Getting the Picture Across: Improve How You Talk About, and Think About, Chronic Pain Using Insights From Art Therapy

Talking pain is hard (a number out of 10 doesn’t really say much!) Learn how to harness the power of images to communicate about your pain more effectively, to reduce pain through visualization strategies, and to express yourself emotionally and intuitively about the experience of living with pain using art therapy insights.

Getting the Picture Across: Let's Talk About How We Talk (and Think) About Chronic Pain

Its almost funny that the single word pain is supposed to mean all of the different sensations you feel when you live with a chronic pain condition. The numbering system out of 10 doesn’t capture chronic pain very well. Are we adding all the pains up and finding an average, or talking about one painful area at a time?. Beyond the intensity of pain, what about the quality of the pain? Often, I find it hard to describe in words how different ‘pains’ physically feel, especially to someone who does not have chronic pain. Sometimes a metaphorical image captures it best.

Images can elicit a very physical response, bypassing the analytical parts of your brain. If I describe the sensation of a dentist drill, whirring away, drilling a hole deep into my spinal column, how do you feel? In contrast, imagine I describe being in a forest, with sunshine streaming through the leaves and dappling the forest floor – do you feel more relaxed? That’s the power of our imagination to affect thoughts and feelings.

Visual Metaphors Can Improve Communication By Evoking Empathy Mirror Neurons

Visual metaphors are better able to evoke understanding and empathy in others than other means of communicating (G. D. Schott). If I tell you about a large needle being slowly inserted into my eyeball, your reaction is likely to cringe, grimace and/or squint your eyes.

When you hear someone describe an image of something happening to them, your brain will “mirror” that experience – you imagine what it would literally feel like for the same thing to happen to you. In fact, we have neural pathways, called mirror neurons, devoted to empathizing with other people this way: “both mirror neuron and alternative neural networks are likely to be enlisted in the empathetic response to images of pain” (G. D. Schott). Using visual metaphors can help you to describe your pain better to your doctors and your family and friends. Here are some common images and metaphors for chronic pain to consider using.

Nerve pain brings to mind intensity, heat and electricity. My sciatic pain can feel like a zap of electricity – a sudden, searing, mini-bolt of lightning. Pain is often compared to a burning or searing fire. Describing a sharp stabbing feeling, like a hot knife, can really help to get the picture of how your pain feels across.

Muscle pain might be best described as a tool-kit wielded by a sadistic handyman. The drilling in my head referred from spasmed neck muscles, the throbbing ache in my SI joint like a hammer pounding down on the spot. It’s also common to describe pain as a tormenting animal, clawing, tugging or squeezing the painful area of the body.

Deep, internal pain can feel like the pressure of a bowling ball, or worse, an anvil, suddenly teleported pressing down on the painful area. Some tools from the sadist’s toolkit might join the party, like pliers pinching or an ache that feels like a vice grip being tightened.

Take a deep breath after reading those descriptions. They can be stressful to contemplate, because it may bring to mind all the different pains you feel at once, and/or activate your mirror neurons so that you’re imagining many types of pain at once. Luckily, the power of visualization can be used not just to describe pain, but to reduce it as well.

Use The Power Of Your Imagination To Manage Your Pain

Visualizing can be a potent way to ease pain and shift attention. Imagining a soothing, or more positive mental picture can significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When you enter a relaxed state, your brain releases endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving biochemicals. Using your imagination is a helpful way to distract from focusing on pain, which is likely another reason that visualization can help to manage pain. Numerous studies have demonstrated that guided imagery reduces pain and improve physical function.

Guided imagery often involves visualizing tranquil natural settings, like walking on the beach or in a garden. The visualization should incorporate all of your sense. For example, a beach visualization would include the mental image of a beach, but also the sound of the surf and the cry of seagulls, the smell of salt air, the feeling of sand under your feet – you get the idea. There are many websites, CDs and apps that provide sessions you can listen to if you’re interested in using this technique.

Another technique involves reframing your original visual pain metaphor or replacing it with a pain reduction visual metaphor. For example, if you feel like your pain sensation is like being pricked by hot needle, then you reframe visual to be a cold needle. After concentrating on that, you can imagine the needle itself becoming soft, like a string of spaghetti.

Guided visualization to soothe pain involves minimizing, distancing or numbing the pain sensation. You can imagine the warm oil being poured over tight muscles, for example, or ice freezing out burning sensations. The secret to success with any visualization technique is practice and repetition – it becomes more effective the more you do it.

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words: Express Yourself Using Art Therapy

Envisioning pain can also go past physical sensations into describing how the pain impacts your life. If I was going to draw a picture of my fibromyalgia, it would be like a cage. I often feel trapped within limitations of what I’m able to do for the pain flares and I have to stop. Chronic pain can feel like an alarm that is always blaring – like trying to work through a fire drill. I would probably use colours like red and orange or grey and black to describe The ‘feel’ of pain.

Not surprisingly, exercises that get you to draw your pain/health condition are also helpful to relieve stress. “Expressing oneself through [art] makes our thoughts, feelings and ideas tangible and communicates what we sometimes cannot see through words alone” (Psychology Today). Creative expression is quite healing, even if it’s limited to abstract doodles or colourings. Drawings and collages can also picture positive images that evoke well-being.

What is a visual metaphor for your pain? If you had to draw an image of your chronic pain condition, what would it look like?

Resources

Psychology Today (Picture Of Health: An Art Therapy Guide) https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/arts-and-health/201703/drawing-picture-health-art-therapy-guide

Arthritis (Guided Imagery For Arthritis) https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/treatment/complementary-therapies/natural-therapies/guided-imagery-for-arthritis-pain

Calgary Neuropathy Association (Visualization And Pain Management For Neuropathy) https://calgaryneuropathy.com/visualization-pain-management/

Brain (G. D. Schott: Pictures Of Pain And Their Contribution To The Neuroscience Of Empathy) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408436/

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