Sometimes when a person is referred to a clinical psychologist for help with a pain problem, the person’s initial reaction is: “Psychologists deal with mental problems. My pain is a real physical problem. How can a psychologist help me? Does this mean the doctor thinks it’s all in my mind?”
The following section explains how coping skills training can be an important component of pain management, and why a problem like chronic pain can be improved by using psychological techniques.
What is a Clinical Psychologist?
A clinical psychologist has an undergraduate degree in psychology, and then a post graduate degree specialising in the assessment and treatment of a range of physical and emotional difficulties. The clinical psychologist might also have a PhD in clinical psychology, but clinical psychologists are not medical doctors. They do not prescribe medication or carry out physical examinations.
What does psychology have to do with pain?
When we experience pain after an injury, illness or disease, we expect the pain to stop once the body has healed. Unfortunately the pain does not always stop, and it can continue long after the body’s tissues appear to have healed. Medical treatments to relieve the pain are not always successful, and over time the experience of persistent pain can affect all parts of a person’s life. Chronic pain can be emotionally distressing, it can affect your ability to work or to participate in your hobbies and leisure activities, and because of those changes there can be negative effects on family, friends and co-workers. Clinical research has shown that our experience of pain generally gets worse. Sometimes we can push ourselves to complete a task or finish a job, only to find that the pain flares up and we feel even worse.
Knowing how best to live with a health problem that you never expected to persist is a real challenge, which is why getting some help with it can be valuable.
Pain Coping Skills Training
Medical researchers have been testing behavioural methods of helping people with chronic pain to improve their quality of life for over 40 years. Pain coping skills training refers to scientifically validated strategies and techniques that are taught to chronic pain sufferers to assist them living with pain, and can include the following:
- Relaxation training
- Activity pacing techniques
- Attention diversion exercises
- Mood management techniques (cognitive therapy techniques)
- Medication reduction plans under medical supervision
- Communication skills training and couples coping skills training
- Assistance with vocational rehabilitation and integrating pain management into the workplace.
It should be noted that these techniques don’t cure pain, and they aren’t intended to. What they can do is help you to become more active, less reliant on others and to feel more in control of your pain – in other words, to suffer less. They also take time to learn (between 4 and 12 sessions is the typical number of sessions), and there is usually “homework” to be done outside of the consultations so that you can practise the strategies being discussed.
It is often very helpful to bring your partner or significant other along to the assessment, so that their perspective can be taken into account.
Please contact our receptionist for current consultation fees. Check with your private health insurer as you may be entitled to a rebate, or you can receive a reimbursement from Medicare if your GP provides you with a Care Plan.
Some useful resources:
- Pain, the brain and your amazing protectometer
- “A Different Approach to Pain Management: Mindfulness Meditation” TED Talk by Fadal Zeidan
- “Back Pain and Your Brain” TED Talk by William S. Marras
- Beyond Blue website
- Free Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) course
- CBT explained
- Download our brochure about Psychology and Psychiatry in Pain Medicine here: