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Self Care

Reframing (Working with thoughts)

Reframing (Influencing pain through your thinking)


Living with pain can impact the way that you think. Thinking is also impacted by symptoms like fatigue and depressed mood. Such symptoms often generate negative or unhelpful thoughts. These thoughts may be about the way pain has affected your life, about how pain has changed the way you see yourself, or about how things will be for you in the future.

What you think can similarly contribute to a worsening of your symptoms. Negative thoughts produce negative emotions which in turn influence how potential pain signals (nociception) get processed in the brain. If nociceptive signals are processed against a background of negative emotion, then pain tends to be worse. The goal of this PainGuide module is to help you learn how to change unhelpful thoughts so that they do not get in the way of living your best life.

Automatic Thoughts

Automatic thoughts

When you first learn how to drive a car, ride a bike, or kick a soccer ball, it can be difficult to coordinate all of the necessary behaviors to produce the desired performance. Over time however the behaviors become more skillful and the need for thinking about each part of the task becomes unnecessary. When you are able to free your mind from concentrating on a task and just simply do it, we call this "automatic thinking". For many situations, automatic thinking is a good thing as it is highly efficient thinking and frees up our mind to focus on other important matters.

Automatic thinking, however, can have a downside when it comes to pain. When we first develop pain (e.g., with an injury), we tend to avoid tasks that would make it worse, we avoid social outings that could make it worse, and we often cut back on exercise. We learn that these avoidance behaviors can make the pain feel better. We might also think about how awful the pain feels and how limiting pain can be on our future plans. With time, thoughts about avoiding activity to avoid pain become automatic.

Although avoiding exercise and social activities can help relieve pain when it is acute (short term), these are exactly the wrong approaches to use for dealing with chronic pain. With chronic pain, you need to engage in paced physical activity, you need to engage in social activities, and you will likely need to engage in some form of work. When pain becomes chronic, it is important to become aware of your automatic thoughts and potentially rethink them.

Easier said than done. Because automatic thoughts evolve out of learning, it can be quite difficult to challenge these thoughts and retrain your mind to think differently. Automatic thinking can be categorized into specific thinking styles – all of which produce efficiency in thinking but potentially unwanted negative consequences when it comes to managing pain.

Here are some examples:

  • Catastrophizing is excessive worry and/or prediction of a worst-case outcome. For example, a person in pain might think that, "My pain is never going to end" or "this is the worst thing that could happen to me".
  • Black and white thinking is when we see only two possible outcomes – one very good and one very bad. Few things in life are actually this way. Instead, outcomes usually fall along a range that can have varying degrees of "goodness" or "badness". Often negative things also have some good parts to them. People who think this way might note that "Everything went wrong today", even if only one thing went wrong that day.
  • Ignoring the Positive is when a person focuses on negative events and ignores positive events. For example, think about the person who, despite their pain, leaves their house, joins friends for lunch, and has a wonderful time. However, they have to cut the outing a bit short due to their pain. A person who ignores the positive and magnifies the negative would focus on having cut the outing short and would discount the positive experience of enjoying time out with her friends.
  • Prediction is when a person decides how an event will turn out before it happens. It is especially a problem when we predict a negative outcome. For example, an individual might wake up and think, "I know today is going to be a bad day" despite no sign that today will be better or worse than the day before.
  • Should Statements are when a person thinks "I should do this" or "I must do that". These thoughts can cause a feeling of pressure, stress, and resentment. Thoughts about what a person should or should not do can be especially upsetting because abilities change with pain conditions, but often, expectations for what one should be able to accomplish do not change.

Each of these automatic thinking styles can lead to a more general negative automatic thinking style. Such a negative approach to thinking will likely generate negative emotions which in turn can make pain worse.

Note: When we discuss the importance of monitoring or changing negative automatic thinking, we do not mean to imply that you should be blissful about your pain or think unrealistically. Quite the contrary. It is best to be heavily grounded in the reality of your life situation which oftentimes is not as awful as your negative automatic thoughts would have you believe. The intent here is to:

(1) Be aware of your thinking as it can influence your feelings and symptoms and

(2) If you identify any of the negative patterns above, attempt to challenge them before they take you down an unnecessarily negative path.

