Because many pain medications do not work well for chronic pain, science is looking for a better understanding of how chronic pain works and how to treat it. One significant factor recently seen is that many people who suffer chronic pain have a practice of catastrophizing. This is a tendency to magnify the threat of pain. It is not that their pain is “all in their head” but rather that their head makes their pain worse by fearing it.
I learned this lesson while teaching young children. I suspected that for some children the fear of what had happened, falling and scraping a knee for example, was the real reason behind the tears of pain. In fact, when I addressed that fear the pain was soon forgotten. Whereas, when I did not address the fear and instead only treated the wound, the pain seemed to live on longer than necessary.
Catastrophizing is not just a pain enhancer. It also nurtures anxiety and depression. It does not cause any of these conditions, but it sort of grows pain, anxiety, and hopelessness by focusing on the fear surrounding these conditions. It is as if fear and pain, whether physical or emotional, get mixed together and this action creates more of the problem.
Just like with my former kindergartners, I often have to talk myself out of catastrophizing my worry and pain.
I misread a social cue and fear that someone is angry.
I find a new ache and fear it will grow into pain and prevent me from doing things I love.
I worry over a situation and fear it will never resolve.
I condemn myself for a mistake and fear it will mark me as stupid.
I stand up for myself and fear I have destroyed a relationship.
There are days when my head is itself a catastrophe. I don’t like feeling anxious or depressed, but I also know that fear often makes things appear worse than they are.
This all comes back to, what is for me, a familiar theme. In whom do I trust? If I trust myself then catastrophizing is not a misunderstanding of the situation; it is likely an accurate assessment. If I trust God, then catastrophizing only works to chip away at my God-given faith.
Over and over again in Scripture, God brings peace and prosperity out of catastrophe. In fact, given our propensity to muck things up, God has nearly a full time job to fixing, calming, and curing. Certainly we cannot accomplish this on our own. With God we can set aside fear and deal with pain on a fair standing. We can look anxiety, depression, or pain in the eye and know that while these three can attack they cannot defeat.
Without faith, Jesus' death seems a catastrophe. With faith, we understand the victory. Jesus' victory over death and the devil assures that while we may fight with pain, anxiety, and depression, they will not defeat us.
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. I Corinthians 15: 56-58