Let's look at 'thinking positive'

I am of two minds on this whole thinking positive thing for chronic pain. I do believe that in some sense thinking positive can help motivate ourselves to handle the pain through the day better. On the other hand, I have depression and thinking overtly positive rings so false to my ears my brain ‘rejects’ the thought. Which is counterproductive. I prefer thinking realistic. And I have to with depression to counteract negative or unhelpful thoughts.

Thinking positive with chronic illness

Nevertheless, thinking positive has been looked at. In 2014 a study in cognitive behavioral therapy (CB) showed 5 minutes of it led to a 60% reduction in pain. They used thermal probes to apply heat to the arms of the 34 subjects, creating pain similar to a burn. When asked to rate the severity of the pain those who had undergone pain training therapy before gave scores of 58% lower than the control group. Although to me this suggests more that CBT works, less than positive thinking, and CBT is more than that.

Although, yes, of the 34 half were trained to control negative thoughts relating to pain, and the other have was given training unrelated to pain. So even those with secondary hyperalgesia from the thermal stimulation the pain trained group had 38% reduction in its pain, while the control group had an increase in hyperalgesia pain.

The CBT-trained group also reduced the self-reported ‘unpleasantness’ of the eight pain sessions by 58 per cent, said Dr Salomons. This indicated that CBT changed the emotional response to pain as well as the sensitivity of skin around the burn. MailOnline

Another study linked inflammation and pain to the anticipation of a positive outcome.’

Dr. Tetsuo Koyama from Wake Forest University reported that expecting a positive outcome could reduce pain perception by 28%. His team told test subjects to expect three different levels of pain: mild, moderate, and severe. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) was used to measure what part of the brain was involved.
By mixing up the signals so that the people who expected only moderate pain but were exposed to severe stimulus, their pain rating was 28% lower than predicted. Researcher Robert Coghill explains, “Pain is not solely the result of signals coming from an injured body region but, instead, emerges from the interaction between these signals and cognitive information unique to every individual.” Positively Positive

Full link to that study here.

And this isn’t mentioning the specific studies for neuropathy, fibromyalgia and back pain I came across with absolutely no digging at all. Because, yes, the perception of pain, reaction to pain, affect pain. We know that. It is like we know when we dwell on pain, it is worse. And if we dwell on pain and think all those horrible dark thoughts… it is likewise worse. So the opposite is also true.

I want you to think about this section here. Because often with positive thinking, and likely because of my comorbid depression, it was hard to do, for one, and secondly, those thoughts rang so false they had no strength. Not like a thought that was far more negative would have.

 “Positive Thinking” is so much easier to do when you are not suffering with depression. Trying to constantly think positively when depressed is exhausting and we often end up depleting our already limited energy reserves. Secondly the idea that we must “think positively” when we clearly aren’t or we feel unable to do it, can make our depression worse as oops, now there’s another thing we’ve failed at.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT for short, we like to think differently. We ask our depressed and anxious patients to try to suspend the positive or negative judgement on what they are thinking and to ask themselves a different question– “Is my thinking helpful or unhelpful”. And when we say ‘helpful’ we mean:

1: Does that thought or idea make you feel the way you want to feel?

2: Does that thought get you to become the person you wish to become?

3: Does that thought or way of thinking aid you in achieving your goals and where you want to be in life? Counselling Directory

So when I think about it I don’t think about it as positive thinking at all. I think about it as realistic thinking. Countering unrealistic negative thoughts that Automatically take space in my head.

So think about those questions that last section mentions in your day to day life coping with pain.

Say I think ‘I can’t function today. The pain is too great. I am useless’ as soon as I get up in the morning. And if I do, imagine my day. Assuming I get going at all.

Does it make me feel the way I want to feel? No. I will feel guilty. Because I will end up not doing things because I cannot function. I decided it from the get-go.

Does that thought get you to become the person you want to become? Not at all. I want to be able to function on a basic capacity. And I know on some level that I can.

Does it aid me achieving my goals? No. It does the opposite. It is saying from the get-go this is insurmountable pain and I can’t do anything about it, so don’t do anything about it. So my goals are shut down.

What would make me feel better? ‘I will do what I can to manage the pain in every way possible so that I can function to the best of my capacity. I can manage this pain. I am not useless.’

It gives me some power back. It motivates me to achieve my goals. It motivates me to manage my pain as best I can. I may have to be moderate in activities and pace all day, depending on pain levels, but I will Feel right away that I Can manage that day.

I have to find ways to convince myself that I can, in fact, cope with the level of pain I am in. That I can manage it. That I can function with it. The negative thoughts? They harass me far too easily. So I have to counter it with realistic thoughts. With motivation. With common-sense… I have done it before, I can do it again. With goals… this is what I Want. With an understanding, if I do not, I will emotionally feel so much worse.

So yes, when someone tells you, you need to just think positive they are being trite. And it isn’t as simple as that. CBT therapy, on the other hand, effective to help a person cope with chronic pain. And likewise finding your own methods to turn those negative thought patterns into more realistic thoughts. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows in chronic pain land, but we know sunshine exists.

See also:

Not miserable? You must not have pain

Depression and thinking positive

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