Coronavirus (COVID19), catastrophising – and caution


I don’t often leap aboard a popular topic and blog about it, but I’m making an exception right now because, although COVID19 is new – catastrophising is not.

There are a number of people who really do not like the term “catastrophising”. There are comments that this is a pejorative term, used to deny the validity of a person’s experience. That it means the person is exaggerating or being melodramatic or in some way not believable.

But as I read the many, many headlines about COVID19, including the international toilet paper frenzy, reading about Vitamin C or “anti-inflammatory foods” to combat it, I even saw a serious post about using hands-on therapy to “shift the toxins”…. And I wonder whether we can take a good hard look at ourselves and our response to this virus.

Firstly, getting accurate information about COVID19 has been difficult. There are some authoritative sources “out there” but they’re not necessarily the most sexy sites to visit. Not many memes coming out of our Ministry of Health in New Zealand! Much of the information we read on a daily basis is in the general news media, giving a “personal story” slant on “what COVID19 means”. Some really good information coming from our politicians in NZ – but also some scaremongering from the political opposition.

Does this sound familiar? Where does the good, accurate and evidence-based information about persistent pain come from? And in the absence of readily accessible and “memeific” information, where do people go to learn about pain?

Secondly, it’s not the virus itself that’s causing the majority of trouble for people – except for the small percentage for whom the virus is deadly, mainly because of comorbidity, and health vulnerability. People who are older, already have immune compromise, and who are not able to access good healthcare are most at risk. The rest of us are experiencing the fallout of containment measures, economic insecurity, and lack of toilet paper. Sorry, couldn’t resist that last one. Seriously, most of us are being affected by the cancellation of meetings, by the need to self-isolate, by travel restrictions, by people having less money to spend because suddenly their jobs are less secure – watching my savings melt day by day…

Sounds quite similar to the experiences of people with persistent pain: often it’s not the pain itself that’s so awful, but the effects of losing contact with people you love, of having to take medications to reduce pain that leave you feeling dreadful, of not being able to play sports or do work – the loss of income security, access to healthcare, connection with people who matter. These are amongst the most debilitating aspects of living with persistent pain, let along the pain…

If you’ve found it hard to think of anything else but COVID19. If you’ve had trouble taking your mind off how you’re going to get by if patients can’t come to see you because they’re worried about giving you COVID19, or of catching it from you – that’s rumination, or brooding on it.

If you’ve caught yourself heading to the supermarket to get some extra pantry staples “just in case”. If you’ve found yourself checking in to see what your local health authorities are recommending. If you’ve been wondering if you should shut your business down for a while – and then been wondering what you’re going to do for a income if you do that. If you’ve looked up your bank balance and wondered what you’re going to do if your kids are off school for the next month, while you’re meant to be at work and there’s no-one to look after them…. you’re magnifying, or estimating that the demands of this situation might well exceed your current resources to deal with it.

If it all feels a bit overwhelming and you’re not really sure what to do next. If you’re feeling pretty stuck and getting a bit panicky. If this feels just way too much to handle – that’s hopelessness, or feeling really overloaded.

And each of these three clusters of cognitions, emotions and behaviours are part of the catastrophising construct.

Do they feel normal to you? Do you think you’re exaggerating? Do you think your reaction is over the top? No? Well you’d be (generally) quite right (except maybe the toilet paper hoarding… that’s just weird). Thinking the worst is normal in the face of uncertainty. Some commentators and researchers believe it’s one way we learn to convey our need for social support (Bailey, McWilliams & Dick, 2012; Lackner & Gurtman, 2004; Thorn, Keefe & Anderson, 2004).

At the same time, I want to take a pragmatic and contextual look at catastrophising.

From a pragmatic perspective, right now it’s completely appropriate to be a bit discombobulated by COVID19. And many of us have a lot of things to consider over the next few days/weeks as the situation changes on a daily and even hourly basis. The things we’re doing right now to plan for the worst are largely useful. That’s the point of being able to catastrophise – in the right context, in a rapidly evolving health and economic crisis, being able to consider the various futures and put plans in place to deal with them is probably a good thing. That’s the action part of the catastrophising construct.

The difficulty NOT checking your news media feed, and feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all seems to be a fairly reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. Logic, right?

So, from a pragmatic perspective right now, in the face of uncertainty, most of us are doing exactly what has got humans out of trouble many times in our history.

Now, what if we shift the context to 24 months in the future. COVID19 has now been largely contained, a vaccine is available, the virus hasn’t evolved, and while the economy is slowed, it is gradually picking up. What if, at that time, we have a friend who is still nervously scanning the headlines for the latest information on the virus? What if that friend is still stockpiling pasta and toilet paper and hand cleanser? What if that friend is still feeling like there’s not much they can do except hunker down and hide?

Now, my guess is that many of us would think this is being a bit extreme. Maybe even a bit OTT. Especially given that there’s likely to have been a LOT of media coverage of the COVID19 vaccine, and most economic activity will be returning. We might begin suggesting (gently) to the person doing the stockpiling that maybe it’s not necessary to keep on doing so. We’d think it’s a good idea to give them the new information about COVID19. We’d probably suggest that although they’re freaking out, maybe it’s time to reconsider the threat.

Context matters – catastrophising can be useful right now. In 24 months: not so much. New information will likely help us take a more realistic look at what’s going on with COVID19. It’s not that individual people won’t be personally affected if they get sick, but probably the crisis that’s happening right now will be over.

