The Healing Power of Friendships


Loneliness and pain are bedfellows, with one reinforcing the other. Individuals living with chronic pain may find it more difficult to get out of the house, and as a result become socially isolated. This can become a self-defeating cycle, as solitude and ruminationmake the pain feel more severe than physical symptoms suggest. Rumination is defined as a deep or considered thought. In behavioral contexts, it typically refers to negative thinking that is all-consuming. The more you think about your pain, the more intense the pain becomes.

Attention control is a strategy for breaking the cycle of rumination and social isolation (Morley, Shapiro et al., 2004). By switching your attention from the pain to something else in the environment, you can reduce your perception of pain intensity. This is not mumbo jumbo. Think about guys who walk on coals. As strategic consultant, Terry Schmidt says, “Success depends on how much you keep your cool when the heat is on” (, n.d.).

Another example comes from mindfulness meditation. The idea is to develop a sense of present-state awareness that quiets the mind. Contrast this with rumination, where pain becomes the elephant in the room. Whether or not you’re aware of it, pain distorts your perception of everything you encounter. Not useful.

Being around people whose friendships you value is an effective way of switching your focus off pain. The simple act of reflecting another person’s body language or engaging in conversation can literally flip the pain switch off. Humans are social animals, and socialization is essential to our good health.

Sometimes an unfamiliar group can be an effective distraction and gateway to creating new connections. If you have recently relocated, consider resources within the community, such as church groups, reading groups, volunteer work, exercise classes, bowling leagues, or perhaps an in-person course at the local community college. Being exposed to unfamiliar surroundings gives your mind the chance to learn. Emerging research including imaging studies confirm that new neurons develop in the brain throughout the lifetime: a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. While chronic pain can promote cognitive decline, new learning experiences facilitate your short and long-term memory. The expression, use it or lose it, comes to mind.

Being out in nature is another strategy for attention shifting. A daily walk doesn’t have to be lengthy to be effective. It will improve your aerobic fitness (also important for keeping the mind sharp), while engaging the senses. Make mental notes of your observations and consider keeping a simple journal for future reference.

Middle-of-the night awakenings can be particularly frustrating for persons living with chronic pain. In this case, the worst strategy is to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling hoping that things will change. They won’t. Counterintuitive as it might seem, get out of bed, and do something distracting for a while. Enjoy a cup of herbal tea, read a chapter in a book, or listen to some music. Try to avoid blue light (television, tablets, cell phones). Wait until you feel sleepy and head back to bed. Attention shifting is an effective strategy for pain management any time of the day or night.

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