A man talks to a therapist during a telehealth session

Mental Health & Chronic Pain with Dr. Karl Sperber, Clinical Psychologist

Chronic pain, one of the most common reasons adults seek medical care, has been linked to activity limitations, dependence on opioids, anxiety, and depression, and reduced quality of life. Research shows that those with chronic pain are four times more likely to have depression or anxiety than those who are pain-free.1

Psychologists are experts in helping people cope with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that accompany chronic pain, like the pain from PsA.

Let's talk about the impact of chronic pain

Dr. Karl Sperber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Syracuse, NY. In his practice, he works with those experiencing chronic pain using multiple methods, including interventional and medical treatments, as well as a physical therapy program.

We reached out on our Psoriatic-Arthritis.com Facebook page to ask our community members what questions they have for a chronic pain psychologist. Many of you mentioned wanting to learn more about managing mental health challenges and where to find the right kind of support. Dr. Sperber was kind enough to answer some of these questions.

Is it good to lean into the bad days and harder moments?

“It takes tremendous energy to be resilient and keep up a positive attitude in the face of difficulties like chronic pain. Just like almost anything else that takes effort, fatigue can set it, you just can’t keep it going 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This reminds me of a man that I worked with who had pretty advanced MS. One time he spontaneously discovered and told me, ‘I just figured out that it’s much better if I wake up and feel that it’s a bad day to just give it up and surrender. It’s a bad day, tomorrow might be different. I’m just going to surrender and ride it out.’ As opposed to trying to fight it and trying to establish a really positive mind in the face of something like that. His finding was that those days weren’t as severe and didn’t last as long. If he had that kind of willingness and recognition that that was going to happen – I’ll sort of get back on the wagon tomorrow. This perspective is so important."

If someone was ready today to see a mental health professional, what would you recommend be their first step?

A first step to consider, even though it may not be fully feasible for everybody is to ask around. Do you have any recommendations from people you trust? That can be one of the best ways to identify somebody to try. The overarching suggestion I have is that people should keep in mind that the rapport, the quality of chemistry between a therapist and client is like the wild card so to speak.

It matters more than a professional’s training or experience, respect in the professional community. Those are important things, I don’t mean to dismiss them. But you could see the best, most trained, most experienced therapist and if you don’t feel a reasonable amount of good rapport and comfort then that’s probably not the right person for you.

How important is relationship building with a therapist and what are your tips for managing this type of relationship?

This is my opinion, but there’s also research that reports that a therapist can get better results if there’s good rapport than an experienced therapist when there’s not a good match. So most people don’t think of it this way, but you can interview 2-3 therapists. Some will talk on the phone for an introduction. If there’s insurance coverage you can try the first session with 2-3 therapists, see who you like best and trust your gut feeling about that rapport.

I will add a parenthetical note if counseling gets going and 6 to 8 sessions down the road, a person starts to feel uncomfortable about the rapport or therapist, that’s a different thing. It’s best to go to the therapist with those concerns and talk it over before moving to another therapist. But initially, people have quite good instincts about that and should trust them generally.

I’m proud of my Ph.D., but I’m painfully aware that a Ph.D. doesn’t guarantee a course of therapy is going to go well. I know plenty of people who have been helped by therapists with a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree. It’s mostly because they have the chemistry, that connection, and that rapport.”

More insight from Dr. Sperber

Having a painful condition is stressful. Unfortunately, stress can contribute to a range of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and anxiety. Managing your emotions can directly affect the intensity of your pain.

Psychologists can help you manage the stresses in your life related to your chronic pain. If you're interested in learning more about our conversation with Dr. Sperber, please check out these additional articles:

Preparing for a visit with a psychologist

When working with a psychologist, you can expect to discuss your physical and emotional health. The psychologist will ask about the pain you experience, where and when it occurs, and what factors may affect it. In addition, he or she will likely ask you to discuss any worries or stresses, including those related to your pain.

What questions would you like to ask a chronic pain psychologist about coping through the many challenges of PsA? Is therapy a part of your treatment journey? Awareness can validate many others. Please share in the comments below.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Psoriatic-Arthritis.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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