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How Can The Mental Health Of Those In Chronic Pain Be Protected?

Those who suffer from chronic pain are also susceptible to mental health issues. But what can be done to help those dealing with problem issues simultaneously?

How can we measure the impact of pain?

New research has found that the biggest threat to the mental health of people living with chronic pain isn’t always how intense their pain is but how much it interferes with their daily life.

Chronic pain impacts around 20% of the population. Along with the apparent medical and physical effects, it can have equally far-reaching consequences on employment, lifestyle, and the mental health of those affected.

A new study published by Edith Cowan University (ECU) has found that for people living with chronic pain, it’s not always the intensity of the pain itself but the extent to which it interferes with their daily life that can often pose the biggest threat to their mental health.

How was the survey conducted?

ECU researchers surveyed more than 300 people living with non-cancer-related chronic pain. Participants answered questions about their mental wellbeing, their ‘pain intensity,’ and how much their pain interfered with their simple everyday pursuits and activities that mattered most to them. Each person was then given a ‘pain interference‘ scoring.

ECU said its research findings suggest that people might not have the psychological and physical capacity to participate in activities that help them attain their personal goals due to pain. AsConsequentlythis can have significant implications for their mental health and wellbeing.

Speaking to Science Daily about their findings, Professor Joanna Dickson of ECU said,

“The good news is that this research showed personal goal flexibility (i.e., the ability to adapt and to adjust to life’s difficulties and obstacles) in how we strive to maintain or achieve the things that matter to us can provide a protective buffer in maintaining and promoting mental wellbeing,” she said.


The impact on mental health

Contrary to the outcome initially expected by the researchers, the study showed that pain interference was reported as more problematic than ‘pain intensity’ for people living with chronic pain. According to Professor Dickson, the results suggest that it may be the pain interference with daily life, rather than the intensity of the pain, that impacts more negatively on mental wellbeing,

Based on the results, it seems as though people find ways to maintain their mental wellbeing when their pain intensity is high, so long as it does not interfere with important aspects of their daily life, the study team said.

How being ‘mentally flexible’ can help

According to the researchers, the study investigated how persistently pursuing valued goals (a phenomenon known as ‘goal tenacity) and adjusting those valued goals in response to setbacks or obstacles (‘goal flexibility’) might help to explain how some individuals with chronic pain maintain a sense of mental wellbeing.

Tarat Swindells, co-author of the research paper, told Science Daily,

“The findings highlighted, for the first time, that distinct goal motivational processes appear to have a protective and buffering effect in maintaining mental wellbeing in those with chronic pain. Specifically, we found that goal flexibility and goal tenacity seem to buffer the negative emotional impacts of pain interference on mental wellbeing, and flexibility even more so than tenacity.

So if you’re able to adjust, adapt and find ways to still achieve what matters to you most in the face of life’s obstacles, that’s going to help protect your mental wellbeing.”


Pain can be multi-faceted

Ms. Swindells, in her summary of the research, emphasized pain management and mental health are multi-faceted. According to Ms. Swindells, previous pain-related research has shown that physical factors (such as sleep, injury, and disease) along with social factors, including employment, social support, and economic factors, can all play a significant role in pain management.

In summing up the study, she said,

“The findings from our study add to this body of knowledge. They indicate that variations in adaptive psychological processes provide another useful lens to understand the relationship between pain interference and mental wellbeing. “


In summary

The findings from this study could potentially have broad implications for informing public health policy developments along with public health campaigns focused on promoting psychological strengths rather than deficits. This could include, for example, positive self-care messaging related to pain management.

Anyone living with chronic pain can find daily life difficult at best. When paired with resulting mental health issues, this can create a perfect storm that can be hard to resolve.

However, with the findings of this research, we can better understand the link between the two, and armed with that knowledge, practitioners are better placed to help those who need support the most.


What do you think about the research’s findings? Let us know in the comments. 

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