The 7 Psychological Stages of Chronic Pain

By Jennifer Martin, PsyD, Columnist

Have you ever wondered if other people with chronic health conditions feel the same way you do?

Throughout my years with chronic pain and illness, along with the hundreds of patients I have counseled, I have found that, while everyone copes in their own way and experiences their condition uniquely, there are common feelings that most of us share.

When I first began counseling chronic pain patients, I often used Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief” to help them understand what they were going through. 

But as time went on, I reflected on what I experienced with my own chronic conditions and also on my patients’. It seemed that these stages, while very helpful, didn’t fully explain the broad range of emotions that people with chronic illness experience. 

After all, Kubler-Ross developed them to explain the responses to grief and loss. Having a chronic illness can be viewed as a type of loss, but they were not developed specifically to explain the emotions of people experiencing chronic conditions.

I used Kübler-Ross’s stages as a model to develop the Seven Psychological Stages of Chronic Pain and Illness: 

1. Denial

In this stage, we are in a state of shock and refusal. We wonder how our life is going to change and how we are going to live with those changes. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible.

This stage can be dangerous for people with chronic pain and illness because if they are in denial about their condition, they may not take the necessary steps to get themselves the treatment they need.

Example: “It’s not a big deal, it will go away” or “The doctor is wrong, I don’t have diabetes.”

2. Pleading, Bargaining & Desperation

This is the stage where we want more than anything for life to be what it once was. We become fixed on anything that could make our illness and pain go away -- or anything that could give us some semblance of the life we once had. 

We may find fault in ourselves and what we think we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain or illness because we would do anything not to feel them anymore. Guilt is common when bargaining. 

Example: “Please just don’t let this ruin my life” or “If you make the pain go away, I promise I’ll be a better person.”

3. Anger

After we conclude that our pleading and bargaining is not going to change the diagnosis, anger sets in. 

Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Feelings of anger may seem endless, but it is important to feel them. The more you truly feel anger, the more it will begin to subside and the more you will heal.  Your anger has no limits and it may extend to your doctors, family, friends and loved ones.

Anger is often felt later on when the illness and pain progresses, or holds us back from doing the things we would like. 

Example: “This isn’t fair! I didn’t do anything to deserve this!” or “Just give me something that will make me feel better!”

4. Anxiety and Depression

Feelings of emptiness and grief appear at a very deep level.  This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever.  It is important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness.  It is the appropriate response to a loss or a life-altering situation. 

We may withdraw from life and wonder if there is any point in going on.  Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural or something that needs to be snapped out of.  Being diagnosed with a chronic illness or experiencing chronic pain is a loss – a loss of the life you once had.

Having a chronic pain or illness may also bring up feelings of anxiety; anxiety about what the future holds, anxiety about not being able to live up to expectations, anxiety about social situations, anxiety about medical bills, etc.

Example: “I’m going to be in pain forever so why even bother?” or “I’m going to be in debt forever.  How am I ever going to pay off these medical bills?”

5. Loss of Self and Confusion

Having chronic pain or illness may mean giving up some key aspect of what made us who we were.  It may mean an inability to be physically active like we once were.  It may mean not being able to be as sociable as we would like or it may even mean giving up a career. 

You may wake up one day and not recognize the person you are now.  You may question what your purpose in life is now.  This stage may occur at the same time as anxiety and depression, or it may be separate.

Example: “I don’t even recognize myself anymore.” or “My career was my identity.  Who am I without that?”

6. Re-evaluation of Life, Roles and Goals

Having a chronic condition often means giving up a lot.  We are forced to re-evaluate our goals and futures.  We are forced to re-evaluate who we are as a husband, wife, mother, father, sibling or friend.  While we once had a successful career that gave us purpose, we may find ourselves beginning to question what we can do for work in the future and how we can contribute to our families. 

While we were once able to do it all, we are now re-evaluating what absolutely has to get done during our days and how we can accomplish these goals while still remaining in a positive mood.  Re-evaluating your life, roles and goals is a crucial first step in accepting your condition.

Example: “I may not be able to be a nurse anymore but maybe I could teach classes a couple times per week.” or “I can’t be as physically active with my husband anymore so what else can I do to show him I love him?

7. Acceptance

Acceptance is often confused with the idea of being “OK” with what has happened. This is not true.  Many people don’t ever feel OK about having to live with pain or an illness for the rest of their lives.

This stage is about accepting the reality of your situation and recognizing that this new reality is permanent. We will never like this reality and it may never be OK, but eventually we accept it and learn to live life with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live.

We must make adaptations and alterations to our lives. We must find new things that bring us joy.

Example: “I’m not going to let this define me. I will learn to deal with this the best I can.”

It's important to remember that these stages are not linear.  While some people begin in the denial stage, move through each stage and end with acceptance, many people jump back and forth throughout the stages.  I hope that these stages give some comfort to those who are experiencing chronic conditions.

Jennifer Martin, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist in Newport Beach, California who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. In her blog “Your Color Looks Good” Jennifer writes about the psychological aspects of dealing with chronic pain and illness. 

Jennifer is a professional member of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America and has a Facebook page dedicated to providing support and information to people with Crohn’s, Colitis and Digestive Diseases, as well as other types of chronic pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.