I always want to explore my psychological, mental, emotional strengths or how to develop them with chronic pain. And there is a reason behind that. I am quite aware that medication doesn’t just resolve pain. In fact, it really doesn’t do that much for me. I have to do a whole lot of other things to help manage my pain. And one of them is just tweaking how I think about pain. I do this because I have Major Depressive Disorder and am all too aware of when that wasn’t treated how I thought about pain was a massive, Massive problem that magnified my pain and just shot down my coping strategies. And even with depression medication, How I think, How I react is often based on a formula dictated by my depression. It needs to be tweaked a lot.

Pain serves no functional purpose for survival. It is a malfunction of the actual system. It takes away from the normal experience of living. And normal pain drives us to Resolve it. We have no resolution available to us. And so we are thrown into trying to find ways to cope with it. And usually we struggle at first, as is totally normal. And then slowly we begin to figure out ways that work better and then better and then better yet. But that coping process is constant and the adaptation is constant.

maladaptive responses to pain such as excessive worry and focus on pain, and neutral responses (which while they don’t make things worse also don’t make them better), perpetuate chronic pain. Approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which reduces catastrophic pain thinking and supports mood and stress response, alleviates chronic pain—as do mind-body approaches which help people learn to reflect on pain without being consumed.

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Battling Chronic pain with positive psychology and cultivating character strengths

Now there is something called ‘Positive Psychology’. I am not fond of the name for that. It sounds like if a psychologist did it wrong I’d want to throat punch them. But actually it sounds like it has to do with improving life satisfaction and I have written about that before. I am All for that.

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose—to move beyond surviving to flourishing. Theorists and researchers in the field have sought to identify the elements of a good life. They have also proposed and tested practices for improving life satisfaction and well-being.

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But when you read about it many components are already familiar to me and I actually do. So if done right, I can see the benefits in how it can alter our perception and help us adapt and cultivate our coping strengths. As usual, it really depends if you get a psychologist you can work with. But also many things we can, and do, do ourselves.

Positive psychology offers additional avenues by which people can learn to live more fully in spite of chronic pain. In addition to tracking the intensity, frequency and character of pain, and the impact of chronic pain on day-to-day loss of function, the concept of “pain self-efficacy” is key.

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And I like the strengths mentioned in this article that we can choose to fortify in order to help cope.

Four hundred ninety-one participants with chronic pain rated pain severity and impact on function, pain self-efficacy (the ability to engage in regular daily activities in spite of pain), and completed a global self-assessment of character strengths. According to prior research, there are 24 different character strengths:

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  1. Creativity
  2. Curiosity
  3. Judgment
  4. Love of learning
  5. Perspective
  6. Bravery
  7. Perseverance
  8. Honest
  9. Zest
  10. Love
  11. Kindness
  12. Social Intelligence
  13. Teamwork
  14. Fairness
  15. Leadership
  16. Forgiveness
  17. Humility
  18. Prudence
  19. Self-regulation
  20. Appreciation
  21. Gratitude
  22. Hope
  23. Humor
  24. Spirituality

I reflected on this list and I have worked on many of these in the last decade or so that have had a massive impact on my capacity to cope with chronic pain. The ones that have worked for me, personally, have been: Creativity, curiosity, learning, perspective, perseverance, honest, forgiveness, gratitude, humour. And I would add resiliency on there- or perhaps as the result. And I would also add self-compassion for sure. But forgiveness, was one that was hard. The self-blame I had was pretty intense.

The article notes, however, that mental illness issues that we often deal with as well such as anxiety and depression have to be dealt with first before this approach is taken. And I completely agree with that. I often have said that my treatment and coping did not budge at all in pain management until my depression was managed. And my depression wasn’t managed until my pain was managed somewhat. And if they hadn’t been tackled together nothing would ever have worked and I would have been stuck in this tangled trap of severe depression and severe unmanaged pain.

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The idea behind the article is that what if we had a treatment plan, in addition to meditation and other coping strategies, that assesses our personality strengths and works With those to help us better adapt to chronic pain? It would be catered to our personal strengths. And that seriously intrigues me. I know what works for me may very well not work for another. And I know I have tried a lot of things. And discarded a lot of things. And just really jived with some things- like writing, journal writing, poetry, drawing… creative pursuits to express myself. It is something that Works for Me.

Using tools like journaling, ongoing self-assessment and specific behavioral changes, it may be possible to see significant improvements in a relatively short time—potentially setting the stage for long-term transformation. In addition to helping people to live which chronic physical pain, strength-oriented approaches may help with resilience to emotional pain and other chronic problems.

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But remember Positive Psychology is about improving well-being not repressing all negative things. And we experience negative emotions and we need to deal with those as well.

Although the focus of positive psychology is on happiness and fulfillment, it is important to understand that this does not mean people are advised to push away their negative emotions altogether. People who are flourishing make room in their lives for such inevitable states of mind.

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Anyway, it is an interesting coping concept to explore. Boosting our coping by focusing on positive character strengths. I think there is value in that just because in many ways our sense of self takes a real beating and sometimes our self-worth does too. Many we don’t always see those strengths for what they actually are, and therefore do not focus on them and help them flourish. In fact, I am not sure many of see our strengths anymore. We see the weaknesses. The lack. And maybe someone’s outside perspective would help with that.

See more posts on these subjects:

The story we tell ourselves

Chronic illness: Self-identity

Chronic illness: Our sense of self

8 thoughts on “Battling chronic pain with positive psychology and cultivating character strengths

  1. “I often have said that my treatment and coping did not budge at all in pain management until my depression was managed. And my depression wasn’t managed until my pain was managed somewhat.”
    Pretty sure I’m always stuck in that cycle! It can be hard to not just accept the pain and let it bring you down. Having an incredibly supportive husband is my only real morale booster, hard not to be happy around him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful article, Nikki. I really enjoyed it.

    Gratitude is huge for me. Being able to find a tiny moment in each day that is full of joy and that I can feel grateful to helps so much in getting through each day! It’s always the little things.

    I also very much like the comments on strengths and choosing to fortify them! That’s a great coping tactic that we should all employ as much as possible.

    Liked by 2 people

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