What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Pain?
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a traditional form of therapy that is used for a great many types of health conditions. Historically beginning in the 1970’s, it was first used as treatments for chronic pain and depression,1, 2 but later applied to all forms of anxiety disorders and other mental health disorders, as well as other health disorders, such as diabetes3 and heart disease.4
This article explains the application of cognitive behavioral therapy to the management of pain. In it, we’ll discuss what cognitive behavioral therapy is and how it is used in pain management.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy itself is a therapeutic process in which the aim is for patients to learn to engage in healthy changes within a supportive, coaching relationship with a healthcare provider. In psychotherapy, patients learn to make health-related changes to how they are living their life, and over time these changes positively affect their health. This process of learning involves supportive counseling, education and feedback from the healthcare provider, and an openness to learning and practicing health-related changes on the part of the patient. Notice that in psychotherapy the aim of getting healthier occurs mostly by patients themselves engaging in healthy changes in living, rather than by the healthcare provider doing something to the patient, such as providing a medication or procedure. It’s patients themselves, in other words, who bring about improved health, rather than the provider delivering improved health to patients. There are many types of psychotherapy, and, as mentioned above, CBT is one type.
CBT is a model of psychotherapy that involves patients making two broad categories of health-related changes: changes that fall under either cognitive changes or behavioral changes. The term cognitive refers to the learning of increased knowledge and skills and the term behavioral refers to the health-related lifestyle changes.
While it is an incomplete list, some examples of the cognitive learning involved in CBT are the following knowledge and skill sets:
- Improved knowledge of the health condition that you have and are attempting to change
- Improved understanding of what you can do to become healthier
- Increased motivation to make healthy changes and the empowerment to bring them about
- Increased abilities to perceive multiple perspectives on the things you want to change
- Increased abilities to make intentional decisions with regard to the things you want to change, as opposed to merely automatically reacting to them as you go about life
- Increased abilities to tolerate distress, stress or pain
- Increased abilities to be happier even if you can’t entirely get rid of the problem(s) that you are trying to change
While again an incomplete list, some examples of the behavioral changes involved in CBT are the following healthy lifestyle changes:
- Improved nutritional choices and/or achieving a healthy weight
- Smoking cessation
- Reducing caffeine or other substance use
- Improving your sleep
- Intentionally engaging in activities that are fun or make you happy or align with your values
By learning and doing these things, and doing them over time, you have a positive impact on your health and well-being.
Let’s take a quick example. Suppose you have uncontrolled type 2 diabetes. Your blood sugars tend to run too high. So, in addition to working with your internal medicine provider, you also see someone for CBT. In the supportive coaching relationship that you develop with your CBT provider, you learn about type 2 diabetes, and its relationship to weight and food choices. You also learn how blood sugars respond to stress and exercise. You also set out to become more aware of how you eat — that you sometimes eat when you are bored or stressed. You come to realize that you tend to eat food as a way to have fun. As a result of these new perspectives, you come to practice making more intentional decisions about when, what and how you eat. All of this learning falls into the category of cognitive learning. These cognitive skill sets come to lend themselves to behavioral changes you subsequently make. For instance, with supportive instruction and feedback from your CBT provider, you come to check your blood sugars and take your medications on a more regular basis. You come to eat on a more regular basis and you switch out your dinner plates for smaller sandwich plates, as a means to reduce portion sizes. You start to cook from scratch more often, rather than eat processed meals you had been heating up in the microwave. You intentionally engage in other pleasurable activities, rather than eating, in order to have fun. You also intentionally respond to boredom or stress with other behaviors besides eating comfort foods. You also start to walk for twenty minutes three times per week. Throughout this process, you are checking in with your therapist, getting supportive feedback and pointers. As a result of all these cognitive and behavioral changes, your blood sugars start to fall into the normal range. You also slowly lose weight. You have a little more energy. You also find this whole process rewarding, empowering, and motivating so you keep all these changes going. These changes, in other words, come to be your new normal and your type 2 diabetes goes from uncontrolled to controlled.
Notice what happens. With openness to learning and feedback, and with a willingness to practice behavioral changes over time, you come to have a positive affect on the physiological basis of the health condition for which you sought care — in this case, diabetes.
CBT is thus an established method for fostering therapeutic changes over time to improve health and well-being.
