Your Self-Management Toolbox

Chronic pain can be demoralizing. The frustration and hopelessness that comes from the limitations imposed by persistent pain can affect all aspects of your life. Professional goals may fall by the wayside, and personal relationships may start to become fraught. To combat the impact of pain, it is important to use every tool at your disposal — and you might be surprised just how many tools you have.


Chronic pain and depression often go hand in hand. Everything can seem too much for you, and you feel overwhelmed by the difficulties and discomfort you experience when performing even the smallest tasks. Talk to your loved ones about these feelings so they can provide you with support. Your physician also needs to know how you are feeling, since your depression can aggravate pain symptoms. Try to identify the triggers that add to your stress and depression, and seek ways to gain control over them.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful for those living with chronic pain, so consider seeing a therapist if you often find yourself losing all motivation to overcome the obstacles you face. Talking things through with an objective professional is often easier than discussing your problems with people you feel close to; you may be afraid of upsetting them or becoming a burden, or they may react to your issues in a way that distresses you. When you talk to a therapist, on the other hand, you can say whatever is on your mind without downplaying your feelings for fear of causing hurt. Furthermore, you may receive constructive feedback that will help you to think your problems through and formulate solutions. This, in turn, will help to restore motivation you might lose on bad days.

Less intense loss of motivation can be overcome by positive self-talk. Focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses and become your own cheerleader, urging yourself on. At the same time, consider whether the demands you are making of yourself are too great. Nothing is more demotivating than setting yourself up for failure by expecting too much too soon.

Physical activity can also help us to remain motivated, so if you are able to indulge in light exercise, do so on a regular basis. Activities that you really enjoy will help you to stay positive. Treat yourself by making time for fun activities, even if it’s just doing a crossword or watching your favorite TV show.

Having realistic goals, building your confidence, learning from others, and remembering the things you are grateful for will help you remain positive and motivated, even when times are tough.


Setting realistic goals is paramount in every part of your life, and pain management is no different. There are a few steps to setting realistic goals. You can start by taking into account three things — the activities you enjoy, the activities you think you are capable of, and the activities that you can honestly commit to. This will allow you to move on to the next part of setting goals.

For a goal to be realistic, it needs to be specific and achievable, and progress needs to be measurable and something you can monitor and track. Make a list of the things you want to achieve, break your goals down into baby steps, and set time limits indicating when you can realistically expect to achieve each of the steps.

Next, you need to list the expected obstacles between you and your goal and think about potential solutions to such barriers. This will equip you to combat challenges that you are likely to face in achieving your goal. Having a pre-planned response to problems will help you avoid frustration and make your goals easier to reach. You should also think about the resources that you might need to reach your goal, and make sure that these resources are readily available when and where you need them.

Start small to build confidence as you go along, and split up goal-related tasks into as many achievable milestones as possible. However, be careful to make sure that your goals aren’t too small or too easy. No progress will be made if every goal is comfortably within your current ability. You need to strike the right balance between the difficulty of the goal and the ease with which the goal can be reached. Achieving a realistic large goal also gives a greater sense of fulfilment than hitting smaller targets. Overall, motivation gained from achieving more difficult goals will be significantly larger.


Self-efficacy is the cornerstone to believing that your pain-management goals are achievable and that you are able to influence the outcomes of your self-management efforts. It is also important in the perception of chronic pain and its effects. People with lower confidence often show greater levels of perceived pain and suffer from higher levels of frustration, anxiety, and depression.

The first step to building self-efficacy is experiencing mastery. That’s the wonderful feeling you get when you achieve something that matters to you. The more often you experience mastery, the more your confidence in yourself grows, and the stronger your self-efficacy becomes. Your progress toward your goals and your ultimate achievements are all part of building self-efficacy. The next time you face a similar challenge, you won’t doubt your ability to succeed.

Emotional states play an important role in building self-efficacy. If you approach a goal with trepidation and anxiety due to the high risk of failure, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy because the stress created leads to failure. Feeling a little nervous when you try something new is natural, but remember that this feeling doesn’t necessarily reflect your abilities.

The reactions of others can also affect self-efficacy. In particular, verbal judgments others make can have a profound effect on levels of self-efficacy. Positive feedback will encourage the pursuit of goals and lead to higher levels of confidence in your ability to reach them. Ensure that you have a support group to provide positive feedback and don’t react to “slow” progress with negativity and criticism. Progress is progress.

