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What do people with chronic pain have in common with elite athletes? They use sports psychology techniques…


Following on from my interview with Pete Moore from The Pain Toolkit, I thought I would write about using sports psychology techniques in chronic/persistent pain management .

If you suffer from chronic or persistent pain you may feel this is not for you. You have enough to deal with just getting through day to day. I am going to try to persuade you to look at things from a different point of view. 

Have you ever thought of treating your chronic pain as a challenge rather than a burden? 

Here is an idea. Imagine that you were going to run a marathon by the summer. You wouldn’t just turn up on the day and hope you could run more than 26 miles, would you? You would know that to be successful you would need to put in months of preparation. So, what would this involve?

  • Physical training, slowly building up your strength and stamina.
  • Looking after yourself physically. This will involve things such as making sure your diet is its best and working to stop unhealthy habits you may have such as smoking or drinking too much. 
  • Working on your mental capacities. Making sure that you have the mind tools to cope with adversity and get over difficult times. 

If you did all that you know you would have a much better chance of succeeding when it came to the day when you will run the marathon. And it can be the same if you are learning to deal with chronic pain. 

How does this help me if I am suffering with chronic pain?

I think there is a lot we can learn here. I have used some sports performance techniques with my clients in my psychology/hypnotherapy for pain clinics in Milton Keynes and in Bedford. 

Let me tell you what I do. 

A different mindset for chronic pain

I start by getting you the client into a different mindset. One where you are not just managing on a day-to-day basis with no vision of the future. Instead I will help you set goals. These will be realistic; it is no help to you if you have a goal which is physically impossible for you to reach. A goal which you can reach, but which you will need to strive to reach is ideal. 

It has to be something which will enthuse you. Think about what you would really like to be able to do and feel you cannot at the moment. This could be a physical activity, swimming once a week or walking in your favourite countryside for example. Or it could something social. Perhaps you would like to be able to sit through a film or feel confident enough to go out to dinner with your family.

First find your goal, then make a plan

First of all, find your goal.

Then comes some solid practical work. What would it take to achieve your goal and what are the steps along the way? 

It is here I apply principles of sports psychology to chronic pain. 

Set milestones along the way

Once we have our goal, we can set milestones on the way to that goal. If you were running a marathon you would start with shorter runs, and other activities to build your strength. We can do the same as you work to your goal. 

Let’s take an example. If your goal is to swim 20 lengths three times a week then you may need to build up. This will depend on your own physical strength and how you feel. If you can only manage a few widths to start with that is fine. Enjoy how much better that little bit of swimming is making you feel. 

If you want to go out more then perhaps start with some small events. A cup of coffee can be the first milestone on a journey to that big family meal. 

Tackle chronic pain by living in the moment

Your mental attitude is key here. One thing I always encourage is living in the moment. Yes, your two widths in the pool are a step on the way to those lengths. But it is fun in itself, so enjoy it for what it is. That cup of coffee might be the first time you have met with friends outside for some time. If you enjoy it you will be putting the techniques, tactics and mental attitudes in place. That will take you nearer to those bigger social events, but it’s good to chat with friends and enjoy a tasty drink anyway. So, live for today. You will feel happier and more confident.

Setbacks are not the end

Setbacks will happen. To go back to our marathon analogy, not every day of training will go well. Sometimes you will be slower, sometimes you will feel down. 

There are some tried and tested techniques to get you past this. When things go wrong or you feel you will never reach your goal then take a step back.  Ask yourself what you can learn from this. 

Step outside and look and learn

Imagine you are outside of yourself and your situation. You are looking at what is going on. Imagine looking at what is happening from all angles. Then ask yourself what you could change to change the outcome. Learn and make the changes you can make. 

Distract yourself

Do this but do not obsess about it. Dwelling on failure is generally a route to nowhere.  Instead do something else and let the failure fade. 

The something else can just be making some pleasant thoughts. We often underestimate the power of thought to change us. I often talk to clients about their favourite memories or their most treasured dreams. I then encourage them to make these thoughts even more special. 

This is easy to do. Take yourself to a quiet place. Relax and then make pictures, sounds, and feelings around your treasured thoughts. Take time and enjoy the experience, then deliberately try to increase its intensity. 

The secret is that these thoughts can act just as powerfully as a real experience. It will lift your mood and improve the way your body is functioning as well. You may well find that after doing this your blood pressure is more stable for example. 

Remember these things

So, to sum up. Allow yourself the mental space to work on your goals. Decide what is important to you and work out a plan for achieving that. Have milestones along the way to your goal. But don’t just focus on the goal, enjoy the process of getting there as well. Live for the moment as well as planning for the future. Remember the power of your mind. Take a mental holiday if you are feeling down. You will soon bounce back.

A lot of this is about building routines and allowing yourself time. Do not feel guilty. You will need to put yourself at the centre sometimes. 

You may find one of my books useful as you embark on your goals. Try my book Break the Pain Cycle in 28 days: Pain Busting Techniques for Every Day of the Month


It will help you pace and plan and be a good companion to you on your journey. 

Good luck

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