Pain Really Is in Your Head

When you’re a child, you’re asked to point to a series of frowning faces to rate your pain.

As an adult, you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10.

Pain is subjective.

Ralph Monte, PsyD, a post-doctoral fellow in Health Psychology, explains the psychology of pain.

“Pain is a subjective experience. Unfortunately, pain is all in your head. That doesn’t mean you’re making it up. By no means are you making it up,” says Dr. Monte.

“We can help you find ways to go on with your life despite the pain and without the suffering.”

“In fact, one of the most damaging preconceptions in our culture is that pain must not be real. It’s as real as stubbing your toe or falling off a cliff,” says Dr. Monte.

Pain Is Physical and Psychological


When you stub your toe, for example, your body will generate an automatic response, stimulating pain receptors at the source of the injury. Neurotransmitters send messages along your spinal cord and up to your brain, saying, “Ouch! That hurts!”

Pain, therefore, really is in your head.

But chronic pain is more than the pain experience of simply stubbing your toe. It’s often wrapped up with emotions, anxiety or depression, which can exacerbate the pain experience, Dr. Monte says.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to Help Manage Chronic Pain

Your thoughts, emotions, predispositions and opinions can influence and worsen your pain, Dr. Monte says. A health psychologist can help you work through your thoughts and emotions to help manage your pain.

“A lot of people are very nervous when their doctor suggests that they see Psychology or Mental Health to help manage their chronic pain. They think, ‘My God, my doctor thinks I’m crazy,’” says Dr. Monte.

“It doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It means that there’s a psychological component to pain that sometimes we don’t think about. Addressing the psychology of pain can do a lot to help you manage your pain,” explains Dr. Monte.

With cognitive-behavioral therapy, “we help you realize that stress and your mental state contribute to your pain experience,” says Dr. Monte.

According to Dr. Monte, a health psychologist can:

  • Help you understand that your pain shouldn’t control you
  • Help you understand that your pain doesn’t have to go away before your life can continue
  • Teach you relaxation and distractive techniques
  • Guide you in changing your thoughts in order to change your emotions in order to change your pain experience
  • Train you to challenge your thought distortions in order to change your thought patterns, perspective, emotions and pain experience

“We can’t make any promises about making pain go away. The focus is on management. We can help you find ways to go on with your life despite the pain and without the suffering,” says Dr. Monte.

“Suffering comes about from the pain affecting your life, how you function in your life, and how much you enjoy your life,” says Dr. Monte.

“What I try to do,” Dr. Monte says, “is help you get out of that. The pain may still be there, but the suffering doesn’t have to be.”

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Pain Really Is in Your Head