The Cycle of Mind and Matter: How Chronic Pain Affects Mental Health

The Cycle of Mind and Matter: How Chronic Pain Affects Mental Health

Is it mind over matter or matter over mind? 

If you’ve ever had a broken heart, I’m almost certain you will never forget the feelings: the way your stomach plummets, like an anvil, the endless tears you cannot control, the tightness in your chest, that twinging pain that feels as though it will last forever.

Your breaking heart is not simply an emotional experience. It is a physical one, too.

How can pain be both emotional and physical?

When we feel, we feel fiercely. Sometimes to such an extent that it can feel physically unbearable. Heartache represents the perfect example of this; a breaking point. A point at which emotions run so deeply and so intensely that they begin to dismantle from the inside out, both spiritually and physically. Our bodies can suffer, sometimes with no end in sight, which can make dealing with the emotional problem we are facing that much more difficult.

This breaking point exemplifies the ways in which our minds influence our bodies and the way our bodies can influence our minds. Dualism of the mind and body is a concept proposed as early as the 17th century by French philosopher and scientist René Descartes, who argued that although the mind and body are separate entities, the two are tremendously interconnected (The MIT Press Reader, 2019).

What is chronic pain?

When you and I experience physical pain, it is normally acute, meaning we experience discomfort for a short while as the injury or infection heals. But eventually, we begin to feel like ourselves again. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case for roughly 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from pain (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). 

Chronic pain refers to any type of physical pain that lasts from weeks to years. It’s the #1 reason people seek medical care, including medical cannabis, and for good reason – chronic pain is a physical burden, but can quickly become a psychological one as well.

Imagine for a moment that this heartache lasted a lifetime. How do you think this would affect you?

What are the four major types of pain?

Pain actually isn’t as poetic as a broken heart. There are actually four different kinds of pain that can impact our bodies and ultimately our minds. All four kinds can be acute (short lasting) or chronic (lasting longer than six months). The four major types of pain include:

  1. Nociceptive pain: pain caused by tissue irritation
  2. Inflammatory pain: pain caused by abnormal inflammation/swelling
  3. Neuropathic pain: pain caused by nerve damage
  4. Functional pain: pain caused without an obvious source

What are the symptoms of chronic pain?

As previously mentioned chronic pain has everything to do with the length of time it’s experienced. Those living with chronic pain experience different symptoms day in and day out. The primary symptom is persistent pain, but this can lead to a number of other physical effects including:

  • fatigue
  • loss of energy
  • tense muscles
  • limited ability to move around/complete tasks
  • changes in appetite and sleep patterns

Chronic pain can also cause chronic stress, which can initiate or aggravate potentially serious physical health conditions in certain individuals. Increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and problems with the body’s immune, digestive, and reproductive systems are also reported. The physical repercussions of chronic pain are also reported to cause anxiety, stress, and worry. This can be agonizing for those who live with chronic pain and may lead to further mental deterioration.

How is chronic pain related to mental health?

Chronic pain can have a massive impact on mental health and overall quality of life because the mind and the body are so powerfully intertwined. Those suffering from chronic pain are at substantial risk for developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders because mental pain is often induced or exacerbated by physical pain. In fact, chronic pain sufferers are three times more likely to develop depression compared to their pain-free counterparts (Harvard Medical School, 2017).

Unfortunately, the cycle doesn’t end there – mental illness and other negative mental health effects caused by pain can actually make the pain worse and harder to deal with. In other words, those who develop depression or a similar mental health condition are more likely to perceive their pain more intensely and unforgivingly. The pain can manifest in a very real way for the individual. At a certain point, the individual might not be sure whether their pain is being perpetuated by the physical root of it, or the psychological consequences that stemmed from it.

How is mental health related to chronic pain?

