Research Finds Impact of Chronic Pain on Daily Life is Biggest Threat to Mental Health

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Persistently pursuing valued goals and adjusting those goals in response to setbacks or obstacles may help explain how some individuals with chronic pain maintain their mental wellbeing.

New study findings suggest that for individuals living with chronic pain, the biggest threat to mental health is the extent to which it interferes with their daily life rather than the intensity of their pain.

“Based on our results, it would seem that people can 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,” said researcher Joanne Dickson, PhD, in a press release.

Chronic pain impacts approximately 20% of the population and can have significant medical and physical effects, as well as consequences for employment, lifestyle, and mental health. In a recent study, investigators surveyed more than 300 individuals living with non-cancer-related chronic pain about their mental wellbeing, pain intensity, and how much their pain interfered with their everyday pursuits and activities that mattered to them.

The findings suggest that as a result of their pain, patients may not have the psychological or physical capacity to participate in activities that help them attain their personal goals, which can have significant impacts on mental wellbeing, according to the investigators.

“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,” Dickson said in the press release.

Dickson noted that the findings opposed the investigators’ predictions. Pain interference in daily life was reported to be more problematic than pain intensity for patients living with chronic pain. Mental flexibility is one way for patients to manage this interference, however.

The study investigated how persistently pursuing valued goals and adjusting those goals in response to setbacks or obstacles may help explain how some individuals with chronic pain maintain their mental wellbeing. The findings highlight that distinct goal motivational processes seem to have a protective effect in maintaining mental wellbeing for individuals 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,” said researcher Tara Swindells in the press release. “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.”

The investigators also emphasized that pain management and mental health are complex issues. Earlier research showed that physical impacts of chronic pain, such as lack of sleep, injury, or disease, and social factors such as employment, social support, and economic factors play a significant role in pain management. The new findings add to this body of knowledge and could help inform public health policy and campaigns around promoting psychological strengths rather than deficits.

“[The findings] indicate that variations in adaptive psychological processes provide another useful lens to understand the relationship between pain interference and mental wellbeing,” Swindells said in the press release.

REFERENCE

Being flexible is key to protecting mental wellbeing in people with chronic pain. News release. EurekAlert; February 26, 2023. Accessed February 27, 2023. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/980813

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