Chronic Pain, Self-talk, and Distraction

841479_17427852One important part of a chronic pain control plan is changing your self-talk. Self-talk is the dialogue you have inside your head in response to a situation or pain episode. For example, you are having a pain episode, your self-talk might go something like this: “This is hopeless, there is nothing I can do, I’m completely overwhelmed and it’s impossible to stop this pain.” One way to change your pain experience is learning how thoughts and actions influence your feeling and coping. By paying attention to negative self-talk and changing your thoughts you can learn to reduce and better manage pain (including emotional pain). Negative self-talk can affect the severity, duration, and intensity of your pain experience and your ability to cope with it too. In particular, catastrophizing (thinking that make things seem worse than they really are) about pain is likely to make you feel more helpless to cope and to suffer more. If you learn to recognize the thoughts that crank up your pain and distress, you can replace those thoughts with calming, soothing thinking that brings your pain level back down. You could think, “This is something I can manage, even though it is difficult.” By doing this you are more likely to feel competent to cope and to feel better about yourself and distract from your pain.

In addition to changing your self-talk, you can also learn skills to focus your attention in certain areas and distract yourself from others. A helpful skill for reducing pain or emotional distress is distraction. You may believe that there is nothing that can be done to stop your pain. You may feel that you need to be dependent on drugs in order to cope. You may believe that you need to get rid of pain in order to live life at all. People with frequent or chronic pain often pay a lot of attention to bodily sensations. This means that they are very aware of pain and often suffer more as a result. The good news is that we have some control of our attention and can choose to focus on something else. Although some pain experiences or sensations are so strong that it’s very hard not to pay attention, most of the time we have some control over where and how much we focus our attention. Have you ever noticed that you’re not as bothered by pain if you’re involved in doing something interesting? This is because you’re just not as aware of pain (or distressful emotions) if you’re distracted by something and not paying attention to your body. Attention is the first step to perception. This is not ignoring pain, it is paying attention to something else. If you notice your pain when you’re doing a task, you don’t need to get upset, just return your attention to the activity of the moment.

Tips for Distraction and Changing Your Attention

Monitor your self-talk, reduce thoughts that make you feel bad and increase thoughts that contribute to feelings of confidence.

Do things that you enjoy and help take your mind off pain or feeling distressed.

Treat your senses. Light a scented candle, buy fresh cut flowers,  indulge in a massage, or take a hot bath.

Find positive meaning from your pain or disabling experience.

Schedule events with close friends or family.

Contribute to a cause or do something nice for someone else.

Make a gratitude list of things that are good in your life. Read it when you feel pain. Read it everyday.

Distract your thinking. Read a book, watch TV, or do a puzzle.

Generate different physical sensations. Sit outside in the sunshine, wrap yourself in a warm blanket, pet a dog or cat.

Look at something beautiful, like a flower or a piece of art. Go to a museum. Look at nature.

Listen to music that is soothing or uplifting. Pay attention to the sounds around you like birds, the wind in the trees, or ocean waves.

Have your favorite meal or dessert. Eat an orange slowly, paying attention to the flavor and texture.

Working on changing your self-talk is only one part of a chronic pain control plan. Strategies like distraction with pleasant activities and soothing sensations can be helpful. By figuring out what thoughts work for you and practicing attention diversion when you feel pain will result in feelings of control, less dependence on pain medication, and a better quality of life.


Thank you for reading this article.  My learning journey with chronic physical pain is a result of my experience with phantom limb pain.  I was graced with the gift of self-acceptance upon realization that my forearm was amputated.  Before my limb loss, I sacrificed my emotional and spiritual well-being for perfectionism and looked to others for approval at the cost of trusting my intuition and developing my self-worth.  My drive for perfection was crushed along with my arm.  I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to put an end to self-created emotional pain.  And, as I learn and grow, I teach self-compassion and give advice I use myself, in the hopes that it helps you to improve your own life.

5 thoughts on “Chronic Pain, Self-talk, and Distraction

  1. Good post. I was on bed rest last year and then in plaster after breaking my leg and it was terrible. I was constantly feeling hopeless and being negative to myself. On the other hand when I could go and do something the pain was bearable. I found some positives like having more time to read and draw. I also had hings to look forward to. Finally I am healed and no longer in pain.
    These days I am very aware of any negative self talk. Another positive thing from this is I am taking better care of my body and using positive thoughts and actions to enjoy my life. I even created a book of word art and affirmations that I sell and give as gifts. I want others to see how positive thoughts can improve their life.

  2. Very interesting how these suggestions can be applied to both physical and emotional distress. Discovered yesterday about the power of distraction. Suddenly found myself in a very agreeable office all day yesterday doing a writing project. I was doing what I do and what I love. When I got home last night, I found myself marveling at what a lovely and satisfying day it was and how my emotional stress was erradicated the entire day. I want more of that! Always love what you have to say.

    • Julie,
      I agree with your comments about applying these tools to ones emotional pain experience. Our thinking, emotions, and actions play such a big part in the chronic pain and emotional distress experience. For the chronic pain patient this is good/empowering news to know that their pain experience is so much more than pain signals traveling up the spinal cord to the pain centers of the brain. We can have some control over the severity, intensity, and duration of physical and emotional pain episodes.


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