Cognitive skills

…and now what we’ve all been waiting for: What do to about central sensitisation in the clinic

For the last couple of weeks I’ve posted about central sensitisation; what it is, and how to assess for it. Today I’m going to turn to the “so what” question, and talk about what this might mean when we’re in the clinic.  Remember that most of this material comes from Jo Nijs’ recent talks at the New Zealand Pain Society.
Firstly, remember that pain is an experience that people have, underpinned by neurobiology, but also, depending on the level of analysis, on interactions with others, on systems and how they work, on culture, on individual experiences, and of course, on interacting within a body within an environment or context. Everything I say from here on is based on these assumptions.

The first point Jo Nijs makes is that when we know a bit more about the neurobiology of persistent pain associated with central sensitisation, we can use this knowledge wisely when we help someone make sense of their pain. This doesn’t mean wholesale and broadcast “I-will-tell-you-all-I-know-about-pain-neurobiology-because-I-know-you-need-to-know-it-because-I-know-it-and-think-it’s-important” which is, truth to tell, a lot more about the know-it-all than the person in front of them! We need to earn the right to give information – that means establishing that we’ve heard the other person’s story and the current meanings they’ve made from their experience. It also means asking permission to share new information. It means thinking about WHY we want to share new information.

So what if the person doesn’t use the same groovy language we use to describe his or her understanding?! So what if they’ve got some of the newer ideas slightly skewed. In the end, what’s important is that the person understands these things:

  • Pain isn’t a direct reflection of what’s happening in the tissues.
  • Pain can be influenced by many things, some of which are physical forces (heat, pressure and so forth), some of which are ideas, and some are emotions. And there are a bunch of other variables that can influence the experience, including what else is going on around the person.
  • The brain is intimately involved with our experience of pain, and it’s a two-way street from body to brain and brain to body.
  • Persistent pain is more about neurobiology than tissue damage per se (but not exclusively about neurobiology).

Our job is to make sure the person understands these things, rather than our job being about “educating” people. The end result matters, rather than any particular process.

If we look at the evidence for helping people reconceptualise their pain, there’s plenty to show that this approach is useful – it’s been a key tenet of a self-management cognitive behavioural approach to pain management since at least the late 1970’s. The later research (from Butler, Moseley and Louw et al) is simply looking at this approach within a slightly different cohort and in a different context. Rather than being integrated with an interdisciplinary pain management programme, research from these guys shows that physiotherapists (in particular) can deliver this kind of information very effectively – and that it helps reduce the fear and subsequent efforts to avoid pain (such as not moving, seeking healthcare, and being worried about pain). Yay!

It’s true that there are many different ways to influence the descending modulatory system, and release endorphins. One of them is to help people understand their pain and be more confident about moving. Another is to place hands on the person – hence massage therapy, manual therapies, manipulations and so on. Nijs believes hands on therapy has best effect after you’ve gone through some of the reconceptualisation that’s often needed (Bishop, Torres-Cueco, Gay, Lluch-Girbes, Beneciuk, & Bialosky, 2015).

Similar arguments can be made for considering sleep management and stress management as an integral part of pain management. (To be perfectly honest, I always thought this was part of what we did…). So here’s the argument: we know most people with persistent pain experience rotten sleep. We also know that people are stressed by their experience of pain. Because poor sleep is associated with increased activation of glia in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, and therefore are pro-inflammatory, pain is often increased after a poor night’s sleep. Sleep medications interfere with the sleep architecture, so it’s useful to consider nonpharmacological approaches to sleep management.

Three strategies to consider:

  • CBT for insomnia – here’s one resource to use
  • ACT or acceptance and commitment therapy – I’ve written a great deal about ACT, just use the search function on this blog for more
  • Exercise – OMG yes, exercise is effective! (just not right before bedtime, kthx)

Stress management is tougher. We can’t avoid experiencing stress – and neither can we live in a bubble where we don’t ever get exposed to stress. Instead, we probably all could do with learning multiple ways of managing stress. Things like realistic evaluations of the situation, increasing our capabilities for regulating our response to stress via biofeedback if need be, and using mindfulness as a strategy for being with stress instead of fighting against it, or folding beneath it.

I haven’t cited many references in this post – not because there aren’t many, but because there are SO many! And I’ll post more next week when I start looking at the rather sexy neurobiological examinations of processes used in pain management for years (yes, we’ve been doing it for a long time, we now have great explanations for how these things might work – though effect sizes are still small.)


Bishop, M. D., Torres-Cueco, R., Gay, C. W., Lluch-Girbés, E., Beneciuk, J. M., & Bialosky, J. E. (2015). What effect can manual therapy have on a patient’s pain experience?. Pain, 5(6), 455-464.


