Pain versus Suffering

by Dr. Linda Johnston, Clinical Psychologist

The signalling of pain by the human nervous system is meant to warn us or alert us to sudden injury. If an acute injury has occurred, (if I’ve been hit on the shoulder by a heavy object or if I have cut my finger),  the pain signal tells me about the injury in order that I can take appropriate action.

What about chronic pain? The nervous system sends the same pain signals, unfortunately, in circumstances in which the pain has become chronic or long-term, when there may not be action immediately required. Examples of chronic conditions involving pain and the need to manage pain include arthritis, cancer and cancer treatment, chronic pain itself (for example, as a result of a physical accident), fibromyalgia, IBS/IBD, ulcers and others.  

Pain management is only one of the management skills required by the sufferer. Other management skills would include breathing techniques, cognitive management, emotional management, exercise, fatigue management, medications, nutrition, and relaxation skills and a variety of other tools and skills depending on which chronic condition you suffer from.  Your family doctor and other medical specialists may have been involved early on and you may been prescribed medications. It becomes quickly apparent that you must be involved  in pain management and these other management skills.

So now to the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is that signal through the nervous system, in the case of chronic pain, a signal that is not helpful and that we really want to go away. Suffering is what our mind does with that signal. It interprets the signal then in many cases begins a litany of fear-based or experience-based negative predictions. Oh no, it’s worse again. I won’t be able to function for days now. Why me? This is never going to end. I can’t bear this. This is worse than it’s ever been before. etc, etc.

If our mind simply noted “oh, a pain signal”, we wouldn’t suffer. The mind likes to dig in and try to “understand” or analyze or predict and this is what causes suffering. You can, however, learn new mental habits and learn to direct the mind closer to current factual reality and problem solving and away from the unnecessary negative and painful thoughts and feelings. Techniques such as CBT and Mindfulness are very appropriate in helping in this regard. There are many good materials available on these techniques; look for materials developed based on solid research, for example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work with Mindfulness and chronic pain. As psychologists, we are able to help you learn or further develop  these mental and emotional management skills as well as help you with most of the other management skills listed above.