Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain Relief

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

It can and has been argued that the way chronic pain management has been treated in recent years is a crime, literally. Post-Purdue propaganda, millions of patients have been left with stigmatizing addictions issues, few alternatives to the opiates they likely have less access to, and overall ineffective pain relief. But while this may seem like a hopeless situation for sufferers, there is a strategy stepping in to try to fill the void: plain old-fashioned psychological therapy, with new, empirically tested, effective methods for pain relief, that are, well, mental.

The last thing a patient wants to hear when they step into therapy is that their brain is likely re-creating some of their pain using its own type of muscle-memory – called neural pathways. Once we have experienced something, our brain remembers that map and can deliver it back to us, irrespective of whether this sensation

originates in the tissue or not. Think of phantom pain: patients report feeling excruciating pain in limbs that are no longer there. There is no question the experience of pain is real to the person – the brain is so efficient in getting us to point B, that it does so even when we don’t need to go there. If we’re focused on pain, the brain will oblige.

The challenge lies in getting your head around that automatic mental process, to see what space there may be between the anticipation of pain, and hey-brain-look-over-here-while-I-distract-you-from-pain. In that space, perhaps we can re-size the pain and work to put it aside so that we can carry on with living a live that is fulfilling, meaningful, and reflects your values as a purposeful human being.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been shown to be an effective psychological treatment program that teaches mindfulness, awareness, and coping and resiliency skills to lessen the experience of chronic pain (physical and mental). ACT is considered the cutting-edge treatment for chronic pain, and it is being taught worldwide – including Canada.

ACT skills are typically taught in a group format (can be 4 or 8 weeks) – this is a

combination of talk therapy and psycho-education; and/or individual therapy to work out how trauma and past issues connect and combine to increase the experience of pain. Along with good medical care, including a de-prescribing

physician who can help you get off opiates, and physiotherapy – ACT and other psychological services can be an integral part of your recovery team.

When we’re living with chronic pain, that becomes our whole story – everything is seen through that pain lens. We lose jobs, intimate relationships, activities and friendships disappear. That kind of loss would be a lot for people to deal with even without the injustice of chronic pain. Having chronic pain however doesn’t have to be forevermore a story about loss and what you can’t do. Therapy can help you turn that around so you move forward with what you can do.

If you’re suffering from pain that is “chronic” anyway, then what do you have to lose?

Karin Klassen

Registered Psychologist specializing in the treatment of chronic pain.

She can be reached through


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