How does CBT treat pain?
CBT for pain follows the same cognitive and behavioral model as described above — learning about pain and what you can do about it, and engaging in healthy lifestyle changes that can reduce pain and its impact on you. Let’s follow this model while explaining how it works.
To fully understand how CBT is used to treat pain, it is necessary to understand how pain occurs in the body. We often think of pain as the result of an injury or illness, but it is more complicated than a simple understanding of injury/illness = pain. To have pain, we may have an injury or illness, but we also require a nervous system. So, in cases where we have an injury or illness, we also have nerves which sense the injury or illness and these nerves send signals to the brain, which puts it all together to produce pain. No matter what the injury or illness we may have, pain is always produced in the brain in response to the sensory input from the nerves in the area of the body that involves the injury or illness. In this way, pain is like the alarm of a fire alarm system: smoke detectors in the area of the fire send signals through wires to a computer that sounds an alarm when it recognizes certain signals as threatening. Pain is a tactile alarm produced by our nervous system (which includes nerves in the body, our spinal cord and brain) that alerts us to something being wrong. We might thus understand that pain is more complicated than merely injury/illness = pain, and recognize the more accurate depiction of injury/illness + a nervous system = pain.
CBT is a method for targeting and changing one of the variables in this equation. It is not a method to heal injuries or illness, but rather is a method for training the nervous system to produce less pain. To understand how this aim can be achieved, it is necessary to further know how the nervous system produces pain. Specifically, we need to understand how different parts of the brain work together with the nerves in the body to produce the experience of pain.
We rightly consider pain a sensation. It is not an emotion, like being sad, mad or glad, but rather a sensation, like numbness, tickles and itches. Roughly speaking, sensations are produced in an area of the brain called the somatosensory cortex. The experience of pain, however, also involves another area of the brain, called the limbic system. Sometimes called the pain-pleasure area of the brain, the limbic system is home to the fight-or-flight response. It’s what makes the sensation of pain unpleasant or distressing. Unlike tickles that might make us giggle or itches that aggravate us, the sensation of pain is inherently alarming. It makes us gasp and become guarded, tense and vigilant. We go into, in other words, fight-or-flight when in pain, which is why we can be irritable (fight) or fearful (flight) when experiencing pain. What we are describing is what it is like when our somatosensory cortex teams up with our limbic system to produce an alarming sensation that we call pain.
It makes sense that the sensation of pain puts us into fight-or-flight. Fight-or-flight is our danger response and pain alarms and alerts us to danger with regard to our bodily integrity. We need to be alerted to injury or illness.
In this process, another area of our brain becomes involved as well. It is our frontal lobe and it does a number of things one of which is higher level learning. We only need to burn our hand on the stove one time and we learn to be careful around stoves on future occasions. As we grow and develop, we come to learn about pain. We learn, for instance, what is no big deal and can ‘rub it off’ or ‘walk it off’ versus what is a big deal for which we should rest, stay home or seek healthcare. This learning involves the degree of threat that we experience when having an alarming sensation called pain. In other words, when we experience pain as no big deal and so keep living life, we aren't very threatened by it, whereas when we do experience as a big deal and so stop, rest and seek healthcare, we do experience it as more threatening. This degree of threat is thus correlated with the degree to which we can tolerate pain. When we experience an alarming sensation of pain and have been told it might be cancer, but later receive a more reassuring diagnosis that it is not cancer and will be temporary, we come to more readily tolerate the pain. Similarly, acute pain, which we know is temporary, is often more tolerable than chronic pain. The tolerability of pain is thus related to the degree of threat that we experience when in pain. It’s what leads us to either keep living our lives when in pain versus responding with vigilance, avoidance of activities, staying home, resting, and seeking help.
Roughly speaking, these lived experiences of pain are produced in the different parts of the brain:
Sensation + Alarm + Perceived Threat + Behavioral Avoidance = Pain
Somatosensory Cortex + Limbic System + Frontal Lobe = Pain
This understanding of how the brain and the rest of the nervous system produces pain is referred to as the neuromatrix model of pain. It literally has about four decades of basic pain science demonstrating its accuracy.
