Chronic pain and ACT

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain refers to persistent or long-lasting pain that continues beyond the normal healing time of an injury or illness, typically lasting for three to six months or even longer. Unlike acute pain, which is a normal response to an injury or illness and serves as a warning signal to the body, chronic pain persists even after the initial injury or illness has healed.

Chronic pain can have various causes, such as injuries, medical conditions (e.g., arthritis, fibromyalgia, neuropathy), nerve damage, inflammation, or certain chronic health conditions (e.g., cancer, multiple sclerosis). In some cases, the cause of chronic pain may not be clear.

The experience of chronic pain can vary widely among individuals. It may be characterised by aching, burning, stabbing, or throbbing sensations and can affect different parts of the body. Chronic pain can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, leading to physical limitations, emotional distress, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and decreased ability to perform daily activities.

Managing chronic pain often requires a multidisciplinary approach. Treatment may involve a combination of medication, physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychological counselling, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle modifications. The goal of treatment is to reduce pain, improve function, and enhance the overall well-being of individuals living with chronic pain.

Common symptoms associated with chronic pain

The symptoms of chronic pain can vary depending on the underlying cause and the individual experiencing it. Here are some common symptoms associated with chronic pain:

  • Persistent pain: Chronic pain is characterised by long-lasting pain that persists beyond the expected healing time of an injury or illness. The pain may be localised to a specific area or widespread throughout the body.
  • Aching or throbbing sensation: Chronic pain is often described as a dull, aching, or throbbing sensation. The intensity of the pain can range from mild to severe and may fluctuate over time.
  • Stiffness and reduced mobility: Chronic pain can lead to stiffness and reduced range of motion in the affected area. It may be difficult to perform certain movements or engage in physical activities.
  • Fatigue: Chronic pain can be physically and emotionally draining, leading to fatigue and a lack of energy. Sleep disturbances and the constant presence of pain can contribute to feelings of exhaustion.
  • Mood changes: Living with chronic pain can have a significant impact on a person’s emotional well-being. It is common for individuals with chronic pain to experience mood changes such as irritability, anxiety, depression, or a decreased interest in activities they once enjoyed.
  • Sleep disturbances: Chronic pain can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep. This can further contribute to fatigue and worsen the overall pain experience.
  • Cognitive difficulties: Chronic pain can affect cognitive functions such as concentration, memory, and decision-making. Individuals may experience difficulties with focus, attention, and mental clarity.
  • Emotional distress: The persistent nature of chronic pain can lead to emotional distress, including feelings of frustration, helplessness, and a sense of loss or grief related to the limitations imposed by the pain.

It is important to consult with a healthcare professional if you are experiencing chronic pain to receive a proper diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

How can ACT therapy help people suffering with chronic pain?

ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) can be helpful for individuals suffering from chronic pain by providing them with psychological tools and strategies to effectively manage their pain and improve their overall well-being. Here’s how ACT therapy can help:

  • Acceptance of pain: ACT encourages individuals to accept the presence of pain rather than fighting against it or trying to eliminate it completely. Acceptance does not mean passively resigning oneself to the pain experience. Rather, by accepting pain as a part of their experience, individuals can reduce the struggle and resistance that often exacerbate suffering. This acceptance allows them to shift their focus toward living a fulfilling life despite the pain.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness exercises such as sensory awareness, help to bring attention to the present moment and away from the focus on the pain. Individuals can learn to observe their pain without getting caught up in negative thoughts or becoming overwhelmed by it. This can help reduce the emotional distress associated with chronic pain and promote a sense of calm and acceptance.
  • Cognitive defusion: ACT helps individuals develop cognitive defusion techniques to distance themselves from unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about pain. By recognising that thoughts are not facts and learning to observe them without getting entangled in them, individuals can reduce the impact that negative thoughts have on their emotions and behaviour.
  • Values clarification: ACT helps individuals identify their core values and set meaningful goals. By clarifying what truly matters to them in life, individuals can focus on engaging in activities that align with their values, even in the presence of pain. This can provide a sense of purpose and fulfilment, despite the challenges posed by chronic pain.
  • Committed action: Individuals are encouraged to engage in activities and behaviours that promote their overall well-being, even when pain is present. This may involve gradually reintroducing enjoyable or meaningful activities that have been avoided due to pain, developing healthy coping strategies, and making lifestyle changes that support overall health and well-being. Taking committed action toward personal values and goals despite the challenging circumstances can be empowering and rewarding.
  • Psychological flexibility: ACT aims to enhance psychological flexibility, which is the ability to adapt to and engage with life’s challenges. Through acceptance, mindfulness, and values-driven action, individuals can develop greater resilience and flexibility in the face of chronic pain. They learn to respond effectively to pain rather than being controlled by it.

It’s important to note that ACT therapy is typically conducted by a trained mental health professional. They can guide individuals through the process and provide personalised support and guidance in applying ACT principles to their specific situation of chronic pain. Our team of ACT trained therapists are ready to help if you feel that this is an area of support you would benefit from.

We offer a range of live and on-demand training courses covering ACT therapy and chronic pain to support extended learning on this subject. Our blog and resource pages also offer additional reading and insight.

Upcoming live training

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3 hours (3 CE credits)
ACT for relationships

Dr Russ Harris

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12 hours (12 CE credits)
Working with chronic pain

Kevin E Vowles, PhD

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Two 3 hour sessions (6 CE credits)
Mastering ACT

Robyn Walser

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