008 Jul;107(1):309-17. doi: 10.1213/01.ane.0b013e31816ba437. PMID: 18635502; PMCID: PMC2715547.

3. Pieretti S, Di Giannuario A, Di Giovannandrea R, Marzoli F, Piccaro G, Minosi P, Aloisi AM. Gender differences in pain and its relief. Ann Ist Super Sanita. 2016 Apr-Jun;52(2):184-9. doi: 10.4415/ANN_16_02_09. PMID: 27364392.

4. Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, Cook AJ, Anderson ML, Hawkes RJ, Hansen KE, Turner JA. Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2016 Mar 22-29;315(12):1240-9. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.2323. PMID: 27002445; PMCID: PMC4914381.

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