From this more accurate and sophisticated understanding of the neuromatrix of pain, we can come to see how we might intervene to change the levels of pain that we experience. We might, for instance, set out to retrain this usually automatic response by intentionally practicing having the sensation while reducing its related degree of alarm, threat and behavioral avoidance. In doing so, we could alter the overall experience of pain. In CBT for pain management, there is actually a whole host of cognitive interventions that are taught and practiced by the patient to bring about this aim of retraining the nervous system and how it produces pain.
Before we describe how to achieve this aim, we need to cover one more topic related to how pain is produced in the nervous system. It’s called central sensitization.
When the limbic system goes into fight-or-flight when having the sensation of pain, multiple things happen. One of these things is that the limbic system tells certain glands in the body to produce hormones, which in turn tell the immune system to produce an inflammatory response. In turn, inflammation irritates nerves, lowering the threshold for what will lead the nervous system to produce pain. In this process, stimuli that normally do not lead the nervous system to produce pain come to in fact produce pain. When you have the flu and are achy all over, a massage, which normally would feel good, feels awful. When you bring your broken, swollen ankle to a healthcare provider and the provider lightly touches it while examining it, the light touch hurts. These are examples of inflammation irritating nerves to the point that the nervous system is producing pain in response to stimuli that typically are not associated with pain.
This process starts in the brain. The somatosensory cortex produces a sensation and the limbic system goes into fight-or-flight, while the frontal lobe understands it as a threat. In this process, inflammation is produced in the body that irritates the nerves, lowering the threshold for what will lead to pain. The brain, in other words, is centrally sensitizing the peripheral nerves in the body.
Central sensitization is normal in acute injuries and illnesses. It can, however, remain past the point of healing and become the cause of chronic pain. It can also occur secondarily to other causes of chronic pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis. We sometimes refer to central sensitization as the result of a persistently up-regulated nervous system. From the brain to the nerves in the body and back again, the nervous system is stuck in a chronically reactive state, producing an alarming and threatening sensation, that over time, once having become chronic, becomes physically and emotionally exhausting.
Let’s now review how CBT can be used to alter how the nervous system produces pain. As expected, there are both cognitive and behavioral ways of changing the nervous system and how it produces pain.
In CBT and CBT-informed therapies, such as chronic pain rehabilitation programs, patients initially learn about pain and how it is produced in the nervous system. This learning occurs much like we just described above. Once having this understanding of pain and how it is produced, the aim of the therapy changes to developing a cognitive-based skill set, which could be described in the following manner: In the knowledge that it is safe to remain active with reasonable life activities, we are going to practice remaining grounded in the presence of a sensation that you otherwise normally experience as alarming and threatening. There are countless ways to practice and develop this skill set. Any list would be incomplete, but some of these ways are the following:
- Learning to use diaphragmatic breathing to relax in the presence of pain and/or slow down your typical automatic responses to pain
- Increase awareness of your typical automatic reactions to pain — what you think, feel and do when having pain
- Learning that there are multiple perspectives for how you might react to pain
- Learning to make intentional decisions as to how you respond to pain, as opposed to your typical automatic (i.e., unchosen) reactions to pain
- Understanding that centrally sensitized chronic pain is pain that is being produced in the absence of an injury, so as a result you know that it is safe to remain active with reasonable life activities when having pain (i.e., ‘hurt doesn’t equal harm’)
- Intentionally engage in meaningful or pleasurable activities when having pain in order to distract yourself from it
- Practice accepting that the sensation can be there without it being a constant source of distress; you don’t have to constantly try to get rid of it and fail in your persistent attempts; instead, consider it like a box fan that remains on in the room — it captures your attention when the fan is first turned on, but you can come to ignore it by focusing on other things
In these and many other ways, you change the neuromatrix that makes up the experience of pain by repetitively practicing skills to remain grounded in the presence of a sensation. Recall our equation that makes up pain: sensation + alarm + perceived threat + behavioral avoidance = pain. Oftentimes, we try to reduce or avoid the sensation in an attempt to change pain, but we could go after the other variables in the equation and try to change them in order to reduce pain. We could stop avoiding the sensation and get distracted with other things, while reducing its perceived threat and sense of alarm by practicing remaining grounded. By repetitively practicing these skill sets, we would get better at it and with time what was once an intolerable sensation would become increasingly tolerable. In other words, we would start to rate pain as less severe.