You can also arrange your goals and tasks in such a way that you get small successes early in your pursuit. Another strategy is to keep track of your successes and the way you achieved them. Using these tried-and-true methods regularly will make achieving the things you want to do a lot easier in the long term.

Pacing is important, especially when it comes to integrating physical activity into your self-management plan. Pacing is about making sure you don’t go too fast too soon. Daily tasks that lead to overexertion will lead to frustration and a sense of failure. Instead, take breaks whenever you need to. However, you will need to remain disciplined about meeting targets and overcoming obstacles. Personal discipline can start with planning every aspect of the task in fine detail and eventually allowing yourself more flexibility as you become more disciplined.


You don’t have to focus only on your own ability to succeed. After all, you are facing new challenges and may be feeling a little out of your depth. Vicarious experience — learning from others to gain faith in yourself — can also help you build confidence to better manage your pain.

The right use of vicarious experiences provides opportunities to learn and gain confidence. Observing and learning from the experiences of others can be powerful. Determine what methods those who successfully self-manage their pain have used instead of comparing your progress to the progress they have made. You are searching for inspiration, an “I can do that!” moment, rather than a reason to criticize yourself. This is why it is important to focus on others’ successes rather than their difficulties. You want to be in a position in which you can gain motivation from others, rather than picking up confirmation that something is unachievable. It is all about observing and emulating positive traits and the means by which positive outcomes have been achieved.

While you can certainly learn from negative outcomes in others’ pursuits, it is better not to dwell on them unless something constructive can be taken from them. If the lesson and the failure cannot be separated, it is better to stay away from the negatives of others’ experiences altogether.

Joining a support group or a forum in which people experiencing problems similar to yours are willing to share their experiences will help you seek solutions based on what has worked for others. You may even find yourself helping someone else through your experience, and that’s a reward in itself.


A gratitude list is a great way to foster positive thoughts and enhance mood levels, which will in turn keep you feeling positive as you embark on pain self-management. Make it a habit to take a few minutes out of your day to list things that you are grateful for. This can serve as a time to reflect on the positive progress you’ve made and can be a great help when goals seem out of reach.

At first, you may feel that you don’t have a lot to be grateful for. Your life has been transformed, and you face the reality of constant pain — what can you be thankful for? Your gratitude list may be woefully slim at first, but gratitude is about noticing the little things that make life more bearable, that make you feel a little more comfortable or make you smile. Keep your list handy, and jot down every joyful moment you experience right away. Once you become an accomplished gratitude list keeper, you could start to write your list at the end or beginning of each day.

When times get tough, read through your gratitude list. You may find that it makes you smile as you remember moments that were precious to you. Creating and revisiting a gratitude list is a deeply personal and emotional experience. It’s not about the things others say you should be grateful for; it’s about you and what adds pleasure to your life. It really could be as simple as a cup of tea or watching your children or grandchildren play.

Creating a gratitude list will combat feelings of anxiety and depression and help you reduce stress related to living with pain. This can lead to better sleep and more motivation when it comes to tackling the tasks you have set for yourself. Your gratitude list can include positive relationships with friends and family that have helped you cope with your condition. This can help further improve those relationships with positive reinforcement. Tell them that you’re grateful for them. Sharing our gratitude with others can double the sense of pleasure we are feeling about something or someone.


You have a lot of tools in your toolbox — goal setting, confidence building, learning from others, and embracing gratitude. However, another important tool is recognizing that you don’t have to do it all on your own. Seek help wherever and whenever necessary, whether from friends, family, other people living with pain, or, most importantly, medical professionals.

With these tools at your disposal, you can begin to set realistic goals and experience the rewards of reaching them. To help you follow pain-management plans with greater ease, use a combination of tools to remain motivated in reaching your dreams and aspirations. The goal should be to build the tools into your life so that they become second nature to you. Good luck — you can do it!

Read More:

The Benefits of Joining a Pain Support Group

Surviving the Dark Side of Pain: Why Facing Pain and Depression Together Offers the Best Chance for Recovery

How Cognitive-Behavior Therapy Helps Ease Chronic Pain


Nicola Davies, Ph.D., is a health psychologist, counselor, and freelance writer who provides one-to-one self-management consultancy to people living with chronic conditions. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk) or read her blog.


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