Chronic Pain Depression: Mental Health Tips

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chronic pain depression

Are you struggling with chronic pain depression?

There are plenty of things in our lives that worsen our mental health, but perhaps none more so than chronic pain.

Chronic pain is incredibly difficult to manage on it’s own. But making matters worse is our cultural conditioning.

We tend to underestimate the way physical health conditions can impact mental health. 

We say things top try to minimize and block out pain:

  • Just do it
  • No pain no gain
  • Mind over matter

While there is merit to discipline and strength, with chronic pain sadly these approaches backfire completely.

Because no matter how hard you try, the pain never goes away!

It’s chronic!

Chronic pain can feel hopeless and depressing.

According to one study, a large portion of chronic pain sufferers experience mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety, which can lead to destructive habits.

What’s a person to do for their mental health in the face of debilitating chronic pain?

That’s what we’re covering in this article today.

We’re going to give tips for managing mental health with chronic pain, so you can help protect your psyche as you fight through the pain. 

Why Depression Happens

Depression happens for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that people lose control.

When you feel like your body (and pain) is taking over, it can be easy to feel out of control.

You start to feel like you are no longer yourself; rather, your physical pain has become your identity. You continue thinking you’ll never get better or worse – just different.

Then, depression creeps in and takes hold without much warning at all.

It seems like you have no control over your body and cannot change things.

About Major Depressive Disorder

Depression comes in ranges.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a severe form of depression.

MDD is a mental health condition characterized by persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest.

People with MDD may experience a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Feeling sad or down most of the time
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Trouble sleeping or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite, resulting in weight gain or loss
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Inability to focus or think clearly
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you are experiencing five or more of these symptoms for more than two weeks, it is important to seek professional help.

Professional help can help because then at least you are doing SOMETHING for your mental health.

Because part one of managing mental health with chronic pain must focus on regaining control!

Reaching out for help, strangely, is one way of gaining back control.

Please know reaching out for help can be difficult because of our cultural conditioning (like mind over matter, don’t be weak, etc).

Nonetheless, finding ways to ‘get back’ control is vitally important in treating pain and major depression.

But how do you regain “control” when you can’t change physical reality?

Compassion First

dr neff three elements of self compassion

One of the first things you must do is to show yourself compassion.

You need to make sure your mindset isn’t making the problem worse.

This means avoiding phrases like “just be tougher” or discouraging words that make you feel less worthy.

It’s very easy for people in chronic pain to become depressed and start thinking negatively about themselves, their situation, or even worse, other people who are healthier than them.   

It is important to remember that one of the most important steps towards overcoming depression, negativity, anxiety etc., starts with ourselves!

By showing ourselves compassion, we are taking a proactive step to prevent mental deterioration.

A good rule of thumb when it comes to this kind of pain:  tough love goes out the window.

Acceptance and Mindfulness

psychological flexibility for acceptance and commitment therapy

The second step is to start accepting the pain for what it is.

It’s not going away, so you might as well try to make the best of it.

Learning to live with chronic pain can be incredibly difficult on your mental health, but it’s possible to do so by using different tactics such as mindfulness and acceptance.

Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment, living in the here and now. This is a great practice to adopt when you’re struggling with chronic pain because a lot of the time, our minds are stuck in the past or future.

We’re worried about things that have already happened or fretting about things that may never happen. This type of worry only adds to our pain. By staying in the moment, we can keep stress levels low and focus on getting through each day.

You can practice mindfulness by taking a few minutes each day to sit down and meditate or just take 5 deep breaths throughout your day when you need it most.

For more info on mindful eating, read here!

Mindfulness for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain ignited the mindfulness revolution.

Back in the 1970’s mindfulness was sneered at in disdain. Serious people didn’t meditate!

But now everybody thinks meditation is good for mental health, including Oprah and Tony Robbins!

What changed?

Everything changed once John Kabat Zinn methodically studied the impact of mindfulness on chronic pain for the first time in the late 70’s!

He found, from a scientific perspective, that mindfulness made a dramatic positive difference in the lives of people with chronic pain!

People with chronic pain saw incredible results!

  • pain and depression went down dramatically
  • chronic pain in joints was perceived as “less” even though physically it was the same
  • overall physical pain went down

Now mindfulness is being used in hospitals, clinics and now even as a first-line treatment for chronic pain!

For more info on how mindfulness can help reduce chronic pain and major depression, see this powerpoint from the American Chronic Pain Association.

Identify What You Can Control

One of the biggest reasons chronic pain harms mental health is because of the way it makes us feel out of control, even of our own bodies.

But one of the reasons mindfulness and compassion WORK is precisely because they give you back control.

They are about controlling your relationship to pain.

Turns out physical symptoms of pain WORSEN when we feel out of control.

Yes, that’s right.

Your nervous system actually responds with worse chronic pain and depression when you feel out of control.

Because mental health and pain go together. The worse mental health, the worse pain.

But flip the script.

If you feel like you have some degree of control then you’ll have more pain relief. With more pain relief, your nervous system will feel better.

The pain and depression will alleviate to a significant degree.

Because while we can’t always control the way our bodies feel, we can help create a better mental space by taking advantage of things we can control, such as:

  • The types of foods you eat
  • Exercise regimen 
  • Hygiene
  • Your social interactions 
  • The space you live in
  • Aspects of your physical appearance, such as your hair and clothing 

Remember that moments of taking control don’t have to be major, nor should you take the mindset of trying to control everything.

Simply taking a shower, going for a walk, or carving out an hour to talk to a friend will help remind you that you aren’t helpless and are valuable. 

Look for Natural Ways To Manage Pain 

Pain medication can be invaluable for managing your symptoms when you have conditions that cause chronic pain. However, some medications can potentially trigger or worsen depression. 

This is not to say you should go off your pain medications, especially without a doctor’s advice.

But there is something to be said for finding additional, more natural ways to manage pain to bolster pain management.  These can include, for instance: 

  • Hot and cold treatments 
  • Massage 
  • Chiropractic treatments 
  • Stretching 
  • Aromatherapy 

There also are some foods that are natural pain relievers. For instance, turmeric, tart cherries, and blueberries are known to help reduce pain and inflammation.

CBD may also provide relief for chronic pain and can easily be added to recipes.

It all comes back down to control.

No, you cannot take away or even minimize the pain.

But you CAN learn skills that help you stay neutral towards the pain, instead of falling into depression and sliding further into despair.


The benefits of mindfulness for chronic pain are numerous, but the most notable is that it can help you take control back.

Identifying what you CAN control and adopting a positive mindset will be beneficial in managing pain or depression caused by chronic illness.

As long as these principles are practiced consistently, they should make an impact on how well you handle living with chronic pain every day.

Please don’t hesitate to find support. There are pain rehabilitation programs which address both pain and depression.

Other types of therapy that help you change your thoughts, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also can greatly assist.

Pain management is definitely possible. While treating pain away entirely is NOT possible, you can still live a life worth living.

About the Author

Jared Levenson is a former binge eating wrestler turned Zen Buddhist Monk, Internal Family Systems counselor and nutrition wellness coach. He's helped hundreds of people through universal meal principles and internal family systems to make peace with food, stop binge eating, and find true health and wholeness.


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