Chronic pain is not a simple sensation. It is strongly influenced by the ways in which the brain processes the pain signals. In fact, chronic pain can provoke strong emotional reactions, such as fear, anxiety, or even terror, depending on what the individual believes about his or her pain signals.

See Chronic Pain As a Disease: Why Does It Still Hurt?

If there is any good news about chronic pain, it is that, to a certain extent, the brain can learn how to manage and decrease the sensation of pain using a combination of deep focus, breathing, and imagery techniques.

See Pain Management for Chronic Back Pain


Simple breathing and relaxation

First, you will need to get relaxed. To practice a relaxation exercise, you must first set aside some time when you know you will not be disturbed.

  • Put yourself in a relaxed, reclining position in a dark room. Either shut your eyes or focus on a single point. Be sure your position is comfortable.

    See Pillow Support and Comfort

  • Slow down your breathing by doing the following: Breathe in deeply through your nose, using your chest to pull the air into your stomach, while slowly counting to 10. Exhale slowly through your mouth, while pursing your lips, for a count of 10.
  • After you feel yourself relaxing, begin using imagery techniques.

Once you are relaxed, use the following effective imagery techniques to help control your chronic pain.

Altered focus

This powerful technique involves focusing your attention on any specific non-painful part of the body (hand, foot, etc.) and altering sensation in that part of the body. For example, imagine your hand warming up. This will take the mind away from focusing on the source of your pain.

See Opening and Closing the Pain Gates for Chronic Pain

Reducing the ball of pain

This technique, also very powerful, is imagining. your pain as a colored ball (choose a color that might be a stress color for you, like red). Each time you breathe in, and then exhale, imagine the "ball" of pain becoming smaller and gradually changing color to a more relaxing hue (e.g. for many people this might be green or blue). Similarly, you may then wish to imagine a soothing and cooling ice pack (or hot pack) being placed onto the area of pain. Choose images that are relaxing and pain-relieving for you. They will not be the same for everyone.

Transfer of sensation

Use your mind to produce altered sensations—such as heat, cold, or anesthetic—in a non-painful hand, and place the hand on the painful area. Envision transferring this pleasant, altered sensation into the painful area.

Pain movement

Mentally move your pain from one area of your body to another where you think the pain will be easier for you to handle. If you can't take another minute of your leg pain, for example, mentally move the pain up from your leg and into your lower back. Or you can move your pain out of your body and into the air. This also works using the ball of pain technique. You can mentally move the ball of pain outside of your body.

These techniques take practice to become effective for managing chronic pain. Before trying the imagery technique, practice the simple breathing and relaxation exercise for a week or two (until mastered). Once you can achieve deep relaxation consistently, add in the imagery exercises.

Involve yourself in these pain coping strategies for about 30 minutes 3 times per week. With practice, you will find that your power over the pain will increase, and it will take less mental energy to achieve more pain relief. You may also consider asking a mental health professional with expertise in pain management for help.

See Understanding Chronic Pain

Dr. William Deardorff is a clinical health psychologist and specializes in providing psychological services to patients with chronic pain and spinal conditions. He has led a private practice for more than 30 years.