How much do you really need to deal with catastrophising?

Catastrophising is a popular concept in pain management. It’s been associated with poor outcomes in major joint replacement (Riddle, Wade, Jiranek and Kong, 2010); spinal fusion (Abbott, Tyni-Lenne & Hedlund, (2010); in experimental pain modulation (Bartley & Rhudy, 2008); in cancer pain (Bishop & Warr, 2003); and influences interpersonal relationships (Buenaver, Edwards & Haythornthwaite, 2007).

I’m often asked: so, what do I do about it? Can it be treated? What does it really mean? Should I (any kind of non-psychologist) try to treat it, or should I leave it to the psychologists?

The short answer is, I think, yes we need to be aware of catastrophising, yes we can do something to help people become less likely to catastrophise, and yes I firmly believe any and all health professionals have a contribution to make to reduce the tendency to catastrophise simply because it can be so influential for distress, function and disability.

What does catastrophising really mean?

Catastrophising is, basically, the tendency to think the worst about a situation. It probably has some adaptive function in that it helps people identify all the things that can go wrong so they can do something to reduce that risk. On the other hand, it’s not such a wonderful thing when it leads to ruminating (brooding), feeling helpless, and to magnify (or emphasise) all the disasters that could happen, when the probability is really quite low (Sullivan, Bishop & Pivik, 1995).

It’s likely that most of us will have, at one time or another, anticipated the worst. Most of the time the worst doesn’t happen, and we go our way, reassured that we’ve planned for, and managed the situation more effectively than if we’d carried out regardless. But for people who tend to catastrophise about their pain, the risk is fairly high that they’ll experience more distress, depression and disability than those who don’t.

I want to point out that identifying that someone tends to catastrophise does not mean their fears should be dismissed out of hand.  The person who tends to catastrophise is likely to disagree with you, feel their concerns are being trivialised, feel rejected and less likely to talk to you about their concerns. Not the way to maintain a therapeutic relationship!

How can you tell if someone’s catastrophising?

The main assessment measure of catastrophising is Sullivan, Bishop & Pivik’s “Pain Catastrophising Scale“.  It’s not the only measure, but it’s one of the most well-known. It’s relatively brief, and has excellent psychometric properties. But if you’re not comfortable using a pen and paper measure, how else can you decide if someone’s tending to think this way?

Some good questions to ask are:

“What do you think is the most likely outcome of this [procedure/painful event]?”

“How are you feeling about this pain?”

“What can you do to help yourself when your pain is like this?”

“How much can you distract yourself from the pain?”

“What do you think this pain means? What’s your theory about this pain?”

If the person answers negatively – for example, they say they can’t even think about an outcome it’s so bad, or they don’t think it’s ever going to get better, or it’s “terrible”, or “awful”; if they say they can’t distract themselves from the pain, they keep thinking about it all the time; and if they think there’s nothing they can do to help themselves, they feel helpless or hopeless; and if they think the pain means something sinister or bad – then you’re likely to have identified someone who is appraising their situation more fearfully than is helpful.

If the person says “Oh but it really is that bad!”

Remember when you were a kid and were terrified of the dark, or bugs, or things under the toilet lid? or when you were really upset and someone said “Calm down!” – remember that flash of anger that the other person was just not aware of how terrified you were? Simply disagreeing or correcting someone is not going to reduce their anxiety.

I find that first of all it’s important to reflect to the person that you understand they are really worried by their pain. Saying something like “It seems that your pain is really bothering you, and you’re really worried about what it means now and might mean in the future. Have I understood you correctly?”

I then find it useful to unpack the specifics of what the person is really worried about. I might ask “When you say the pain is terrible, what does that mean? What do you think might happen?”

What I’m trying to do is reduce the global appraisal the “everything” is “awful”. I want to find out the details, the underlying beliefs that are underneath the fearful appraisal. So, for example, if the answer to the question above is “I feel like I’m going to die, I can’t breathe and it’s frightening” or “I think it’s never going to end, it’s going to be there all the time, forever”, I can begin to gently reality test these beliefs and also provide some skills to help the person get through them.  I firstly reflect what I’ve heard: “It sounds so scary, not to be able to breathe – no wonder you’re feeling afraid” or “I’d be worried too, if I thought my pain was going to be there all the time, forever”.

Then I might begin suggesting we work on ways to handle the emotions associated with this belief (it’s very hard to reality test if the person is very distressed). “I wonder if we could just spend a minute looking at some ways to help you deal with your feelings, so they don’t wind your nervous system up more? Even if it’s frightening, it’s hard to deal with when your body is getting very stressed, so tell me, what do you find works well to help you calm down?” I might either use what the person says, or teach some diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness.

