3 Ways Psychotherapy Can Help with Chronic Pain

Young person in business suit with hair pulled back sits at desk with hand on back and face in painI will never forget one woman who came to see me for help with chronic pain. This was a woman who stood tall—she gave off the image she was functioning well despite living with chronic pain. She had long, dark hair, perfect makeup, and a confident smile. As she sat down and spoke her first words of the session, though, her face crumpled and she began to weep quietly. She was in pain—and had been for six years. She was exhausted. She was overwhelmed. And she had no idea what to do next.

It’s important to remember that no pain starts out as chronic pain. Pain starts off as new and unexpected—from a fall, an accident, a wrong motion, or sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. The typical advice is to try medication, physical therapy, or rest. But for a number of people, pain fails to get better with these treatments. Nothing heals according to their expectations. In these cases, the path is less clear; often doctors will recommend different medications, to wait (and often wait and wait some more) and see whether other treatments work. This wait-and-see process can go on for months or even years. But while people wait for medical treatment to fix their pain, their daily lives may crumble around them.

Many medical doctors don’t see beyond the physical injury. They can’t see that while you’re waiting for your pain to go away your household is falling apart, your boss is pissed off, and you are getting seriously depressed. Many people who have had to deal with doctors for a chronic condition end up feeling angry, dismissed, betrayed, and adrift.

A referral to a therapist can feel like your medical doctor is giving up or nothing more can be done. But that isn’t true. Where medical interventions fail is where a great therapist can pick up and help. Therapists can’t fix your pain, necessarily, but they can help you rebuild your life and help you figure out how to function again.

No one is born prepared to cope with chronic pain. And often by the time it becomes clear this pain isn’t going away easily, things have gotten out of hand. This is where therapy can help.

Therapy for chronic pain can help in three important ways:

1. Therapy is a place to experience nonjudgmental emotional support.

People in pain often feel isolated—family, partners, and children have trouble understanding the severity of chronic pain and accepting new (and very real) limitations. Doctors often end up frustrated that their tools aren’t working and can sometimes make the person in pain end up feeling somehow “at fault” for still being in pain. And worst of all, there is not much space to talk about the emotional pain that results from all of these changes.

A good therapist with experience helping people with chronic pain listens without judgment. Therapists create a safe space for people to talk about their experiences, frustrations, and any other feelings they have been keeping locked up inside. Talking to someone who “gets it” can come as a much-needed breath of fresh air.

2. In therapy, people can learn more about how chronic pain impacts their physical, emotional, and social health.

A good therapist with experience helping people with chronic pain listens without judgment. Therapists create a safe space for people to talk about their experiences, frustrations, and any other feelings they have been keeping locked up inside. Talking to someone who “gets it” can come as a much-needed breath of fresh air.

People in chronic pain often find themselves withdrawing from important friendships and relationships. But research has shown that social isolation activates the same pathways in the brain as physical pain (Eisenberger, 2012). Loneliness and isolation hurt—literally. This is just one example of the many ways physical pain can impact a person’s physical, emotional, and social health.

A therapist experienced with chronic pain can explain how pain and medication work in the body. They will help examine the ways pain has been affecting social relationships, sleep patterns, eating habits, and ways of thinking. Each of these areas can impact a person’s experiences of living with chronic pain.

3. A good therapist can teach new skills to cope with situations brought on by chronic pain.

Therapy is also an opportunity to learn and practice new skills related to living better with chronic pain. For example, managing physical stress is a key component of coping with chronic pain. In therapy, a person can learn how to take control over the body’s response to stress and create relaxation. There are many techniques—such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided visualization—that a skilled therapist can teach to help with pain.

Therapy can also help a person learn to communicate better. Better communication is a key to building and maintaining healthy relationships. The more social support a person has—the more connected and supported a person feels—the easier it may be to cope with chronic pain.

Live Better Now

Seeking therapy for chronic pain is not about giving up on living a life without pain. New medical treatments, medications, and medical therapies are being invented every year. It may be possible to eventually cure chronic pain. But we’re not there yet.

Therapy for chronic pain is about learning how to live better—right now—while you wait for medical help. Therapy can help you examine how chronic pain impacts your life and teach you new skills to help you live better no matter what stresses, medical conditions, or circumstances you’re facing. Not sure where to start? Search for a therapist in your area.


Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). Broken hearts and broken bones: A neural perspective on the similarities between social and physical pain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 42-47.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anna Charbonneau, PhD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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  • Leave a Comment
  • chloe

    December 2nd, 2016 at 8:59 AM

    I feel validated when I talk to my therapist, who helps me understand that this not all in my head, that the pain that I feel is very real and I should never feel like I have to be ashamed of that.

  • Kat E.

    December 3rd, 2016 at 7:29 AM

    Therapy is a big part of pain management.

  • Macy

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:33 AM

    For me it has given me a path to be able to cope with that pain a little better without having to rely so much on different medicines to try to manage it.

    I have techniques now that I can use to visualize how I want to feel versus how I really do feel, and this has been a real turning point in my own health and treatment,

    I had been struggling with chronic pain for a while when I finally I got tired of being on the merry go round of let’s try this prescription let’s try that. I feel much better and more in control of my own health now.

  • Burt

    December 5th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    But you can understand how when someone tells you that they think that they will refer you to someone else that you can almost feel like you are in a way being abandoned?

  • maria

    December 7th, 2016 at 3:08 PM

    It has been a blessing for me to finally find someone who can understand some of the pain that I am feeling and who can talk me off the ledge when I literally feel like I have nothing left to live for. There have been times when the pain has been so bad but there is no name for what I am feeling and that is very hard when you want to explain but just can’t because there are no words.
    She helps me with that, helps me see that there are ways that I can cope with this but that I don’t owe an explanation to anyone. That feels good for a change after years of always feeling like I have to answer to someone else.

  • Jeanette

    December 9th, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    It could be that they are far more familiar with available resources than you might be.

  • Usha k

    December 13th, 2016 at 6:14 PM

    Well the therapy may help a lot to some extent but that also requires a lot of will power and sometimes that sucks yet I agree it may help at the end when nothing treats.2zk

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