Chronic Pain and Emotions

Having a chronic disease like can spur an array of feelings

Emotions that come along with the pain, fatigue and other physical symptoms can be surprising and even overwhelming. You may be resilient and take the challenges of managing a chronic disease in stride. Or, you may be a more emotional person, with a variety of feelings coming at you every day. Most people experience an ebb and flow of control and anxiety. These feelings are natural and understandable. Your life stage, self-image, relationships, responsibilities, economic security and disease status will affect your emotions as you manage your disease.

The Emotional Gamut

The ways we react to a crisis are highly individual and varied. You may experience a range of many – sometimes contradictory – emotions simultaneously.

Some emotions you may encounter during your journey include:

  • Shock: You feel surprised at receiving a diagnosis of a chronic disease.
  • Relief: You feel somewhat eased that you have an explanation for those mysterious symptoms.
  • Confusion: You are unsure what the diagnosis means. What will the future hold? What do you have to do next?
  • Overwhelm: There’s too much to think about and deal with! Doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, medicine, work, family.
  • Anger: You’re mad because aspects of your life have changed. You may feel angry at yourself for being ill, at others for not “fixing” it or giving you more support, or at a higher power for “letting this happen to you”.
  • Frustration: You feel frustrated because of your persistent pain, reduced abilities and loss of control over life.
  • Anxiety and fear: You may be scared for the present and for what arthritis may bring in the future. This can be especially true if you’ve known someone who had severe arthritis.
  • Loss: You may feel a sense of loss over the life you planned, or loss for things you can’t do anymore.
  • Isolation: You may feel isolated and detached from your family, friends and community when you can’t participate in the same way you used to.
  • Helplessness: You may feel helpless if you have to start relying on others to do things you used to do on your own.
  • Hopelessness:  When your pain is bad and you have trouble doing things you need to do, your future may feel hopeless.
  • Guilt. You may feel bad if you can’t “pull your weight” around the house or on the job due to pain and fatigue.
  • Jealousy or resentment:  You may resent of feel jealous of your friends or family members who can do things you want to be able to do.
  • Embarrassment: You may feel embarrassed if you limp or have to ask for help opening a jar. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself and your reduced abilities.
  • Shame: You could feel shame if you knew the extra weight you were carrying was bad for your knees, but didn’t heed the doctor’s advice to lose weight.
  • Irritability: All that pain, fatigue, frustration and anxiety can make you irritable.
  • Stress and tension:  Physical, financial, relationship and self-image challenges can cause you to feel tense and stressed.
  • Sadness: You may feel low because of what you’re dealing with and for what you have lost. If your blues last for more than two weeks or disrupt your life, you may be dealing with depression and should seek help and support.
  • Depression: You experience a range of emotions that are debilitating and affects your ability to function.


Chronic pain – is also an expression of your state of mind.

If you’re depressed or anxious, you’ll very likely hurt more than when your mood is lighter or more balanced.  The fact that pain itself is depressing and worrying only makes the problem worse.

People with depression, for example, have about three times the risk of those without it of developing chronic pain. And, those with chronic pain have about the same increase in risk for winding up with clinical depression.

People who tend to be depressed or anxious are more susceptible to pain. Depression and anxiety can intensify feelings, including pain, hopelessness and sadness. Our brains are very “plastic,” meaning they respond eagerly to retraining, redirection and reframing. This can help break down problematic, and sometimes literally painful, mental patterns.
Relieving depression and anxiety makes people feel better physically.

Pain and the Brain 

Advanced imaging of brain processes is helping scientists understand why the mind-body connection is so strong.

Pain-related signals reach the brain through multiple pathways, but pain is constructed in the brain. Researchers use techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brain pathways that generate and regulate pain and emotion.


Calming Mind and Body

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). People with Chronic disease can use CBT to reshape their response to chronic pain and unhelpful thought patterns. CBT, which teaches people to recognize and change negative thought patterns. Studies have shown, for example, that six weeks of CBT improves depression, fatigue and feelings of helplessness in people.

Mindfulness practices. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, and similar practices can help direct and distract the mind away from a focus on pain. These are powerful tools for reducing the impact of chronic discomfort.

Exercise. Regular physical activity relieves depression and anxiety about as well as many prescription antidepressants. It also relieves pain and improves mobility.