Impact of Negative Thoughts

The impact of negative thought patterns

There are many problems with negative automatic thoughts.

We know that negative thinking makes negative outcomes more likely and positive outcomes less likely. We also know that negative thoughts are related to having worse pain, worse fatigue, and worse depression. Importantly, they set us up for how we react to new problems or opportunities. If you believe that your pain will never get better, you are likely to be skeptical about opportunities to improve your pain. Of course, then any efforts to improve pain run a higher risk of failing for you. Worse yet, you might even choose to skip an opportunity to better manage pain if you think that getting better is impossible.

In order to be efficient, automatic thinking leaves out a lot of information. Thus if the situation changes (as in shifting from acute to chronic pain), your learned automatic thoughts for acute pain may be inaccurate for chronic pain. In most cases, problematic automatic thoughts exaggerate negative aspects and minimize positive aspects. This creates an unnecessary and inaccurate imbalance of thoughts that focuses on negative events or outcomes.

Just as negative thoughts can drive "negative" behaviors, positive thoughts can drive "positive" behaviors. If a person with pain believes they can function or can see an improvement in their pain, they will be more likely to do the things that will improve their quality of life. Having more positive thoughts, therefore, gives you the greatest opportunity to get better and make the most of the life that is in front of you.

Approach 1: Reframing Thoughts

Approach 1: Reframing thoughts

An important strategy for managing thoughts is called "reframing." A person who uses this strategy works to balance their way of thinking so that it is not overly negative. This requires three key steps:

(1) identifying the negative thoughts

(2) challenging the negative thoughts, and

(3) developing alternative thoughts

We have already discussed negative thoughts, so now we will focus on challenging the negative thoughts and developing alternatives.

When we ask individuals to challenge negative thoughts, we start by asking them to tell us about the evidence or proof for the thought they are having. It is important to consider both the evidence that supports the thought and the evidence that challenges the thought. For example, in the case of the catastrophic thought that, "The rain will never stop," a person would provide evidence about rain, such as how long it has rained, when last it did not rain, and any evidence that supports the belief that it will rain forever.

The next step is to come up with different, more accurate thoughts based on other evidence that is being ignored or forgotten. If the person in the rain example noticed that: (a) it has rained for six straight days, but (b) it was sunny before that, © it is a rainy time of year, and (d) it rained for 11 straight days at this time last year before there was a sunny day, they could come up with a more balanced thought. A more accurate thought could be, "Even though it feels like the rain will never stop, it is actually common for it to rain a lot this time of year. It will eventually stop raining." This way of thinking has the benefit of being more accurate and less emotionally upsetting. Training yourself to use these more balanced thoughts as automatic thoughts can reduce emotional negatively and thus lessen pain intensity.

Here are some examples of reframing that relate to coping with pain:

  • Susie is having a difficult day with her pain. She thinks, "This pain is going to ruin my life."

    • When asked for the evidence for this, Susie notes that she had to cancel some plans yesterday because of her pain. However, she describes another recent day, with similar pain, where she was able to make different choices that allowed her to follow through with her plans for the day.
    • Susie recognizes that an alternative thought could be, "Although my pain got in the way yesterday, I am also able to find ways to keep it from getting in the way like pacing and using relaxation methods."
    • Relative to the original thought, Susie feels more confident in her ability to manage her pain.
  • Jim's physical functioning has changed as a result of his pain. He states, "Because of my pain, I am no longer able to be a good parent."

    • Jim started by noting a number of things he was unable to do recently around the home. He admits these limitations are the reason for this thought. When pressed to think of ways he has contributed to his family as a parent, he lists many things: he helped his daughter with her homework; he read to his son before bedtime; and, he made decisions with his wife about an upcoming birthday party.
    • As a result, Jim recognizes that, "Although I cannot do some of the things for my family I was able to do before, I make many important contributions to raising my children."
    • Relative to the original thought, Jim feels better about his parenting.