By developing these skills, you retrain how your nervous system produces pain. As with any set of skills, the more you practice this set of cognitive-based skills the better you get at them. Initially, you need coaching and feedback from your CBT provider and it requires a lot of attention and energy to do them. With practice, though, they get easier and require less time, attention and energy. Over time, they become like second-nature. As a result, your nervous system is in a less reactive, inflammatory state.
In CBT for pain, you’ll also be encouraged to engage in certain healthy lifestyle changes that down-regulate the nervous system in more overt ways. Some of them are essential for successful management of pain, while others may or may not be necessary, depending on the individual.
One essential health behavior change is to start a routine of engaging in a contemplative practice. Examples of a contemplative practice are mindful meditation, tai chi or yoga. These therapies are traditional ways to target the nervous system and train it to be less reactive.
We don’t typically think of our nervous system as being under voluntary control. Despite the common admonition to “Relax!” from a friend or loved one when we are upset, we usually cannot relax our nervous system on command. However, humans have developed ways to practice gaining incremental control of the nervous system in order to relax it. They are the three mentioned above.
More often than not, a CBT therapist will start with teaching you how to diaphragmatically breathe. This is a form of deep breathing and it is a way to tap into your nervous system and relax it. However, when you do it for a minute or two, you find that it is actually really hard to do. You’ll notice that your thoughts and attention are repetitively distractible. You set out to simply breathe quietly and relax, and you find yourself lost in thoughts about things completely unrelated. Before you know it, you subsequently stop breathing from your diaphragm.
From here, the CBT therapist might introduce mindfulness as a form of meditation. While engaged in diaphragmatic breathing, you practice being aware of your thoughts and distractions, and without self-criticism you continuously redirect your attention back to your breathing. You might be encouraged to do a few minutes of mindful meditation each day and then gradually extend the length of time that you do it.
In developing this practice, you are doing two things. One, you are developing a skill to relax your nervous system. Once done, your nervous system tends to return to its typical reactive state. However, when doing it repetitively each day (or most days) over time, your nervous system returns to a less reactive state. As a result, your average level of reactivity starts to come down. We call it down-regulating your nervous system. Second, in practicing the skills of self-awareness and redirecting your attention, you are practicing one of the cognitive skills mentioned above — intentionally choosing your responses to the stimuli of life, rather than simply automatically reacting to them.
While less commonly taught in CBT, tai chi and yoga bring about similar results. If you already do tai chi or yoga when coming to CBT, your therapist is apt to have you continue them with the same goal in mind.
Another essential lifestyle intervention for pain is engaging in a mild aerobic exercise. Examples of a mild aerobic exercise are walking, stationary bike, or pool exercises. These forms of exercise are not super rigorous and they are not jarring on joints. They do, however, modestly get your heart rate up for a period of time. What happens after your heart rate is elevated for 20 or 30 minutes is that your brain produces feel-good chemicals that relax the nerve system. You may have noticed that feeling of calmness that follows aerobic exercise, if in the past you ever were an exerciser.
Like with meditation, this feeling of calm doesn’t last forever and so it goes away and your nervous system returns to its higher reactive state. However, if over time you repetitively engage in a form of mild aerobic exercise, 3 or 4 times per week, your nervous system begins to return to a less reactive state. In other words, it is another way to down-regulate your nervous system.
Both a contemplative practice and a mild aerobic exercise have been shown to reduce pain levels. It’s not dramatically effective and it does not happen over night, but you can bring your average pain levels to a more manageable level.
A third essential behavior change is committing to some form of gradually increasing exposure to pain or activities that you have historically tended to avoid because of pain. Now, I know, this prospect sounds terrible! But before you stop reading, hear me out. Maybe you have a goal of using less opioid pain medications or you have a goal of returning to work or regularly doing some other family or social activities. You discuss it with your CBT provider and other healthcare providers involved in your care. Maybe you also discuss it with your loved ones. It is important that the decision comes from you and that it is thoughtful. It’s also important to have a plan and commit to it.
Suppose that your goal is to use less opioid pain medications. In your discussions with your healthcare providers, you develop a slow and gradual taper plan. Suppose your goal is to return to work. So, in discussion with your providers, you participate in a CBT-informed chronic pain rehabilitation program that shows you how to return to work. Or suppose you commit to volunteering a few hours per week as a gradual step towards returning to work.
