What is chronic pain?


Most of us have felt physical pain before: we’ve pulled a muscle, had a headache or bumped our funny bone (which really isn’t very funny at all!). The pain we experience is our body telling us something is wrong and after a period of rest and healing (up to three months), we can typically go back to normal activities. Chronic pain is when our brain is in an ongoing state pain and heightened sensitivity that persists longer than 3-6 months. Despite common understandings of pain as being a purely physical reaction, pain is actually directly linked to our brain and nervous system. This video highlights the complexities of our brain and nervous system and identifies the ways in which medication, exercise, diet, medical procedures and emotional processing can help retrain the brain and improve the quality of life for those who suffer from chronic pain.

Whether persistent pain takes the form of back pain, migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, lupus, other invisible illnesses, the chronic pain experience affects the body, mind, and soul. While each person’s experience with pain is different, there is a range of common threads:

  • Everyone has their own definition of a good day and a bad day. Simple tasks may be manageable one day and not the other.
  • In order to “self-manage” daily symptoms, there is a constant need to balance or carefully plan periods of rest, work, exercise, social activities, diet, sleep, and spiritual connectedness.
  • It is challenging to talk to family and friends about our pain. The impact on family and friends can be devastating as roles, expectations, and relationships change because of the pain.
  • Pain is challenging to treat. The constant rotation of medical appointments, medications and medical procedures can be exhausting and what may work for one person, may not for another.
  • Chronic pain goes hand-in-hand with mental health and evokes strong emotions as attempts are made to cope with a loss of purpose, former abilities and relationships.


How can we tackle chronic pain?

The chronic pain experience is riddled with complexities; it has both physiological and psychological components, making a holistic approach in tackling chronic pain the most effective way to approach treatment planning. This video highlights the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach. As a result, we need to find ways to reboot our nervous system, learn productive skills to manage our symptoms, help educate others on chronic pain experiences, and strive to have a better quality of life.



“Art gives a face to the ambiguity of chronic pain …

it gives a visual expression to something that is often elusive.”

–Dr. Steve Feinberg, American Chronic Pain Association


What are the overall health benefits of making art?

Using art for its health benefits is widely becoming a critical component of healthcare. Art helps us explore, practice and develop our creativity as a means to promote health and well-being. Making art has several benefits in key areas:

  • Mental Health: Making art reduces stress, protects against depression and anxiety, can improve self-confidence[i] and encourages positive self-care. Doing something creative in a supportive and safe environment encourages experimentation and risk-taking, two essential qualities of the art-making process.[ii]
  • Social Health: Those that participate in creative activities are more likely to have wider social networks with people from different backgrounds, have a sense of belonging, and are less likely to be socially isolated and lonely.
  • Brain Health: Art making is an effective preventative tool in managing symptoms of diseases such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic conditions. It also improves memory processing, problem solving, and helps to maintain neuro-spatial functions as we age.
  • Emotional Health: Creative engagement can provide a healthy outlet or path to healing for those who have suffered trauma, abuse, or significant life changes. Doing something creative can act as a distraction tool and is another way to preserve self-identity and move forward.


Using Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy (MBAT) techniques to tackle chronic conditions

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading researcher on mindfulness-based programs, mindfulness is, “the ability to become fully present in this moment, in a particular way, with a non-judgmental attitude.” [iii] Combining mindfulness skills while making art can be an effective way to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve pain tolerance, and elevate the quality of life of people with chronic pain [iv] [v]  and illness,[vi] including those with arthritis[vii], Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease[viii], and cancer.[ix]


Why does MBAT work for chronic pain management?

Mindfulness is a frame of mind; a decision is made to intentionally pay attention to the present moment when doing an activity. It is an effective way for the brain to concentrate on surrounding senses other than the pain itself. It involves resting the physical body (doing body scans) and the psychological mind. Art therapist and facilitator Margaret Jones Callahan describes mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT) as the “appreciative inquiry mindfully applied to the empty page or the open space. The practice of holding one’s awake attention fully in the present moment, non-judgmentally, while in the act of creating and expressing,[x] acknowledges the presence of pain and helps to get through it, moment by moment. While mindfulness is the lens in which to approach a particular moment, making art is the vehicle with which you experience it. Mindfulness-based art therapy:

  • Promotes both the healing and rehabilitation process and is a way for chronic pain sufferers to “’lose themselves’ in the moment,”[xi] (also known as “being in the flow”) giving the nervous system a break.
  • Provides temporary respite from physical symptoms of pain (headache, nausea)
  • Is an effective method of distraction and promotes positive self-management skills to filter emotions and is a way to express suffering.
  • Can build social alliances, companionship, and social affirmation, creating a wider support system with family, friends, and peers. Making art with others lends another way to talk about or communicate with others about pain experiences.
  • Allows space to be self-reflective and helps monitor growth and progress in a visual manor.
  • Affirms a sense of control over surroundings in the decision-making process of selecting colour, shape, and images.


At its core, MBAT, strives to create a peaceful environment where one can be completely absorbed in the moment while immersed in the process of creation. Along with healthy changes to our diet, sleep, and exercise regimes and with attentiveness on empathy, intentionally putting time aside to do something creative (read, write, paint, knit, sing, do yoga[xii], or dance) can help lower stress levels, give our nervous system a rest, and helps to promote self-care habits. By using a variety of creative processes, health difficulties can be better expressed, understood, accepted, and transformed.[xiii]

If you’d like to experience how MBAT can help you manage your chronic condition, please feel free to give me a call, or email, or come to our Open Studio Sessions where we go through many of these techniques! Give art a try!



[i] McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.

[ii] McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.

[iii] Jon Kabat-Zinn. http://www.mindfulnesscds.com

[iv] Ann Behav Med. Eds. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.2017 Apr;51(2):199-213. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27658913

[v] Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. J The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Behav Med (1985) 8: 163.

[vi] “The Art of Pain Management.” American Chronic Pain Association: https://theacpa.org/uploads/Art_and_Music_final.pdf

[vii] Reynolds, Frances and Sara Prior. Strategies of Adapting and Replacing Artistic Leisure Occupations to Maintain Participation and Identity: A Qualitative Study of Women with Arthritis. Journal of Activities and Adaption and Aging, March 2011. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01924788.2010.545970?journalCode=waaa20

[viii] Quintana Hernández DJ et all. The effects of a neuropsychology program based on mindfulness on Alzheimer’s disease: randomized double-blind clinical study. Revista Espanola de Geriatria y Gerontologia [2014, 49(4):165-172]

[ix] Monti, Daniel W., Caroline Peterson, et al. A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT) for Women with Cancer. Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, Psycho-Oncology 15:363–373 (2006)

[x] Callahan, Margaret Jones. Mindfulness Based Art: The Sparks Guide for Educators and Counselors. Friesen Press. 2016.

[xi] Dr. Daniel Potts. How art therapy enhances the life for Dementia Patients. 2014  http://www.alzheimers.net/2014-04-29/art-therapy-for-alzheimers/ Accessed September 15th, 2016

[xii] Ward et.al. Yoga for functional ability, pain and psychosocial outcomes in musculoskeletal conditions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Musculoskeletal Care. 2013 Dec;11(4):203-17. doi: 10.1002/msc.1042. Epub 2013 Jan 9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23300142 Ward L1, Stebbings S, Cherkin D, Baxter GD.

[xiii] McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.