By Ed Coghlan
Dr. Kristen Slater is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in chronic pain management. She will be speaking at the Women in Pain Conference on Friday, September 23rd in Los Angeles.
She is an Adjunct Clinical Instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine and works as pain psychologist in the Bay Area in private practice as well as in an interdisciplinary pain clinic.
She agreed to a short interview with the National Pain Report about what she plans to tell the 100-plus persons in attendance and thousands more who will watch online.
National Pain Report: “What will you be talking about?”
Dr. Slater: “I will be discussing why distraction from pain is so difficult, what types of distraction work for pain (and what don’t), how distraction works from a neurological and biological perspective, why distraction is so important and how the right kinds of distraction from pain can change your life.
I want to make it very clear that the implication here is not that all people with chronic pain need to do is to think about something else and all their problems will go away. I can guarantee you, if you’ve had chronic pain, you’ve tried that approach many times. Chronic pain is very real and very consuming.
It is normative, rather than aberrant, for pain to become the main focus in life for those that have this condition. When this happens, chronic pain can easily start to take over one’s life. For the sufferer, it may begin to feel as if the pain is in charge and is now the driving force behind their thoughts and decisions.
This is why it is critical for those with chronic pain to be intentional about ensuring they are participating in internal and external experiences that make them feel vital and purposeful. I feel it is important to think about distraction not as little breaks in an otherwise miserable life, but rather as the choices we make to live a life that is deeply meaningful and fulfilling. This is the difference between suffering and existing or thriving and living.”
National Pain Report: “We hear and feel a lot of frustration and isolation in the chronic pain community. Do you agree? If so, what do you recommend they can do to address it.”
Dr. Slater: “I absolutely agree. In fact, I don’t know that I have met a person with chronic pain who has not experienced these things to some degree. As if having constant pain wasn’t a big enough obstacle in and of itself, sometimes the secondary effects of pain can be as (if not more) distressing that the physical sensation of pain. With a chronic disease comes considerable loss. Loss of friends, physical abilities, function, sleep, self-esteem and sometimes even loss of identity. For those in pain, they are often trying their best to just to manage things moment to moment. Comments or actions of others that may have been easy to brush off in the past can become intolerable and people may snap at others when they don’t mean to. Some people can start to become someone they may not like or even recognize. They may worry that others won’t like this version of them so they stop putting themselves in social situations.
For others, people in their life simply don’t understand what life with chronic pain can be like. One immense challenge with chronic pain is that it is invisible to others. Although they may be suffering on the inside, those with chronic pain can get very good at “putting on a mask” when they are in the presence of others. People see them smiling or think that because they look good on the outside (if they only knew how much energy it took to wash that hair!) they must be getting better. Others may even start to question the validity of the person’s pain or think that they are not doing things because they are “lazy”. This is just yet another example of one of the many challenges those living with an invisible disease face. These may be some of the reasons why isolation may seem like a favorable alternative to dealing with these hurtful and erroneous judgments.
While it is easy to see how one may be tempted to isolate, it is important to be conscious of this and make efforts to find positive sources of social support. Staying connected to others is critical for a number of reasons. Interestingly, a study by Novenbre, Zanon and Silani in 2014 showed that social pain (loss or strain in relationships) activated the same areas of the brain as physical pain suggesting that lack of connection to others actually makes physical pain worse on a neurological level. Conversely, those who seek out social support exhibit greater levels of individual resilience and report greater levels of life satisfaction, lower levels of depression, less severe pain and show less activation of the central nervous system even when they are in pain. Social connectedness is one reason why organizations like For Grace are incredibly important. Positive relationships with people that are empathic and understanding are critical in helping people with chronic pain both physically and emotionally.”
National Pain Report: “The Women in Pain Conference is always an optimistic and energetic event. How do you recommend those who attend and watch it on the internet can sustain those good feelings?”
Dr. Slater: “Stay connected with each other! Reach out, get phone numbers, emails, connect on social media. It is rare that those with chronic pain have the opportunity to be introduced to others that understand them on a level that only those that have experienced chronic pain can. Encourage each other to follow through with the techniques and recommendations presented. Don’t just be there for the day, implement the things you hear into your everyday activities and make lifestyle changes. “You don’t have to do it all at once, set small goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Be kind and patient with yourself and stick with it! Keep up the conversations, share resources and ideas. While some “venting” can be helpful and I encourage everyone to express themselves openly and honestly, remain supportive and positive for one another.
“Professionals can also be great resources. Pain psychologists are knowledgeable about the nature of chronic pain from a physical, behavioral, cognitive and emotional level. Work with a pain psychologist can help you learn active pain coping skills to manage pain effectively. There are evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Mindfulness, which have been shown in repeated clinical trials to be effective for chronic pain.
“My goal in working with people is to help them improve pain and quality of life by learning to control the aspect of pain they can and accept the aspects of pain that are beyond their control. I strive to help people live more and suffer less.”