These plans involve risk — the risk of having more pain. You have historically avoided pain by taking opioids or not working. But you also want more out of life. You see the value of not being dependent on an addictive medication or you see the value of working. You don’t want to be so controlled by pain that you end up compromising these values. So, you make the decision to try and take back that control.
As a result, while practicing your cognitive and behavioral skill sets, you commit to gradually exposing yourself to what you have historically tended to avoid -- pain and activities associated with pain -- with the goal of taking back control.
The importance of this exposure-based aspect of CBT for pain is that you have real life things on which to practice your developing pain management skills. Oftentimes, patients want to learn how to successfully self-manage pain and then taper from opioids or return to work. Now, of course, you can achieve modest progress in developing these skills prior to ever reducing opioid medications or returning to some meaningful life activity, such as work. However, as long as you continue to buy pain relief through avoidance of it by taking opioids or not working or engaging in other meaningful life activities, you’ll never know if and how you could learn to self-manage pain while also achieving these important life goals.
It would be like learning all about bike riding, but never actually getting on the bike.
The goal of successful pain management the world over could be summed up as managing pain well while being able to engage in meaningful life activities and to do so as independently of the healthcare system as possible. In other words, to acquire the abilities to self-manage pain well, you must at some point face the decision to expose yourself to the risks inherent to reducing your dependency on opioids and the healthcare system that prescribes them, and increasing your activities. For these reasons, exposure is an essential aspect of CBT.
These risks are normally threatening. No one embraces them with enthusiasm and joy. However, you do it because it is your decision and you were involved in the planning of it. You do it because the plan is to proceed slowly and gradually, in incremental steps. You do it because you get supportive coaching along the way from your CBT provider. But, most of all, you do it because you want to take back control of your life. Pain has for too long controlled you and dictated what you do or don’t do. You want more out of life and you want to feel good about yourself and the life you live.
The exposure elements of CBT are the confidence building part of CBT. Much of CBT for pain is about learning knowledge and skills that retrain the nervous system to reduce pain and its impact on you. It’s a know-how. It’s about the development of abilities. With the development of any abilities, though, there is also a coming to know that you can do it. If developing skills is the know-how, developing confidence is the knowing that you can do it. You don’t know that you can ride a bike until you take the risk and get on the bike and learn how to ride. Similarly, knowing how to successfully manage pain is one thing, but learning that you really can successfully manage pain s another thing.
You will never know that you can successfully manage pain until you start doing it on less and less opioid medications or until you do it while returning to the activities that you used to do. The exposure aspect of CBT for pain is the means to regain your confidence that you really can live life in the ways you want to do.
In most any CBT for pain, patients will be encouraged to learn and practice cognitive skill as described above, engage in some type of contemplative practice and mild aerobic exercise on a regular basis, and incorporate some form of exposure to achieve their goals of successful pain management.
Depending on the individual needs of the patient, there may be other skills and goals to pursue. These could include CBT for insomnia; reducing caffeine, nicotine or other stimulants which activate the nervous system; eating an anti-inflammatory diet; CBT for a co-occurring anxiety or depression; or weight loss. CBT can be used for the management of these conditions too. They’d involve the development of different skill sets, but the emphasis would be on ways that the patient can bring about improvement in their health. If these apply to you, you might be encouraged to pursue them.
CBT for pain is a traditional form of pain management. It involves an established method of coaching people with pain what they can do to effectively and successfully self-manage pain. This coaching occurs within a supportive and instructive relationship with a healthcare provider. The instruction falls into two categories of skill sets, cognitive and behavioral skills. These skill sets aim to retrain how the nervous system produces pain. In so doing, you learn not only how to manage pain successfully, but you regain the confidence that you really can do it.
For more information, please see: Why See a Psychologist for Pain? and Is It Possible to Manage Pain Well without Opioids?
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4. Gullicksson, M., Burrell, G., Vessby, B., et al. (2011). Randomized controlled trial of cognitive behavioral therapy vs standard treatment to prevent recurrent cardiovascular events in patients with coronary heart disease: Secondary prevention in Uppsala Primary Health Care Project. Archives of Internal Medicine, 171(2), 134-140. doi: 10.1001/achinternmed.2010.510
Date of publication: 3-26-2021
Date of last modification: 6-15-2022