Then it’s often a good time to work through a nonthreatening explanation of pain. There are so many ways to present this – YouTube videos of Lorimer Moseley “explain pain”, or Mike Stewart “Know Pain”, or the 5 minute pain video by Hunter Integrated Pain Service. Or you can use your own explanations and metaphors that are meaningful to the person. A case formulation can be helpful too.

When should you refer to a psychologist?

I think most people with chronic pain are fine just learning simple skills like breathing, mindfulness and gently approaching movements that they’ve been worried about doing. Even better if this is carried out with a strong eye to what the person can do and wants to be able to do in their everyday life. Success does breed success.

But there are a percentage of people who really struggle with catastrophising. If you find that the person you’re working with can’t use breathing to calm down, finds it really difficult to stop brooding (especially if this is going on all night!), or finds it very hard to accept a different way of viewing pain, then it’s time to work together with a psychologist to develop an approach that combines what you do (restoring occupational engagement or function) with cognitive therapy or ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). I personally find it’s people who have very rigid beliefs about their pain, about how the world works, and who find it difficult to experiment and try new things that need this kind of input.

So – should we think about catastrophising in our clinical work? Definitely yes. It’s too important to omit. Should we help people who tend to think this way? Definitely yes, it’s not necessarily the remit only of a psychologist, and I’d argue that we ALL need to contribute.


Abbott, A.D., Tyni-Lenne, R., & Hedlund, R. (2010). The influence of psychological factors on pre-operative levels of pain intensity, disability and health-related quality of life in lumbar spinal fusion surgery patients. Physiotherapy, 96(3), 213-221. doi: 10.1016/

Bartley, E.J., Rhudy, J.L. (2008). The influence of pain catastrophizing on experimentally induced emotion and emotional modulation of nociception. Journal of Pain, 9(5), 388-396.

Bishop, S.R., & Warr, D. (2003). Coping, catastrophizing and chronic pain in breast cancer. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 26(3), 265-281.

Buenaver, L.F., Edwards, R.R., & Haythornthwaite, J.A. (2007). Pain-related catastrophizing and perceived social responses: Inter-relationships in the context of chronic pain. Pain, 127(3), 234-242.

Riddle, D.L., Wade, J.B., Jiranek, W.A., & Kong, X. (2010). Preoperative pain catastrophizing predicts pain outcome after knee arthroplasty. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research, 468(3), 798-806.

Sullivan, M.J., Bishop, S.R., & Pivik, J. (1995). The pain catastrophizing scale: Development and validation. Psychological Assessment, 7(4), 524. doi:

Stepping out of the glue: How to generate goals

Chronic pain has been called one of the “most powerful and insidious disruptors” of routine, habit and wellbeing (Karoly, Okun, Enders & Tennen, 2014).  When a person experiences pain, a whole range of mechanisms come into play and work together to use thinking and processing space, and especially those areas we use when we’re developing and achieving goals.  When people are first trying to make sense of their situation, they can find it hard to think about future goals and plans, and instead focus on trying to solve the problem of pain – many people call this time like being in limbo (McGowan, Luker, Creed & Chew-Graham, 2007).

It’s not surprising, then, that when clinicians begin to work with someone who has had pain for a very long time, it can be very difficult for them to think of a “goal”. After all, not everyone sets goals anyway (I heard somewhere that it’s about 3% of people – but I can’t find the research to support it). But in pain management, funders often ask clinicians to work with the client to “set goals” for therapy from the first day as a way to ensure a client-centred programme, increase motivation, and monitor outcomes. This can be a problem in a couple of ways: first of all, if the person doesn’t have goals because they’ve been in “limbo land” for a long time, and feel pretty demoralised or their goal relates to “getting rid of the pain”; secondly, if the person has vague ideas that are difficult to set into the typical “SMART” formula (incidentally, I really don’t like that acronym!); thirdly, if the person doesn’t have strong ideas about what they want from therapy, the clinician can set the goals for them, and perhaps not those the client is really all that interested in; and finally, it’s hard to set goals without having spent some time listening to and collaborating with the client.

Pain can be experienced as a major obstacle to motivation for setting goals. Negative mood associated with pain can reduce motivation to think ahead, to dream. Morning pain in particular can make it more difficult to want to do things, unless those activities are important, there are relatively structured ways to pursue them, and they don’t need much planning.  This can influence whether a person gets out of bed to go to work, or the gym, or take the kids to school. In a daily diary study, Karoly, Okun, Mooris, Enders and Tennen (2014) found that people with relatively high overall pain over a two-week period, but not necessarily just in the morning, and who have chosen to stay working, often also carry out their “lifestyle” goals in the afternoon. They suggest this could be because goals that are further out in time, and the positive feelings associated with achieving work goals keep them motivated. But they also found that even then, on the days people had more than their usual pain in the morning, they were less inclined to do as much.

