Doctor Says It’s All in Your Head: The Role of Psychology Missing from Pain Treatment
Updated: Nov 13, 2022
Blog post written by, Liz Gruber, PhD
Have you ever been told by a doctor that the pain is all in your head? Truth be told, this is unfortunately very common, especially for women (Mcgregor, 2021). Such responses from your doctor often stem from them not fully understanding your pain. Despite such invalidating remarks by doctors, chronic pain is one of the most common medical conditions in the U.S. and hundreds of billions of dollars are spent annually on pain (American Chronic Pain Association & Stanford Division of Pain Medicine, 2021) leaving both economic and emotional tolls.
You also might be someone that has seen multiple doctors and received several unsuccessful procedures/treatments just to be told that nothing else can be done, leaving you once again hopeless. A lot of the time pain sufferers and well-intentioned doctors focus on the specific body area/s causing pain, neglecting the powerful role of the mind.
Evolutionary wise, the experience of pain is a way to help keep you safe from possibly causing further damage. Pain is like a dialogue between your body and brain. However, miscommunication between the two often occur in those with chronic pain. It’s common for errors to happen in communication but it can become a problem when such misinterpretations continue (Gordon & Ziv, 2021).
We are “creatures of habit” and are great at learning. When we repeatedly experience pain, the mind can be “too good” at experiencing it (Gordon & Ziv, 2021). This is why many people who initially report pain in one body area, later describe pain “spreading” to other areas. Pain can have a tremendous impact on quality of life and mental health. No wonder pain sufferers are desperate to be rid of pain.
Effective treatment approaches that integrate the mind and body can help you live a life no longer dictated by pain (Gordon & Ziv, 2021; Kabat-Zinn, 2013). Although it might seem counterintuitive or even terrifying, mindfulness and pain reprocessing therapy similarly emphasize being open and curious, while exploring where you hold unnecessary pain and tension in the body (Stahl & Goldstein, 2010; Gordon & Ziv). Like a reflex, we tense up and feel fear, sadness, anger, grief, and/or anxiety when we feel pain, which in turn, exacerbates it. Mind-body approaches allow one to be more in tune with their body, recognize the emotional reactions to pain and understand ways to work with it (Stahl & Goldstein).
Please stay tuned for future blog posts to learn more about how mind-body frameworks can help you work with pain. I want to assure you that your pain is real but there are ways to not be consumed by it. As Stahl and Goldstein have illuminated, “physical pain is a reality, but suffering is optional” (pp. 71).
American Chronic Pain Association & Stanford Division of Pain Medicine. (2021). ACPA and
Stanford resource guide to chronic main management: An integrated guide to medical, interventional, behavioral, pharmacologic and rehabilitation therapies. American Chronic Pain Association, Inc. & Stanford University Division of Pain Medicine.
Gordon, A. & Ziv, A. (2021). A revolutionary, scientifically proven approach to healing chronic pain: The way out. Penguin Random House.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, & illness. Batman.
Mcgregor, A. J. (2021). Sex matters: How male-centric medicine endangers women’s health and what we can do about it. Quercus.
Stahl, B. & Goldstein, E. (2010). A mindfulness-based stress reduction workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Yong, J. R., Mullins, P. M., & Bhattacharyya, N. (2022). Prevalence of chronic pain among adults in the United States. Pain. 163(2), 328-332. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002291
Elisabeth Gruber, PhD
Eating Disorders and Chronic Medical Conditions Expert
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