6 Emotional Stages of Chronic Pain

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Emotions are part of our life experience and influence how we cope with challenging situations such as chronic pain.

Emotional responses to pain are not “bad” or “negative” because they are a natural response to life events. For example, depression is often seen as a sign of poor health, but it can also be a way of conserving bodily energy.

Emotions are never a sign of weakness. Emotions are adaptive responses which have helped us survive as a species.

Did you know there are normal emotional stages of injury and pain? Not everyone goes through every stage and it is not a linear process. Sometimes we bounce from stage to stage in no particular order.

Let’s look at these 6 emotional stages of chronic pain:

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Denial

Denial is when we refuse to acknowledge how we feel and try to conceal the problem. When we’re in this stage our thoughts are likely: “It’s probably nothing serious” or “It will pass soon enough.”

Typical denial behaviour would be to ignore the pain, keep going as though you’re not in pain, failure to seek medical attention, and not following medical advice. Basically, you’re acting like nothing is going on in your body.

Denial is also culturally reinforced by beliefs that we should “suck it up, don’t complain and keep working.”

Fear and Anxiety

We feel fear and anxiety when the reality of something wrong hits home. You will likely be thinking quite repetitively during this stage. Typical thoughts would be: “Something is very wrong” or “What’s going to happen to me?” 

In this stage, your behaviour might be to rest and withdraw or avoid activities to protect yourself from further injury or pain. You will find yourself preoccupied with a lot of worry. You will likely begin to scan your environment and your body for threats to either, and it will be hard to commit to work or play.

Depression

Depression is the most common response to chronic pain and tends to come after fear and anxiety. Your thoughts would be normal in this stage if they were: “What’s the use?” or “Why bother with anything anymore?”

Realize none of this is enjoyable or desired; it is a normal response to chronic pain. Your behaviour would be to reduce participation in normal physical activities – even the enjoyable ones.  Social withdrawal would continue as a protective adaptation and you might experience problems with sleep.

Depression can impair your sense of self and you may grieve the loss of your identity. If you’re not an employee and parent anymore, then who are you? It is normal to withdraw in depression when your world shrinks in size.

Anger

Another emotional stage, and one I am quite familiar with, is anger. This defensive behaviour is the “fight” in the fight-flight-freeze response. It energizes you to resist the problems that come with chronic pain, and to ward off danger and restore safety. Normal angry thoughts about your pain would be: “It’s not fair” or “Why me?”

Behaviours in this stage can sometimes be troublesome, as they may become impulsive (acting or speaking quickly without thinking it through) or compulsive (repetitive behaviour not serving a purpose). You may overreact to smaller things and blow up at others. You might also engage in risky behaviour such as abusing alcohol or other substances to try to numb yourself.

The key is to express your anger in a healthy manner and hopefully transform it into affirmative action.  This is where you find the message in your anger and put it to work for you. I put my anger to work for me as I advocate for chronic pain patients on a regular basis.

Shame

Shame is not to be confused with guilt. Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad” while shame says, “I am bad.” Shame comes from how we see ourselves as damaged goods and can lead to feelings of self-loathing and disgust. You might think: “I’m worthless” or “I’m a complete failure.”

As a therapist, I find this to be a particularly powerful and difficult stage for clients, as shame often takes up all the space in the room. Behaviours in this stage would be continued social withdrawal, a decrease in assertiveness and self-confidence, and possibly self-destructive behaviours such as abusing alcohol or drugs.

Acceptance

The final emotional stage of coping with chronic pain is acceptance. Some patients reach this stage fairly quickly and others never reach it.

Let me be crystal clear about acceptance: It does not mean that you want this pain or that you like this pain and gladly accept it. Absolutely not. What it does mean is that you accept yourself without judgment, you live in the present moment, and you accept what is. Your thoughts will be along these lines: “This is not my fault” or “I can and will cope with this.”

Behaviours begin to change in this stage. You will be less focused on the past and have more realistic expectations of yourself. You will maintain appropriate levels of physical activity, use medications appropriately, reduce your emotional stress, and begin to experience feelings of peace rather than constantly beating yourself up.

Acceptance does not mean that you no longer feel any of the other emotions.  You may still experience feelings of denial, fear and anxiety, depression, anger and shame, but they will be less often and with less intensity.

Acceptance -- which includes hefty doses of self-compassion -- does not cure anyone’s physical pain, but it does facilitate better coping and reduced emotional stress. You do not accept pain because you want it or like it, but because it is here, you have it, and you respond to it in a kinder, gentler way.

The purpose of acceptance is to engage in activities that you feel have value. Within this purpose, acceptance becomes relevant and necessary. As a consequence, there is often less time spent struggling against and trying to avoid pain -- time freed up to engage in more valued pursuits.

It may take some time and support to acquire this tool, but once you have, it’s yours for life. Double entendre fully intended.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

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.