How pain can impact our mood – and what we can do about it

Chronic pain will inevitably impact every aspect of a person’s life.

Living in a constant state of pain wasn’t something I could have prepared for. I have chronic pancreatitis – a condition caused by my cystic fibrosis, in which my pancreas has become irreversibly damaged from inflammation and no longer works properly.

The emotional and physical stress that this constant pain places on my life is unimaginable. It causes me to feel a whole wave of emotions, from anger and sadness to confusion and irritability.

But I am not alone in my experiences. 

About 1.5 billion (or one in five) people globally suffer from chronic pain, according to research from the University of Boston.

And a study from Harvard found that people suffering from chronic pain are three times more likely to develop mood or anxiety disorders.

Why does pain impact our mood?

‘Pain and mood are inextricably linked,’ explains Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.

‘When we are in chronic pain, it is a daily challenge that can end up consuming our lives. It becomes difficult to focus on anything else. 

‘It can make us feel anxious, isolated, and low. In turn, this can end up exacerbating our physical symptoms too.’

Felicity, a physiotherapist, working alongside the Flippin’ Pain public health campaign, adds that those living in persistent pain would say their mood is impacted by the sensation itself (and the impact it has on sleep) as well as the tendency pain has to make their lives ‘smaller.’

‘Pain may stop people from being able to go out with their friends, or maybe they’ve had to quit their job, or they don’t feel like they can be as good a parent/partner/friend as they’d like to be,’ Felicity explains.

‘You can imagine there can be a lot of shame associated with these feelings and, understandably, depression and anxiety are commonly seen in those with persistent pain.

‘When sleep is impacted, this can also have a huge impact on our mood, especially if the problem continues long term.’

Is there anything we can do to control this?

‘I think it’s important to say here that there will be many factors affecting someone’s mood and mental health that are not in their control,’ Felicity tells 

‘Sometimes there are things we can change, and if something improves your mental health, there’s a good chance it will contribute to some pain relief too.’

Dr Elena suggests there are some things we can do to control the impact pain has on our mood.

‘Although it’s hard, we need to find a way to radically accept what we are going through,’ she says.

‘Accepting our situation doesn’t mean that we like or approve of it. It is simply about seeing things as they are. 

‘When we are able to accept the reality of the present moment for what it is – however painful it is – we can turn our focus to how we can improve it.’

Pain can often lead to avoidance behaviours, according to Dr Elena, who suggests that those in pain are often scared to make things worse and, in turn, end up limiting their lives.

‘As a result, our pain can end up becoming the dominating feature in our lives,’ she says. 

Felicity suggests reaching out to friends and family for support.

‘Try talking to them about how pain makes you feel,’ she adds. 

‘When life looks very different because of pain, and it’s affecting your mood, think about what you can do to make life feel fuller again. 

‘These things may have to be adapted because of your pain – maybe you ask a friend to come to you so you can guarantee a comfortable seat, or you try a home workout so you can take breaks when you need.

‘Some people may also benefit from talking to a professional or a support group instead, and others may benefit from talking to their GP about medication and other options.’

Dr Elena suggests a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that ‘focuses on helping people let go of the struggle to control pain and build a life that is meaningful and fulfilling in spite of it.’

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