Friday, 18 April 2014

DBT For Managing Pain

I have been dealing with severe pain in my leg for about two months now. I had a clot in my right leg which has thankfully resolved itself but the pain is still there if I walk for more than 15 mins at a time. I also get horrible PMT pain around my time of the month. Pain management can be a tricky business, drugs are great in the short term, but not a viable long term solution (the side effects are icky) so I have had to find alternate ways to deal with the pain. Mindfulness has had great success with pain management, so when I read the studies (which claim that mindfulness actually changes the way the mind perceives pain so that it’s more bearable), I thought 'If mindfulness is good for pain, and DBT is based on mindfulness... then why not try using the skills for my pain!'

Living with pain is not only a physical strain—be it merely uncomfortable to outright debilitating – but is also an emotional strain as well. Throw in an emotional vulnerability and you get a bubbling, hot pot of dysregulation spitting and spewing over into our relationships and lives. Feelings of frustration, anger, depression or even despair can deeply impact my quality of life maybe even more so than someone without an emotion dysregulation disorder.

Okay.. enough waffle... let me get straight to the point. Here is how I use the skills to manage my pain.


The idea of being mindful of pain and observing it as it is may seem counter-intuitive. Most people want to forget about their pain, I know I do. I want to escape it, run away from it, I wish I could ignore it or get rid of it somehow. My mind typically launches into a litany of judgements and negative thoughts. I start ruminating about how much I hate the pain and want to wish it away. Then I judge the pain, and that only makes it worse. My negative thoughts and judgements not only exacerbate the pain, they also fuel anxiety and depression. The problem is, ironically, that by fighting and struggling against it, and even by trying to ignore it, I create within myself a state of ‘resistance to what is’ and that means stress, and ultimately more suffering.

The mindfulness skill of OBSERVE teaches us to have a 'Teflon mind'. Don't let your thoughts or experiences 'stick' in your mind. Take a step back and look at the situation with fresh eyes. The ability to step back from what is happening in the moment creates a psychological space. This separation allows you to not get caught in or react to your experience. Without the psychological space, your reactions are automatic. Shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression often collapse your ability to create psychological space and cause automatic reactions (acting the way you feel). Experiencing the moment without getting caught or reacting is a way to extinguish automatic responses. Psychological space creates room for mental flexibility and freedom of choice.


Sometimes if I spend time simply observing and giving the pain my awareness, just doing that can bring the intensity of it down to a manageable level, if not, it prompts me to stop what I am doing long enough to realise I need to change something. 

For example; I was going to catch a bus yesterday. The stop is about a five minute walk away. I was nearly at the bus stop when I saw a bus coming. I started to jog so I wouldn't miss it, but was instantly hit with a siring pain in my leg. Rather than push through the pain and ignore it, I stopped, OBSERVED it and realised that the most EFFECTIVE thing to do was walk slowly, let the bus go and wait for the next one. There was no use in damaging my leg further for the sake of waiting 10 mins for another bus.

Another example is cancelling plans and getting extra rest, your friends and family will understand, and going out out despite the pain is only going to hinder your recovery and create extra suffering. Your pain might decrease your ability to be interpersonally effective and could lead to bickering or you saying something you might regret. 

Sometimes being EFFECTIVE is as simple as recognising that the pain is more than you can handle and getting help from a health professional. In these cases the next skill can be really helpful.


One of favourite things to do, especially when dealing with bad pain days is to SELF SOOTHE. It's great for when I am feeling down and need a pick me up. But the thing is, when I am feeling down, or low is not the time I tend to think to myself, “you know what would really make me feel better? Painting my nails, or calling a friend". So, for this reason, the real key to this skill is to have a SELF SOOTHING kit pre-made for those particularly hard days.

I have written as post about different SELF SOOTHING ideas, so check out the link below, make your kit and then let me know how you got on. I adore hearing about others experiences and ideas.

Stay mindful. xxx


  1. These are very good ideas, that I am going to print out and post where I will see them everyday. Cancelling plans has always been so difficult for me, because I feel like I am letting people down. I never thought about how my pain might cause me to be cranky and that makes me feel like I have a legitimate reason not to feel obligated! :)

    1. I am glad you like the ideas. These three skills have really helped me get through my experience with pain. Look after yourself. xx

  2. Wow, excellent points...I soo needed to read this, I have been having chronic pain for about 2 years, it is becoming worse...i have arthritis in low back, bulging and herniated disc..which makes walking very hard, I have had one back injection with minimal relief...and the pain meds help somewhat..I often do things because I don't want to just sit home...but I do pay for it some point I might consider surgery..I am sorry about your pain, thank you so much for tips, I too have the added bonus of BPD, bipolar II and, just started DBT..on my own..but find it overwhelming..sorry so long..thank you Andy and feel better.