Good Feelings in the Midst of Chronic Pain
Researchers have been slow to realize that happiness, excitement and calm can co-exist with physical agony.
By Judith Tedlie Moskowitz, professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University and director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
People living with chronic pain often experience depression and negative emotion, magnifying both the severity and ongoing nature of the pain. Although that may come as no surprise to someone who has lived with pain or other significant life stress, in fact, people also experience positive emotions in the midst of chronic pain—an idea researchers have been slow to realize. Positive emotion—feelings such as happiness, excitement and calmness—can lower perceptions of pain intensity, may break the vicious cycle of pain and negative emotion, and thereby reduce pain-related suffering.
“In my lab we study a program that teaches a set of skills for noticing, extending and creating more positive emotion, even in the midst of chronic stress, and we are testing whether people who learn these skills are less stressed and depressed.”
Unrelenting pain is demoralizing and can lead to hopelessness when it seems that nothing can be done to stop it. Intentionally cultivating positive emotional experiences through practice of activities such as gratitude or savoring small positive events in daily life thus offers one small way to stay engaged and actively cope with chronic pain. It is possible to experience moments of positive emotion even in the face of negative life experiences and these positive moments can provide a respite, and help to build resilience to continue coping in the face of the stress of living in constant pain.