How a Positive Attitude Can Improve Your Pain – and Your Life

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How a Positive Attitude Can Improve Your Pain – and Your Life

I often hear my pain patients express regret about treatments they chose in the past (“I should have never had that surgery”) or remorse for the unhealthy lifestyle choices they’ve made, like smoking, avoiding exercise, or eating junk food. And sure, the treatment and lifestyle choices you made in the past do play a big part in determining your health – but so does the attitude you choose to have today. Your attitude can greatly impact how you respond to treatment, the way you are treated by others, and basically, whether or not you feel happy and fulfilled at the end of the day.

I see firsthand what differentiates successful patients from those who continue to struggle and suffer, and the one attitude or state of mind that always seems to correlate with positive outcomes is that of gratitude. That special quality of feeling grateful or thankful toward others or about life as a whole seems to carry with it unique healing powers. In fact, gratitude has been associated with a longer life, a better mood, and even a better immune system. In my clinic, those who smile the brightest are the ones who are the most grateful for what is positive in their lives despite their very challenging medical problems.

My patient Joe is a notable example of the power of gratitude and a positive attitude. He injured his neck while doing heavy-duty electrical work. By the time I first met Joe, he already had gone through neck surgery but unfortunately was not doing well, and to make matters worse he was fast approaching the deadline with his job. He would lose it if he did not return to full duty, and his job was very physical.

Joe had a family that was depending on him, and my team felt that we could provide a special intensive program for Joe that could help him turn things around and get back to work. But the only way to make the deadline was to start the treatment right away without waiting for the insurance approval (and running the risk of never getting paid for our efforts), so that is what we did, and Joe did not disappoint. He completed his program, made amazing progress, saw his pain diminish to low levels, and made it back to work before losing the job he loved. At the end of it, he gave me a thank you card that I will always cherish, including lottery tickets for “a chance at something great, which is exactly what you have given me.” Joe made sure he let everyone involved know how thankful he was for their help.

Before we started treatment, Joe let me know that he was not only anxious about his situation, but also angry that his surgeon wrote him off as “fixed” even though he was not feeling better or able to function at a level that he hoped to reach. Certainly, his worry and irritation about his situation could have gotten the best of him and even impacted his ability to recover, but Joe was able to contain these thoughts and keep them from taking over. Let’s take a look at some of the key thinking shifts that he made that helped fuel his success:

  • He kept hope alive – Fear is a powerful force, and when we are hurting and struggling, it can overwhelm us to the point that we freeze up and are unable to move forward. Joe was able to keep his fear in check by not losing hope while maintaining faith in his ability to work through his challenges. He stepped out of the fear box.
  • He let go of his anger – Joe pushed his anger aside by shifting his focus and energy toward getting healthier and learning tools that would help him manage the problems more effectively. He focused on the gains that could be ahead, as opposed to the disappointments of the past.
  • He created reasonable expectations – None of us can go back in time and have the body that we had before we got injured. It is much more helpful to work on being your best self in the present tense and let go of what was. In some cases, that might mean accepting certain limitations and accepting that you will not be pain-free.
  • He adopted the attitude of gratitude – Even before he started to improve, Joe repeatedly expressed gratitude about being given an opportunity for recovery, and that may have had a positive impact on his outcome. In the words of gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, PhD, “Gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives.

You probably never thought your attitude can make your pain go up or down, but in my experience, the right attitude can be a key ingredient toward finding relief.

You can learn more about reframing harmful thoughts in my book, Conquer Your Chronic Pain: A Life-Changing Drug-Free Approach for Relief, Recovery, and Restoration.