For people living with chronic pain, having someone tell them that pain is “all in their head” can be the ultimate slap in the face. In recent years, there has been research that indicates that while pain is a physically experienced sensation, how we think about pain does, in fact, affect the way we experience it. This does not mean that pain is “made up” or manufactured where it doesn’t exist. It means that patients can have more control over the way they deal with and experience daily chronic pain without using drugs. One way to work towards pain management is acceptance and commitment therapy for pain. Here are ten reasons to give it a try.
Ten reasons to try acceptance and commitment therapy for pain
1. Acceptance and commitment therapy distinguishes between structural and neural pathway pain
Structural pain is that pain which is a result of a specific, traceable cause of pain. Neural pathway pain is pain that is learned. The difference between the two is significant. While structural pain (e.g., pain that is caused by a herniated disc pressing on the sciatic nerve) has a specific treatment that often results in resolution, neural pathway pain may not be traceable to a specific cause.
Why does this matter? Neural pathway pain is very real; the brain has recreated itself in such a way that it remembers pain. But these patterns can also be unlearned. Acceptance and commitment therapy works to change the way pain patients think about their pain. The focus is not just on accepting that the patient is in pain. Patients work towards physically changing the way they think to eliminate it altogether.
2. Acceptance and commitment therapy does not believe pain is permanent
Acceptance and commitment therapy is partially based on the tenets of mindfulness. Mindfulness acknowledges that everything – good and bad – is impermanent. Many chronic pain patients and their doctors believe that unless they can find and treat a structural cause, pain is a permanent feature of life. Acceptance and commitment therapy points out that nothing in life is permanent therefore everything is subject to change. This includes eliminating pain.
3. Acceptance and commitment therapy works with cognitive-based philosophies and mindfulness techniques to reduce or eliminate pain
Acceptance and commitment therapists believe that neural pain can be eliminated or greatly reduced. By reframing the way a person thinks about pain, acceptance and commitment therapists help patients to understand how their thoughts may undermine their ability to heal themselves.
4. Acceptance and commitment therapy for pain includes action
Changing the way a person thinks is not enough. Acceptance and commitment therapy for pain works to help patients change the way they act. It encourages patients to face their pain instead of fearing it and then to take positive action. This is not an easy task, especially if patients feel deeply that their pain is incurable. Taking action in spite of fear and pain is key to this therapy, as one patient noted:
“I was in quite a bit of pain but I was also super-determined to walk in the neighborhood. I said to my subconscious mind, ‘I am walking today despite the pain. You can make it easy for me or you can make it difficult. But I am doing it!’ I walked about a half an hour and my pain lessened considerably. This was a huge breakthrough for me and I can now see that this program is working! I am astonished. I cannot believe it.”
5. Acceptance and commitment therapy acknowledges the struggle and suffering of pain patients and helps them through it
Pain is a complex process that has roots in the brain and expression in the body. Every experience in a lifetime marks a person neurologically, for better or for worse. Acceptance and commitment therapy goes deep into the roots of physical pain, looking at a person’s experiences overall, not just in the painful present. Research has acknowledged the strong mind-body connection. This type of therapy explores that connection and unravels the knots of pain that life can create by exploring and expressing painful or difficult parts of the past.
6. Acceptance and commitment therapy for pain is a process, not a product
While not a quick fix for pain, acceptance and commitment therapy may help pain patients develop a deep and satisfying understanding of themselves as they work to change the way they think about their pain. Unlike taking a pill to relieve the symptoms of pain, acceptance and commitment therapy gets at the neurology of pain to heal and connect patients to themselves.
7. Acceptance and commitment therapy for pain has no side effects
Unlike experimental treatments, implanted devices, and pharmaceutical interventions, acceptance and commitment therapy is 100% side effect-free.
8. Acceptance and commitment therapy works in conjunction with other treatments
Insinuating that pain can be removed by simply changing the mind may seem to dismiss the reality that pain patients face, but that is not the goal of acceptance and commitment therapy. This therapy acknowledges that pain exists and works to help patients address it constructively and with an action plan that goes beyond symptom relief. While patients work to address physical or structural issues, they also begin to change their mind and the way they think about their pain. This can truly change their lives in more ways than one.
9. Acceptance and commitment therapy encourages participation in life
Chronic pain can be an isolating condition. Many patients find themselves withdrawing from their daily lives, even activities that they previously enjoyed. Acceptance and commitment therapy for pain encourages patients to re-engage and re-commit to doing the things they love and offers tools and techniques to help them do that.
10. Acceptance and commitment therapy believes changing behavior can change the mind
Changing behavior to change the mind is at the root of acceptance and commitment therapy. This approach requires work and is not easy, but there is a strong research basis that this technique of action can change how a person experiences pain.
Interested in learning more about how changing your mind can help change your pain? For more resources and information on acceptance and commitment therapy, check out the Association for Contextual Behavior Science website!