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Impact of chronic pain on mental health revealed

Restriction on daily activities a greater threat than pain intensity, new study finds

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The impact of chronic pain on a person’s daily life is a greater threat to their mental health than how intense their pain is, a new study has found. 

And being flexible and adjusting goals can help protect mental wellbeing for people living with long-term pain, say the research team. 

The study, from Edith Cowan University, saw more than 300 people living with non-cancer related chronic pain surveyed around their mental wellbeing, pain intensity and pain interference in their everyday activities and things that mattered to them. 

The findings suggest that, as a result of pain, people might not have the psychological and/or physical capacity to participate in activities that help them attain their personal goals, which can have significant implications for their mental wellbeing.

“These results suggest that it may be the pain interference on daily life, rather than the intensity of the pain, that impacts more negatively on mental wellbeing,” said researcher Tara Swindells. 

“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.”

Professor Joanne Dickson added: “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.”

Swindells said the study investigated how persistently pursuing valued goals (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.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

She emphasised that pain management and mental health are multi-faceted.

“Previous pain-related research has shown that physical factors – e.g., sleep, injury, disease – and social factors – e.g., employment, social support, economic factors – play a significant role in pain management,” said Swindells. 

“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.”

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