The implication of this finding by Karoly and colleagues is that people who experience a “high pain” morning might need some reminders of the pleasure they get when they achieve goals – perhaps to pay attending to people and places that support their goal achievement. Helping people develop goal planning skills might also be useful – do the thinking when you’re feeling a bit more positive and can see beyond “now”, then when pain is higher, the cognitive demanding work is already done and the reminders help to generate positive emotions to encourage doing them.

OK, so we know some ways of helping people keep motivated, but what do we do to help people set them in the first place?

People are motivated by both push and pull factors. We want to move towards things we experience as good, and away from things we don’t enjoy. When pain is present, not only does it become hard to think straight, it doesn’t feel like it will ever change. So we need to help people dream a little. One way I do this is ask “What would you be doing if pain wasn’t such a problem for you?” Note that I’m not saying pain isn’t there – but that it’s less of a problem. Sometimes I’ll use a plastic magic wand and hand it to the person, asking them to dream a little. Other times I’ll add in “What gives you joy and pleasure? What makes you lose your sense of time and place? What gives you a sense of satisfaction when it’s done?”

These questions begin to identify activities in which a person might experience “flow” – Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi.

Another way is to ask the person what they need to, or want to do, perhaps using the occupational therapy broad groups of “productivity/work”, “leisure/fun”, and “self care” as prompts.

I’ve also found that by asking “what’s important in your life” can be a good way to generate personal goals. Importance indicates that the person places value on it. Values are important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by people about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values underpin ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), because instead of setting goals, which can be achieved, values are like a compass – things we do (actions) allow us to move closer towards important values, and we never completely achieve them. They’re directional and aspirational, and allow us to do difficult things that have short-term negative consequences, just so we can move towards a better long-term consequence (van Huet, Innes & Stancliffe, 2013).

How can you use this in therapy?

Well, if a person really values family, and being a good Dad, anything that Dad does to enable him to be a better Dad will be motivational. So you can ask “What could you do today that would take you one step closer to being a great Dad?” And use whatever that might be as the foundation for a goal. Then you can go on and use all the other great goal-setting strategies like specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that doing that thing will be easy – far from it! But it will make achieving it more relevant, powerful and motivating. Working with the challenges is why you are a therapist.


Karoly, Paul, Okun, Morris A., Enders, Craig, & Tennen, Howard. (2014). Effects of Pain Intensity on Goal Schemas and Goal Pursuit: A Daily Diary Study. Health Psychology, 33(9), 968-976.

McGowan, Linda, Luker, Karen, Creed, Francis, & Chew-Graham, Carolyn A. (2007). ‘How do you explain a pain that can’t be seen?’: The narratives of women with chronic pelvic pain and their disengagement with the diagnostic cycle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12(2), 261-274.

van Huet, Helen, Innes, Ev, & Stancliffe, Roger. (2013). Occupational therapists perspectives of factors influencing chronic pain management. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 60(1), 56-65.

Interrupted by Pain

If there’s one thing I loathe, it’s being interrupted when I’m in the middle of something. There I am, working away at something, in the flow, knowing where I’m going and what I’m doing then BANG! something gets in the way!

I wasn’t aware, but there is a science of interruptions – mainly studied within ergonomics or human factors research (the study of work and humans) – and this science has begun to unravel some of the issues associated with interruptions. Interruptions are not only annoying, they’re also a good way to provoke mistakes!

Pain is, as Geert Crombez and others have shown, a stimulus we find difficult to ignore. It interrupts what we have planned, and orients us towards finding ways to escape the stimulus. Of course, when pain doesn’t stop, as in chronic pain, people learn to deal with the interruptive effect of pain so they can get on and do things that are important – but at the same time, because part of our brains must deal with the pain in some way, our performance can be degraded.  Essentially, to continue doing something important when pain is also present requires us to deal with goal conflict. 

What happens when a person becomes aware of his or her pain while working on another goal?

Well, initially, the goal pursuit remains strong – our brains are very good at prioritising what we want to do, except when the new stimulus is salient (relevant), novel (new) and intense. Pain is (usually) relevant (it’s a threat!), is experienced as something new or different about our bodily status, and varies in intensity. So in the context of a task, people may remain focused on the task until the pain is intense enough, or meaningful enough, or new for it to capture the attention.

So, pain gets in the way, and we attend to the threat and the threat reduces.

After some time, we return to what we were doing – but the time that it takes to get back to what we were doing differs depending on a bunch of things.

