Always look on the bright side of life!

Anyone who is older than, say, 40 years old, should be whistling right now…

For some time now I’ve been interested in how people who cope well with pain go about their daily lives. What makes this group of people different from the ones we more often see? While I know from my own research that there’s a process to get to where living life outweighs putting all the emphasis on finding a cure (note: this doesn’t mean giving up on a cure, it just means it’s a different priority), there is some research showing that how we view a situation (either as a challenge – or not) plays a role in how well we deal with it (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

The theory goes something like this: resilience people view pain as a challenge and believe that they have the resources to cope with it, and as a result they experience less disability and distress.

There has been a reasonable interest in resilience in coping with persistent pain since Karoly and Ruehlman (2006) found that a small but reasonable-sized group of people report moderate to severe levels of pain intensity, but don’t report high levels of interference or emotional burden. It’s thought that instead of avoiding movements or activities that are painful, this group of people may feel fear – but go on to “confront” or at least willingly experience pain as part of their recovery. What hasn’t been as well-understood is whether resilience is associated with perceiving pain as a challenge, and therefore people are more likely to do things that may hurt, or whether people believe they can face the demands of experiencing pain (ie they have self efficacy for managing pain) and this is the path by which they get on with life.

This study was carried out in mainland China, and is for this reason alone, is an interesting study (most of our understanding about pain comes from the US, Canada, Australia and the UK). China also faces an enormous burden from people being disabled by chronic pain, so this is a good step forward to understanding what might support living well with pain in this highly populated country.

The study is by Shuanghong Chen and Todd Jackson, and published last year in the journal Rehabilitation Psychology. The authors recruited 307 Chinese adults with chronic back pain (189 women, 118 men), and asked them to complete a batch of questionnaires: Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (Chinese); Pain Appraisal Inventory (Short-form) Challenge; Pain Self-Efficacy Questionnaire; The catastrophising subscale of the Coping Strategies Questionnaire, the Chronic Pain Grade; The Multidimensional Pain Inventory-Screening (Affective Distress) subscale; and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. Participants were recruited from large residential settings close to the university and two local hospitals, and participants needed to be at least 18 years old with back pain of at least 3 months duration. All the questionnaires were translated into Mandarin using back-translation. This was a cross-sectional design, so all the measures were taken at one time, and analysis performed across the group. It’s not possible, therefore, to determine causal relations, and all the calculations were carried out using structural equation modeling, therefore correlational relationships only.

What did they find out?

High resilience levels were related to elevations in primary appraisals of pain as a challenge, and in turn, higher resilience and challenge appraisal scores were each related to higher scores on the secondary appraisal measure of pain self-efficacy beliefs. Those with high scores on resilience and pain self-efficacy tended to score lower on the secondary appraisal measure of pain catastrophising. When analysing the path it was found that challenge appraisals didn’t reach significance with catastrophising or pain-related disability (such as scores on Chronic Pain Grade, Affective Distress, or Depression). Higher scores on resilience and pain self-efficacy as well as reductions in pain catastrophising were associated with lower overall dysfunction scores (Chronic Pain Grade, Affective Distress, and Depression).

Interestingly, the authors tested to see whether pain self-efficacy and pain catastrophising had a bidirectional relationship with one another – they found that yes, this did have a good fit with the data but the resilience-catastrophising path was strong than the path in the original model, while the bidirectional self-efficacy-catastrophising path was slightly less strongly associated compare with the other model.

What does all this mean for us?

Well it seems that while we attend to negative features of a person’s presentation, from this study it looks like the relationship between positive aspects (such as not thinking of pain as an incredibly negative thing (catastrophising) and believing that yes I do have resources sufficient to cope with pain) is more predictive of outcomes than simply looking at catastrophising alone. However – pain self-efficacy and pain catastrophising and poorer coping have been found significant, while general resilience (appraising pain itself as a challenge, or not) and appraising pain itself as a challenge is less strongly associated. What this suggests is that increasing a person’s beliefs that they have the capability to cope (ie self-efficacy) despite pain needs to be a priority in pain rehabilitation.

To me this is an important finding. When we as therapists attribute change in function to either less pain, or to our efforts (or the treatments, eg injections, pills, special exercises, super-duper techniques that we use), we fail to foster or support self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a slippery concept: the measure indicates confidence to engage in activities despite pain. If our treatments focus on reducing pain intensity and don’t support the person being able to do things despite their pain, we’re likely not helping them become more confident, especially in the future.

This doesn’t mean we should tell people to “suck it up, Buttercup”. It does mean we should help people identify the strategies they have (or can develop) to be able to continue with activity in the face of pain fluctuations. Of course this means we need to be comfortable with the idea that it’s OK to do things despite pain! If we still hold a sneaky suspicion that it’s not OK to be sore and do things, we’re likely to inadvertently (or perhaps overtly) encourage people to ease up, back off, or generally stop when they’re sore. Asking people how sore they are at each treatment is likely not to increase confidence that it’s OK to move. Commiserating over how painful it is and how tough it is may be unhelpful!

What can we do instead?

I think we can draw a lot from motivational interviewing. No, not the stages of change, but the part where we acknowledge that despite it being difficult, the person did something that moved them towards a more positive choice. What this might look like is “Hey you had a tough week, but it’s fantastic that you made it here today so we can look at what you carried on with”. It might include “While it’s been a flare-up week for you, you were still aware of your goals and had a go”. Or “Look at how you stayed the course despite the bumps in the road”.

Sticking with the idea that actions, or habits count more than results can be useful, because we’re helping people build long-term lifestyle changes that will sustain them over time. Yes, results are really cool and we want to see them (so don’t stop recording wins!), but at the same time, it’s vital we celebrate the daily choices a person makes to keep going and doing.

I think we can also help build self-efficacy by drawing on pain heroes. People who have maintained a good lifestyle despite their pain. Celebrating those who are grinding through, even though they have tough times. Perhaps other people in the clinic who are also managing pain. From self-efficacy research we know that vicarious learning (watching how others perform in the same situation) is one of the ways we boost our confidence to succeed. Group-work may be a useful approach for encouraging people to know they’re not alone, they can make progress, and that they’re doing OK.

So…. looking on the bright side of life doesn’t mean ignoring challenges, but it does mean viewing them as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. Our approach to pain – is it something to get rid of, or is it something to learn from and something we can manage – may give people encouragement to persist, or it may undermine coping. What’s your view?

Chen, S., & Jackson, T. (2018). Pain Beliefs Mediate Relations Between General Resilience and Dysfunction From Chronic Back Pain. Rehabilitation Psychology, 63(4), 604–611.

Karoly, P., & Ruehlman, L. S. (2006). Psychological “resilience” and its correlates in chronic pain: Findings from a national community sample. Pain, 123, 90–97.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer.


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