Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques for Managing Pain

cbt for pain

Since the emergence of Freud’s psychoanalysis, people have been turning to psychotherapy for everything from uncovering the deep furrows of their unconscious to finding better ways to cope with their pain and illness.

With the advent of short-term, goal-oriented therapy; cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has largely become the pinnacle of today’s therapy options because it challenges the mind’s distorted thoughts that can negatively impact one’s happiness — including how the client feels about his/her pain and responds to it.

In fact, this type of therapy is so effective in helping a client manage the intensity of his/her pain that hospitals are adopting the practice as part of their treatment regimen.

Read on to find out how it works.

The World of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

cbt techniques for painIf you aren’t familiar with CBT, this type of psychotherapeutic treatment helps people learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and emotions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on changing the automatic negative thoughts that can contribute to and worsen emotional difficulties, depression, and anxiety.

These spontaneous negative thoughts have a detrimental influence on mood. Through CBT, these thoughts are identified, challenged, and replaced with more objective, realistic thoughts.

The major difference between CBT and psychoanalysis is that CBT can be effectively used as a short-term treatment centered on helping people with a very specific problem, such as a fear of public speaking. This is in stark contrast to psychoanalysis, which is a process without a given endpoint that typically focuses on uncovering unconscious memories, largely from real or perceived childhood trauma.

CBT is highly goal-oriented and focused, with the therapist taking a very active role. Clients work with their therapist toward mutually established goals, which generally includes work in session, as well as homework assignments, focused on learning new skills or identifying triggers that exacerbate the particular problem.

The goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with things in their environment.

This includes their response to pain.

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How Does the Body Interpret Pain?

Before diving into how CBT can help manage pain, it’s important to understand what pain is exactly. As a healthcare practitioner, you may be familiar with this information already but here is a brief overview.

Pain starts at a specific location in the body and travels up the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord to get to the brain.

Pain first arrives to the primal brain that tells the body to be on a high alert, which signals the stress arousal response, better known as the “Fight or Flight” response.

Then, traveling to different parts of the brain, pain travels to the emotional part of the brain. The emotional brain remembers past threats. The emotional part of the brain also remembers what happened in the past to guide our actions to the current threat.

Pain then travels to the front part of the brain, the “thinking brain,” which considers all possible options to reduce it.

The brain determines what options were chosen in the past and what actions it wants to initiate to mitigate the pain. The brain starts to send the pain signals back down with an action plan on how to cope.

This could include immediately removing the source of the pain. For example, if you touch a hot stove, your brain’s “action plan” would be to remove your hand from the stove. However, if you suffer from pain that can’t be immediately mitigated, this is where CBT techniques may come in handy.

How Can CBT Help Reduce and Mitigate Pain?

If you are having persistent pain due to a condition such as arthritis or sore muscles, CBT may be an option for you.

CBT, as a form of talk therapy, can help you identify and develop skills to change negative thoughts and behaviors.

CBT says that individuals — not outside situations and events — create their own experiences, pain included. And by changing their negative thoughts and behaviors, people can change their awareness of pain and develop better coping skills, even if the actual level of pain stays the same.

Essentially, the perception of pain is in your brain, so you can affect physical pain by addressing thoughts and behaviors that fuel pain.

To gain a better understanding of how CBT can help manage pain, watch the YouTube video below:

So, How Can CBT Help Your Patients or Clients Manage Pain?

As a healthcare practitioner, you understand the role that practicing mindfulness can play in reducing negative thought patterns. CBT is a unique approach to pain management that involves mindfulness because the idea behind it is that you pay close attention to your thoughts, but analyze them without judgment.

You can recommend CBT to your patients or clients if you think they might benefit from seeing a counselor for pain management. However, your patients don’t have to necessarily need to see a weekly counselor. There are at-home CBT techniques you can recommend for new ways to help deal with their pain.

Below are 3 examples of CBT exercises that you can recommend to your patients and clients to deal with pain management:

  1. Tell your patients to identify and notice their thoughts and emotions as they come to them. Instruct them to notice when their thoughts shift to things like, “I can’t cope with this pain.” Have them try to change their thought patterns to thoughts like, “I CAN cope with the pain.” They can actually “trick” their brain to believe their new thoughts and possibly turn off the “fight or flight” response.
  2. Have your patients track their thoughts on a daily basis and turn them into positive thoughts. They can write them down in a notebook or utilize these helpful worksheets to replace them with positive thoughts. Explain to them that they can tell themselves that they CAN cope and that they CAN relax. The power of positive thinking combined with the action of writing down thoughts can be powerful.
  3. Your patients can also work to change their “brain maps.” Have them think about the way they used to move before you’re their illness or injury. If they have back pain, you can have them think about the way they used to get up from a chair or complete an activity they really enjoy.

By doing so, they can “reactivate” the brain map for the way they used to use it, instead of using the pain map that has grown over time. Visualize it, relax, take a big breath. If your patients keep doing this exercise over time, they may actually shrink the pain map and regrow that old map back.

CBT Techniques Could Make a Difference for Your Patients or Clients

Unfortunately, pain is a part of life. While certainly no one wants to experience it, it is helpful to know that there are multiple ways to help your patients or clients possibly reduce the effect it has on their lives.

Try recommending these CBT techniques to your patients and see if they work for them. They might be the key they need to gain control of their pain. To learn more about how the medical community is embracing holistic medicine, check out our blog post, “Why Conventional Doctors are Embracing Holistic Health.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Please speak to your healthcare provider about CBT.
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