Those things include

  • the threat value of the pain,
  • how readily it resolved,
  • how close to the end of the original activity we were,
  • how quickly we oriented towards the pain (the more quickly we do, the less easily we return to doing what we were originally doing, perhaps because we don’t have time to code the need to return to it into our memory before we move on to address the pain),
  • whether there are cues in the environment that help us remember to get back to the original activity

and a bunch of other things as well.

Some interesting facts have emerged about interruptions – if we have many interruptions, it’s easier to adapt to them and get back to the original task (which is possibly why mothers are known to be good at multi-tasking!); unpredictible interruptions are more difficult to recover from, they’re more disruptive; interruptions that last a long time make it more difficult to return to the original task.

In the case of chronic pain, pain is usually present to at least a certain degree all the time. It’s when it is intense, or the character changes, or it is particularly salient, or perhaps our overall coping is less, that pain interrupts more. So, for some people, it’s possible to delay being taken off task to attend to pain because these people might have learned that it’s “nothing unusual”, it isn’t a threat, it will subside of its own accord, or it’s just less important than the goal they’re working on.

For those of us who do deal with chronic pain, the aspect that may still trip us up is getting back to the activity we were working on before we needed to take a break because of our pain. If we need to take a long break, if we stop the original activity without having clearly planned to stop, if we don’t give ourselves cues to return to the activity, we might find it more difficult to remember (a) where we were in the activity, and (b) that we actually were working on something!

The relevance of interruptions becomes very important when, as therapists, we suggest to people that they consider using activity pacing.

While the definitions of pacing are not clear and still being debates, essentially it means interrupting what a person is doing to take a break, regain energy or maintain pain at a reasonable level. I’m sure many of you will remember the old-fashioned programmes on the computer that used to flash up a screen telling you to STOP! and do a break or stretch. You could “ignore” it a few times, but eventually it would lock your computer so you couldn’t use it until you’d taken the predetermined break. I LOATHED it! I’d be halfway through writing something and it would stop me and get in the way. So I deleted the programme.

That’s one of the problems of these kinds of approaches to activity management – they may stop you “overdoing” something, but they often stop you from completing a task, and completely disrupt your thinking!

My preferred way of helping people to use “pacing” was to suggest “activity chunking” where, at the completion of some chunk of an activity, the person could take a quick break to do a body scan or stretch or something. I found that people used this strategy more often, complained less often, and consequently relaxed a lot more!

After reading about pain and interruptions, I can now understand why this strategy was a little more effective – because at the end of a chunk of activity there are cues established in the memory to remind us that we’ve got a task to complete. These breaks were planned and expected, so they were easier to anticipate, and therefore accommodate.  Eventually, as people got good at them, they become habitual and no longer seem to get in the way of doing the original task.

Pacing, interruptions and pain. People with chronic pain are chronic multi-taskers. We know multi-tasking isn’t good for cognitive efficiency, accuracy or even energy (see the references below), so quite apart from the added burdens we as clinicians might give to people with chronic pain by suggesting “pacing”, people who have chronic pain are chronically stretched cognitively.

My suggestion for managing the demands of pacing and pain is to use planned breaks, preferably using chunks – or, as I’ve been doing recently, using Pomodoro technique to plan and schedule my activities and breaks. I also use mindfulness when my pain begins to get noticeable. By doing this I can remain “on task” rather than distracted.

Conard, M.A., & Marsh, R.F. (2014). Interest level improves learning but does not moderate the effects of interruptions: An experiment using simultaneous multitasking. Learning and Individual Differences, 30, 112-117.
Finley, J.R., Benjamin, A.S., & McCarley, J.S. (2014). Metacognition of multitasking: How well do we predict the costs of divided attention? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(2), 158-165.
Gatzounis, R., Schrooten, M. G. S., Crombez, G., & Vlaeyen, J. W. S. (2014). Interrupted by pain: An anatomy of pain-contingent activity interruptions. PAIN®, 155(7), 1192-1195. doi:

Katidioti, I., & Taatgen, N.A. (2014). Choice in multitasking: How delays in the primary task turn a rational into an irrational multitasker. Human Factors, 56(4), 728-736.
Munneke, J., Fait, E., & Mazza, V. (2013). Attentional processing of multiple targets and distractors. Psychophysiology, 50(11), 1104-1108.
Sanjram, P.K. (2013). Attention and intended action in multitasking: An understanding of cognitive workload. Displays, 34(4), 283-291.


How well do people understand their neuropathic pain?
When coming to terms with a chronic pain problem, one of the important steps involves obtaining a diagnosis that fits with both the individual’s personal experience of their pain, and also their knowledge (drawn from what is available in the general population). If the label doesn’t square with their experience, people continue searching until they find something that does.