It is important to know what reframing does and does not accomplish. Reframing is not about creating an artificially positive or fake scenario. Just as we do not want people blowing negative thoughts out of proportion, we do not want anyone to pretend everything is fine when it is not. Instead, reframing is really about having thoughts that more accurately reflect the evidence. Most importantly, this more balanced prediction typically means thinking about a better, or at least "less negative" outcome.

Steps to Reframing

There are 4 main steps to reframing negative automatic thoughts:

Step 1: Choose a situation that made you feel a negative emotion, like sadness, frustration, guilt, anger, or worry

Step 2: List the automatic thoughts that went through your mind

Step 3: Identify how the thought made you feel

Step 4: Looking at the evidence for your thoughts, think creatively to generate a more accurate and balanced thought

To practice these steps, create a table like the one below.

Step 1Step 2Step 3Step 4
Identify the situation that causes negative thoughtsDescribe the negative or unhelpful thoughtsDescribe your emotionsReframe your thoughts; generate alternative thoughts
At the family reunion, I couldn't keep up with everyone on the hike.I'm a burden to everyone.Guilt, sadnessMy family is happy to see me. It is a blessing to get to spend time with my family. I can hang out with my brother-in-law, who also has health problems
I used to lead the hikes. I should be able to do this!Anger, resentment, defeatI have always been the kind of person who tries my best no matter what. I am doing the best I can right now. I can play other roles in my family.
My balance and strength are just going to keep getting worse.Stress, worryI can maintain my functioning by being as active as possible. My physical functioning may hold steady or get better. I have no way of knowing what the future holds.

Learning to reframe your thoughts takes practice over many days and weeks. As you practice noticing, questioning, and changing your negative automatic thoughts, it should become easier.

Approach 2: Mindfully Letting Thoughts Come and Go

Approach 2: Mindfully letting thoughts come and go

As you can see in the previous section, reframing thoughts takes work. In many cases, this is important work that can be helpful to you. Automatic thinking may be needlessly leading to negative affect and producing poorer outcomes for you. In some cases however, you might want a quicker and simpler strategy for working on unhelpful thoughts.

This alternative strategy is to let the negative thoughts remain but to recognize that thoughts are simply fleeting ideas. Your thoughts do not define you. Your thoughts do not necessarily define what is really going on.

Automatic thoughts become problems when we believe the thought, hold on to that thought, own that thought, and make life decisions based on the thought. Alternatively, we can have thoughts without holding, owning, or deciding based on those thoughts. Instead, we can have the thought, acknowledge its presence, and allow it to pass through without grabbing our focus.

Letting thoughts come and go is a skill that takes practice. With enough practice, a person can become very skilled at letting thoughts pass through their minds without being affected by them. If you enjoy this module, you might choose to learn more about it. There are resources at the end of this module for those who would like to learn more.

Here are some examples of how to use this approach.

Let's start with a sample thought: "I wish I didn't have this pain." Some people might go from this initial thought to being bothered by their pain ("It is really getting in the way of my life" or "I am never going to achieve what I wanted in life because of this pain"). Other individuals might change their behavior in response to this thought such as spending less time being active in hopes of decreasing their pain.

In the previous example, the individuals are "owning" the thought. They wish they did not have the pain and, as a result, act by changing their thoughts and/or behaviors to try to fix this unpleasant situation.

As an alternative, one might argue that it is perfectly reasonable to wish that one's pain were gone. This is a simply a wish and can exist without further thought or action. You might add a stem to the thought by saying "I am having the thought that… I wish I didn't have this pain." This strategy isolates the thought for what it is, "just a thought" rather than a stimulus for additional negative thinking, action or emotions.

Steps for letting go of thoughts

Following the steps below will allow you to practice the very basic skill of noticing and letting go of thoughts.

Step 1: Adopt a relaxed posture, whether you are sitting or standing. Pay attention to how you are breathing. Close your eyes if possible. Ask yourself "What am I experiencing right now?" Think about your emotions, what you are feeling in your body, and what thoughts you are having.