Some individuals who do not have any physical ailments or pre-existing conditions, but who have mental illness, can actually develop physical pain due to their illness. And, like pain caused by external forces, this pain can become chronic. Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD can initiate physical pain and a number of physical symptoms, including body and headaches, fatigue and low energy, gastrointestinal problems, panic attacks, chronic stress, and a decreased tolerance for pain. It is important to keep in mind that pain caused by mental stress is not simply in one’s head.

This cycle of chronic pain and mental stress prevents individuals from feeling the best they can feel and from performing to the best of their ability cognitively, socially, and physically. Chronic pain may impair overall mood, mobility, alertness, ability to deal with stress, basic decision-making, sleep, and physical health. Chronic pain may make patients more prone to having mood swings and emotional outbursts. Feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness are common and can manifest in the forms of low self-esteem, irritability, and frustration.

The frustration of dealing with chronic pain can lead to feelings of inadequacy compared to others, isolation from those who don’t quite understand the pain or take it seriously, and lack of motivation to continue treatment based on fears that the pain will only continue to worsen. The pain itself and even the medications used to treat the pain can interfere with one’s ability to function positively. High costs of treatment to deal with chronic pain can initiate even more stress, especially if family is involved.

How do people deal with this cycle?

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that those living with chronic pain can learn to cope with both the physical discomfort and mental stress that accompany the pain. Each individual who experiences chronic pain is different, so it is important to keep in mind that some tools might be useful for some, while not as useful for others.

The first step to dealing with chronic pain is seeking medical attention and following any necessary recommendations for pain management, whether it be a medication regimen, physical therapy, surgery, etc. in order to decrease the pain as much as possible. Pain management can become an easier feat when one has the guidance and support to find what works for them.

Although the pain is chronic, it does not have to be unbearable. Simultaneously, seeking mental health treatment to aid in dealing with emotional symptoms can be extremely helpful. Treatment can include one-on-one counseling and even support groups.

If you are living with chronic pain, reducing stress in your life should be a top priority. Make sure you are caring for yourself physically as well as taking the time to relax mentally. Get plenty of rest, eat a healthy diet, participate in light physical activity if possible, and try to reduce intake of anything that might cause detriment to your body, such as alcohol or tobacco. 

Deep breathing, stretching, and massaging painful areas as needed can also be beneficial. Practicing mindfulness and meditation is another way to relieve tension in the body and reduce stress. Some people living with chronic pain successfully utilize cannabis to cope with symptoms as well.

It is so much easier said than done, but try your best to focus your time and energy into things you love so you have less time to focus on your pain. Above all, do not be afraid to seek support if you need it.


Bottom line

Phenomena like chronic pain and heartache demonstrates to us the powerful, sometimes complex ways our minds and bodies can become intertwined. Physical pain can become mental, and mental pain can become physical. In essence, mental health and physical peace are interconnected with one another. Dealing with chronic pain can not only be frustrating but physically and mentally taxing; those living with chronic pain deserved to be commended for fighting this battle. Living with chronic pain means catering to and balancing these parts of yourself – although it can be difficult, it is definitely not impossible. To all those living with chronic pain, we salute you silent troopers!

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Dahlhamer, J., Lucas, J., Zelaya, C. et al. (2018). Prevalence of chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain among adults – United States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep; 67:1001-1006.


Kleiber, B., Jain, S., & Trivedi, M. H. (2005). Depression and pain: implications for symptomatic presentation and pharmacological treatments. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 2(5), 12–18. 


Kohrt, B. A., Griffith, J. L., & Patel, V. (2018). Chronic pain and mental health: integrated solutions for global problems. Pain, 159 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S85–S90.


Miller, L.R., Cano, A. (2009). Comorbid chronic pain and depression: who is at risk? J Pain; 10(6):619–27.!po=14.4231

About the author

Caroline Platzman

Caroline Platzman is a Behavioral Health Counselor working with adults diagnosed with schizophrenia. She is passionate about mental health, journalism, nonprofit advocacy, and public relations. Caroline is also a dedicated guitarist and artist in her free time.

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