There has been an enormous wave of excitement about giving people good “pain education”. I’ve always been a bit anxious about the term “education”, because it can so often mean giving an information dump, leaving the person being “educated” with little or no relevant knowledge about their personal concerns – and it’s the individual and unique concerns that influence how a person interprets what is happening, and how they respond. As a result, I prefer “helping people to develop a personal pain formulation” or “reconceptualising” their pain. Putting the pedantics aside, it seems really important for health professionals to not only understand what people with pain already know about their health condition, but also to understand how people interpret what they’re told – if they’re told anything.

In this study, 75 people with neuropathic pain were asked to sort a series of statements about neuropathic pain according to their level of agreement with them. This is known as Q-methodology. The sorted statements are then analysed to identify common features amongst them. Four factors were identified:

  1. Neuropathic pain is a nervous system problem, psychology influences the pain experience and acceptance, and being open to psychological interventions – this group of respondents had tried psychological treatments, their pain was on average about 6 – 7 years.
  2. Neuropathic pain is nerve damage, psychology is irrelevant in pain experience, neutral about psychological treatments – this group of people had not tried psychological treatments, but had tried surgery and medications.
  3. Neuropathic pain is irreparable nerve damage, symptom management is needed, psychological factors play a part in pain perception but psychological treatment is not OK – this group of individuals had pain for an average of 10 years, and they had used breathing, positive thoughts, medications and physical treatments.
  4. Neuropathic pain cause should be identified, psychological influences may play a part, and treatment can include both medical and psychological – this group had pain for an average of 1 -2  years, and they had tried a range of medications, physical methods, yoga, meditation and complementary therapies.

The authors point out several limitations of this study – people were not recruited on the basis of an particular characteristics, there could be a number of recruitment biases, and they were all identified via online recruitment processes, therefore it’s hard to generalise. What it does indicate is that there is no coherent biopsychosocial explanation put forward by participants, they appeared to have received very little explanation about their problem, and this affected their readiness for psychological or self management interventions.

Another interesting point is how many of these participants, across all the four factor groups, described experiencing being given psychosomatic explanations of their pain. The authors write :”Across all accounts, participants’ comments indicated that they had received psychosomatic explanations of their pain and had been distressed and offended, consistent with other studies which use open-ended methods to sample patients’ experiences. (p. 353).” The influence of psychological factors was found to be associated more with adjusting to chronic pain, rather than to developing an integrated model of pain. Factor 1 were the only group to endorse the notion of acceptance, or learning to live with pain – and the groups in Factors 3 and 4 were strongly against the idea that pain could be lived with.

I find this study interesting, not so much in what it has discovered, but rather more in terms of the discussion about psychological factors and medical factors – but nothing on social factors. I find myself wondering again whether we have a biopsychological model of pain, rather than a more complex biopsychosocial model.

That being said, I agree with a point made in the conclusion: people with chronic pain value a coherent explanation for their pain, it helps resolve their worry and enables them to approach their pain differently.  The problem facing people with chronic pain is how to access evidence-based and accessible information about neuropathic (or indeed any type of) pain. Often people find out about neuropathic via biomedical models, and they rarely get exposed to the complexity of a biopsychological model, let alone a biopsychosocial one.

We desperately need to understand the best ways to personalise an explanation for an individual with chronic pain. I think a case formulation approach is the most useful, but I’ve found that many clinicians think this takes “too long” and is “too complex”. I wonder about this. A formulation might take a couple of sessions, but it’s a lot less expensive and has lower risk than surgery.

In light of the very limited range of interventions for people with neuropathic pain, perhaps taking the time to respond to the person’s unique questions about their pain would be time and money well spent.


People who have chronic pain are often very reluctant to consider the influence of psychological factors on their pain, reflecting their fear that by accepting this, their pain is being dismissed as “not real”, or not legitimate. This means people may not accept (or indeed be referred for) psychological interventions. Treatment approaches based on a cognitive behavioural approach have good evidence to support them, but they don’t do much good if people are not ready for them, or even referred for them.


Martin, S., Daniel, C., & Williams, A. (2014). How do people understand their neuropathic pain? A Q-study PAIN®, 155 (2), 349-355 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2013.10.021

Mindfulness, catastrophising and disability

Readers of Healthskills will know I have a fascination for mindfulness as an intervention for people who have ongoing pain.  Mindfulness is relatively easy to learn, is portable – is free, and has no calories! Seriously, as a seemingly simple intervention, it has appeal not only because it is readily used, but also because so many studies have found that it is effective for reducing distress and disability.

What is it?

Mindfulness is “moment-by-moment attention and observation of external and internal stimuli (eg, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) in a nonjudgemental and nonreactive way” (Cassidy, Atherton, Robertson, Walsh & Gillett, 2012).  It’s thought to be the opposite of catastrophising, which is the tendency to interpret those same experiences as an indication of harm or damage.

