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Written by Tamara McClintock Greenberg, PSY.D, author of When Someone You Love Has a Chronic Illness.
Physical pain is one of the least understood perceptions. It is deeply personal and hard to define. Literally, one cannot understand the pain of another. Not knowing how someone feels, however, does not mean that you cannot be supportive. Loved ones play a tremendous role in the experience of pain, and, not surprisingly, good relationships can be a buffer against the hardships caused by chronic pain.
People who experience pain on a daily basis feel angry, helpless, and hopeless. They can act depressed, irritable, and as if they want to be alone. This can be difficult for loved ones who want to help but don’t know how.
Acute versus Chronic Pain
There are differences regarding the kinds of pain people experience. One main distinction is between acute and chronic pain. Acute pain has a recent onset and is a reaction to a new injury or surgery. In other words, there is actual tissue damage.1 This type of pain has immediate physical effects, such as an increase in metabolism and gastrointestinal activity. It also increases the “fight or flight” response. The fight or flight response is when we respond to an injury much like the way an animal responds when being attacked or what our early ancestors experienced when threatened by a predator. When in acute pain, we feel afraid and anxious. From a biological perspective, we feel that we need to fight the attacker or run for cover.
However, when it comes to pain, there is no external enemy. The attacker is inside. In this way, pain can be confusing, as the body understands it as a threat, yet the mind knows there is no real danger. For example, a diagnostic test performed by a doctor may cause pain. Intellectually, patients know the doctor is just trying to help. Physically, though, a patient may feel tempted to punch the person hurting them! In addition to creating feelings of anger, the fight or flight response can cause increases in blood pressure, stomach upset, and even shortness of breath, as our breathing becomes shallow. Though we may consciously know that we are not being attacked, our bodies don’t know better. This explains what many of us experience when we are in pain; we may feel like lashing out or simply hiding.
Our bodies feel attacked, so we think about fighting or fleeing. Pain sets off complicated physical and emotional reactions. We may not always be able to make sense of these reactions, as they often occur outside of our conscious awareness. But our bodies remember how to respond when feeling attacked, even though there is no external threat.
The good thing about acute pain is that it usually