Depression and Chronic Pain

Unlearning Helplessness: Fighting Depression and Staying Optimistic When Dealing With Chronic Pain

In the medical and psychological communities, the idea that a sick person’s mental status and stress-coping mechanisms affect their body is hardly new. Years of studies have demonstrated the power of the mind in healing the body: keeping an optimistic attitude lessens chronic pain and speeds recovery. Some studies suggest that optimism boosts the immune system – preventing disease and helping the body recover from illness faster – and a recent Mayo Clinic study even shows that people with an optimistic outlook live 20 percent longer than those who see the glass half-empty.

For chronic pain patients, there are obvious health benefits to being optimistic – but is your personal attitude and outlook on life really something you can control? Can you actually turn years of pessimistic and depressed thoughts upside down during a time of such great challenges for your body and your mind? 


Many lifelong pessimists fall into a behavior pattern called learned helplessness – a sense of a complete lack of control over one’s life, or that one’s actions are futile and will have no effect on the outcome of a bad situation. In a way, the patient has “given up” on changing his or her situation. First theorized by psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1960’s, learned helplessness is an all-encompassing life outlook that affects the way an individual copes with emotional as well as physical pain: uncontrollable bad events disrupt a person’s ability to adapt to stress, while controllable bad events can be changed or avoided (making them less stressful).

Chronic pain patients often fall into this pattern because they begin to see their pain as an uncontrollable event. Without the comfort or hope of relief, pain patients can easily fall into depression, reject the support of loved ones, or abandon their search for solutions. It’s important to stay positive by remembering that treatment centers – such as Twin Cities Pain Clinic – provide a wealth of innovative treatment options and programs for managing chronic pain. The “helpless” coping style is learned – and it’s possible to retrain your outlook by disputing your own views, building a support network, and actively looking for a solution to your problem.

Don’t let pain control your life – or define who you are.  

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