What about the validity of the person’s emotional response to their feared situation? Would we be dismissive? I hope not – because anyone who is still freaking out about COVID19 in 24 months time is still in distress! But we might be more willing to share the good news about recovery with them, so they don’t continue feeling overwhelmed and distressed. We’d not be likely to let them carry on thinking the worst, and we certainly wouldn’t be telling them their response is perfectly valid and appropriate for the threat.

What of the person experiencing pain and thinking the worst, feeling pretty awful and hopeless? Would we support them to stay in that highly distressed state? Would we say “there, there, you’re really feeling bad, aren’t you, here’s a tissue” – and walk away? Would we hesitate to suggest that perhaps they’re magnifying the problem and that they might have some other options?
Think about it. Catastrophising is a well-validated and studied construct. Hundreds of studies have shown that catastrophising is associated with poorer outcomes in so many situations – childbirth, knee replacements, hip replacements, multi-trauma orthopaedics, discomfort during internal atrial cardioversion, length of hospital stay after knee replacement, use of medications – on and on and on.

Catastrophising gets a bad rap. And woe betide anyone who TELLS someone “you’re catastrophising” because you seriously deserve a slap. Sheesh! But take a moment to consider the adverse impact on the person of thinking the worst… sleepless nights, endlessly checking their body, feeling overwhelmed and overloaded, having trouble thinking of anything else, perhaps anxious and depressed… this is not a recipe for recovery.

Call it what you will – over-estimating the threat of something, and under-estimating your resources can act as a galvaniser for preparation and action in the short term and in the context of uncertainty. When there are ways to move forward, and the threat is maybe not so great as you thought, and maybe you can do something to help yourself – then it’s probably time for us to show strong compassion. That’s compassion that cares enough to have difficult conversations, that helps another person consider their response in light of new information, and is willing to be there to help the person re-evaluate their next best steps.

Keep safe. Keep your social distance. Wash your hands. Don’t go out if you’re sick. Be sensible with the toilet paper.

Bailey, S. J., McWilliams, L. A., & Dick, B. D. (2012). Expanding the social communication model of pain: are adult attachment characteristics associated with observers’ pain-related evaluations? Rehabil Psychol, 57(1), 27-34. doi: 10.1037/a0026237

Lackner, Jeffrey M., & Gurtman, Michael B. (2004). Pain catastrophizing and interpersonal problems: a circumplex analysis of the communal coping model. Pain, 110(3), 597-604. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2004.04.011

Thorn, Beverly E., Keefe, Francis J., & Anderson, Timothy. (2004). The communal coping model and interpersonal context: Problems or process? Pain, 110(3), 505-507.

8 comments

  1. Bronnie, I do not wish to debate the usefulness of the term “catastrophisation” but you have raised another question that does deserve a clear and direct answer.

    This is your question:

    ‘Where does the good, accurate and evidence-based information about persistent pain come from? And in the absence of readily accessible and “memeific” information, where do people go to learn about pain?’

    These are my questions directed to you:

    Are there any sources of reliable information that you recommend for people who wish to learn about pain?

    Are there any sources that you definitely would not recommend?

  2. The most useful resources will depend on the person’s main concern. I’d generally suggest that people work with a person who is trained (postgraduate training specific to pain, preferably, and of course I recommend those who have completed the postgrad programmes with curriculum drawn from IASP – eg University of Otago’s postgrad programmes, University of Sydney’s postgrad programmes). I’d also suggest people seek articles from groups such as Pain BC, Arthritis NZ, your own group in Perth. I have a blog for people with persistent pain (see the section in the menu above). I personally found the book “The challenge of pain” by Melzack and Wall very helpful – despite the inaccuracies.

    As for those I wouldn’t recommend – I don’t like to respond to leading questions, and why would I point to material that may not be helpful?

  3. You have answered my question with another question – “why would I point to material that may not be helpful?”

    In answer to your leading question, I believe that by critically evaluating and then pointing to such material trained health professionals are fulfilling an important responsibility to their patients and to the community.

    1. My observation is that this does little but confuse people, especially people who are distressed and feeling uncertain. It’s not my approach. I’m far more comfortable with promulgating positive information.

  4. John, I have removed your post because this is not the purpose of my page. Other forms of social media are fine, but this is my blog and I don’t allow negative discussions of other groups by commentators. My focus is on putting forward appropriate, positive and hopefully useful information for members of the public (with or without pain), and for health professionals.

  5. Bronnie, I respect your decision, but my point is still a valid one because it touches on the ethical responsibility of health professionals to their patients and to the community.

    1. I appreciate your point.
      There are many ways to enact ethical responsibilities – mine is to provide positive and up-to-date information. There are many, many places where unhelpful information is found. I don’t intend to drive internet traffic to those websites by “calling them out” and drawing attention to them. My response to the ethical dilemma as a health professional and educator is to make sure what I publish provides useful knowledge translation for clinicians and people living with pain. In the face of overwhelmingly poor information available on the internet, maybe my small contribution can not just counter misinformation, but provide alternatives. Because it’s relatively easy (and common) to critique something, but more difficult to offer an alternative.

  6. Bronnie, for the record I note that ReturnToWorkSA has removed my valid comments and turned off the possibility of any future comments being made about their video.

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