Learning mindfulness is relatively simple – but hard to maintain, practice is everything. This is my process, developed from multiple readings over the years so I am completely unable to identify where I got it from!  Readers keen to learn more about how to teach mindfulness should head to the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society based in the University of Massachusetts, alternatively, read anything by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I begin with asking the person to become aware of their breathing. Not changing it, not trying to breath more slowly or deeply or anything – just become aware of it.  I might guide the person to

  • become aware of cool air as it enters the nostrils and flows down the back of the throat;
  • to notice the warmth of the air that passes back out;
  • to be aware of the rise and fall of the abdomen or chest;
  • to become aware of what it feels like when the chest expands

…and so on.  I often extend this awareness to notice the body sensations of contact with the support, or the warmth of the hands as they rest on the lap – for as long as I think the person is remaining aware and not drifting into other thoughts.  I know I can’t really be aware of the person’s thoughts, but I watch very carefully to see whether the person’s eyes are moving (usually they’re closed during this session) and whether they’re fidgeting or shifting in the chair. This initial introduction is usually quite brief – only a few minutes – to give the person a taste of what it might feel like to experience without naming or judging or labelling.

Debriefing at the conclusion of this brief session is essential, IMHO.  This is where therapist’s personal use of mindfulness is important – whatever the person experiences is OK.  I ask about what they noticed during this experience, mainly to identify whether they’re labelling the experience as “good”, or “bad”, or shades in between.  Essentially I’m hoping for the person to simply list the sensations rather than indicating whether they are judged as something.  An example might help: if the person said “I was surprised at how warm my hands were” is a judgement – the word “surprised” suggests a judgement about what is usually experienced.  My response might be “So you noticed your warm hands” rather than probing as to what the “normal” state is, or reflecting that the person was surprised.

For home-based learning, I suggest doing this same breathing exercise at least three times a day.  Or I might suggest being mindful while cleaning the teeth, noticing the sensations of brushing and the taste of toothpaste.  It’s a simple activity that is done regularly and is usually not interrupted!

Why focus on mindfulness?

There are a couple of reasons I like mindfulness.  I indicated earlier that it’s a portable, relatively simple strategy that can be used anywhere – and that it’s the opposite of catastrophising.  Delving into the mechanics of how mindfulness works is beyond the scope of a post like this, but it does seem that observing without judgement reduces the automatic evaluation of a body sensation as “something really bad”, ie catastrophising.  We know that catastrophising is associated with increased disability, anxiety, low mood and can serve to maintain behavioural avoidance.

The study by Cassidy and colleagues found that “greater mindfulness was predictive of lower levels of disability, anxiety, depression and catastrophizing, even when pain severity was controlled” in the context of delivering a multidisciplinary pain management programme.  We can’t determine from the design of this study whether the practice of mindfulness influenced catastrophising, but some statistical analysis of the relationships between mindfulness, catastrophising and disability found that the degree to which mindfulness influenced disability was itself influenced by catastrophising, and that mindfulness had a direct relationship with catastrophising, and in turn had a relationship with disability.

What this means is that increased mindfulness appeared to reduce catastrophising, which in turn reduced disability.

The explanation given is that mindfulness involves greater use of nonjudgemental awareness of events, experiences, sensations around an individual, and that by doing this, the tendency to jump to a negative conclusion about the meaning of that experience is reduced.

It’s worth considering how mindfulness can be integrated into daily clinical practice – for both the practitioner and the client.  It’s certainly easier to teach something that has been personally experienced, and it is likely to help maintain that broad awareness that is needed when observing what is going on with a patient.  It does mean giving oneself space to later recall and interpret what is being observed, but I find it’s a whole lot easier to do so than if I’ve been trying to interpret at the same time.  This, of course, will depend on the content of a treatment session.

Cassidy, E., Atherton, R., Robertson, N., Walsh, D., & Gillett, R. (2012). Mindfulness, functioning and catastrophizing after multidisciplinary pain management for chronic low back pain PAIN, 153 (3), 644-650 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2011.11.027

Managing Migraines without Medication

ResearchBlogging.orgAhhh, migraine – psychedelia without the high… nausea without the alcohol…

The diagnostic criteria: A) At least 5 attacks fulfilling B-D; B) lasting untreated 4-74 hours; C) two of the following: unilateral, pulsating, moderate or severe pain intensity, worsening with physical activity; D) one of the following: nausea and/or vomiting, photophobia or phonophobia; E) not attributed to another disorder. (International Classification of headache disorders, 2004) (go here for one of the most comprehensive sites on migraine)

The main treatment for migraine is to use medication – best evidence to date suggests:  “Only two pharmacological treatments have been shown to be effective in placebo-controlled randomized trials: topiramate and local injection of botulinum toxin. Both therapies are effective in patients with chronic migraine with and without medication overuse. “ (Diener, Holle, Dodick, 2011)

As one of the many people who have migraine to NOT find these two medications helpful, and someone who has slightly unusual migraine symptoms (my main symptom is nausea, with headache being secondary), it’s taken a long time for me to reach a clear-cut diagnosis for migraine.  In the meantime I’ve had to learn to “live with” my migraines without pharmacology.  No easy matter when even the best say “Most of the time migraines resolve with sleep. Occasionally, and especially in children, vomiting stops migraine.” (from Migraine Aura Foundation)

What helps migraine – apart from sleep and vomiting?