Step 2: Start to imagine that you are experiencing your thoughts in new way. For example, if you are having anxious, racing thoughts, imagine that your mind is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch. Each branch is a new thought that you can just notice and let go of as you jump to another thought. Or, imagine your thoughts as speeding trains coming into and leaving the train station. Perhaps instead of racing thoughts, you have a thought that is stuck, like a boot stuck in thick mud. As you observe your thoughts in a new way, picture the imaginary screen in detail and continuously bring your focus back to your body; notice your breathing and what you are feeling in your body. Whatever imagery works best for you, imagine your thoughts to be something else (a monkey, train, boot, or something else) and just observe them. Just notice the thoughts and their effects on you. Notice that they are just thoughts. And then let them go. Allow the monkey, train, boot etc. to dissolve.

As with reframing, mastering letting your thoughts go is a skill that must be practiced. Skills from the PainGuide Relaxation Module can also help you in developing your skills at letting your thoughts go.

Approach 3: Thinking Helpful Thoughts on Purpose

Approach 3: Thinking Helpful Thoughts on Purpose

An additional strategy is to deliberately think positive, realistic, helpful thoughts. When feeling stressed or uncomfortable, you can coach yourself through the situation by focusing on thoughts that you find reassuring, centering, motivating, or helpful. These are sometimes called "coping thoughts".

For example, how might these thoughts make you feel?:

  • "I know there are things I can do to manage my pain (or stress, or fatigue)."
  • "I am uncomfortable at the moment but can handle it if I focus on deep breathing."
  • "I have been through difficult things before and know I will get through this."
  • "I can handle this."
  • "This, too, will pass."
  • "Stay focused on the present. What do I need to do right now?"
  • "Take a slow, deep breath."
  • "This is not really an emergency. I can slow down and think about what to do next."

These thoughts tend to promote positive feelings, make you feel hopeful, and help you cope with symptoms.

Coping thoughts are most helpful when they are personalized to you. Tips for generating your personal coping thoughts include:

  1. Think about reassuring thoughts you have used before. What has worked in the past?
  2. Come up with statements that are specific to your situation. For example, if you are bothered by pain, think of statements specific to coping with pain that you find helpful, soothing, or hopeful.
  3. Make sure your coping thoughts are positive but truthful. For example, if you struggle with pain, thinking, "I won't feel pain again" probably won't help as it isn't truthful. Instead, a more truthful and helpful thought might be, "I can use my self-management skills to reduce the pain" or "this pain flare up will pass, just as others have."
  4. Keep your coping thoughts short and easy to remember. You may even want to pick one or two calming thoughts as your "mantra"/go-to statements.
  5. What would a supportive friend say to you?

It can be difficult to remember your coping thoughts when under stress or feeling bad. Thus, we recommend that you write out several coping thoughts on a small card (a "coping card") or keep them readily available on your mobile device so that you can easily read them when you need to. You might even want to write out different statements for different situations or symptoms; for example, have a few coping thoughts handy for pain, and a few more for fatigue. Refer back to your coping card or coping thoughts regularly, so they become part of your self-management toolkit.

Conclusion and Resources

Our ability to think about and understand our life experiences is one of our greatest strengths. However, just like so many strengths, it also carries the risk of getting in our way. Our hope is that the ideas shared in this section have given you the first steps towards focusing your thoughts on supporting your wellbeing.

The ability to change your negative thinking is a skill that improves with practice. You get out of it what you put in.

If you are interested in learning more about these strategies:

  1. Consider these self-help books:
  2. For changing thoughts:

    • Wilding, C. (2010). Teach Yourself Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Teach Yourself Books: London.
  3. For learning to let your thoughts go:

    • Hayes, S. C. & Smith, S. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.
    • Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Random House Publishing Group, New York, NY.
  4. If you would like more help with working with your thoughts, ask your primary care provider, specialist physician, or other trusted provider for a referral to a psychologist, social worker, or counselor. You can request a therapist trained in health psychology and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is focused on changing thoughts and behaviors, or Mindfulness-based interventions or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which are focused more on letting go of thoughts and continuing on the desired life path.

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