I’m going to start with the approaches that I commonly use in the Pain Management Centre for people with migraine.  Please note: these are NOT a panacea for all migraines, and they work most effectively in combination.  Please don’t use what I’m writing as a substitute for seeing a health care provider – you and your health care provider need to work together.

  1. Assessment: Step one for managing migraines is carrying out a good assessment to identify triggers (antecedents).  This is one occasion when diaries for recording headaches and activities over a month or so.  I’m generally not keen on pain diaries because they so often focus the person on their pain, but in the case of intermittent headaches the diary method is really useful.  It’s helpful to briefly record activities, “stress” level, aura, headache intensity, sleep and food/drink intake.  This might help identify triggers – but having identified them, avoiding them is not always the best approach!  Instead, it might be more preferable to consider ways of managing the overall vulnerability to migraine – more on this below.
  2. Self-regulation training: Self-regulation refers to a wide range of strategies to influence alertness and ability to achieve a given activity.  In the context of migraine management, it usually refers to using things like biofeedback modalities to help train the person to up and down-regulate their physiological activity.  I find this has to be conducted alongside cognitive therapy so the person remembers to use self-regulation, and to help manage the automatic thoughts that often occur both because of having a migraine and as a response to using different strategies.
  3. Cognitive therapy: This refers to recognising automatic thoughts, intermediate beliefs/attitudes, and core beliefs, and working with these to interpret events in a different way.  This approach helps people to reflect on why they feel the way they do about situations and establish whether these are “working” to help them achieve what is important and valued in their life.  Even if an interpretation of a situation is accurate, it may not be helpful.
  4. Effective communication: This might seem a strange one to put into migraine management, but something I have found is that emotional stress from interpersonal conflict is one of the “hidden” triggers for migraine.  Effective communication can be called “assertive” communication, but I find this to be a very value-laden term.  Being able to communicate effectively involves listening, hearing, interpreting then developing an honest and respectful response.
  5. Activity management: Yes, that old standby of timetables, planning, prioritising and putting off – oh, perhaps not that last one!  Seriously though, establishing a paced activity pattern that avoids “boom and bust” patterns, or “pain contingent” patterns really helps, especially on a day when a migraine has started.  Stopping everything isn’t an option for many people, so maintaining a “minimum” plan for those days can be useful.

Self-regulation training – some details

While learning self-regulation without biofeedback is perfectly fine, for some good reasons, various biofeedback modalities enhance the learning.

Biofeedback involves monitoring physiological processes usually considered involuntary or that are modulated outside of conscious awareness. The three most common forms of biofeedback for headache treatment are: thermal, electromyographic (EMG), and electrodermal.  I tend to use Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) rasther than electrodermal, simply because it’s available to me and also because it gives me (and the person I’m working with) a good “overall” assessment of alertness.

There are many things that you can do with biofeedback, but I usually begin by attaching the leads and showing the graphs on the computer monitor.  We talk for a while until the person’s graphs show they’re stabilising into a baseline state.

I then usually begin with a Stroop test to establish “working under stress”.  This is a test where people are asked to read words for colours, with the words printed in different colours from how they read.  For example GREEN RED BLUE.  This gives me some information on the parameters the person usually demonstrates “stress”.

I then progress to learning to breathe.  “Not so difficult”, you say – well, it’s surprising how few people demonstrate effective breathing and control of breathing.  I almost always begin with respiration – to firstly use diaphragmatic breathing, then to slow the breathing down, and finally, with a respiration monitor around the person’s chest, I might help them look at the S pattern they create on the monitor.  This helps them to create slow, regular and full breathing that smoothly inflates and deflates the lungs.

Then I often move onto some animated programmes – one of my favourites is the Wild Divine set called “Relaxing Rhythms”.  It monitors heart rate, heart rate variability and GSR, and has a number of really good animations that help people to develop control.

More on migraine management soon!

Grazzi, L., & Andrasik, F. (2010). Non-pharmacological approaches in migraine prophylaxis: behavioral medicine Neurological Sciences, 31 (S1), 133-135 DOI: 10.1007/s10072-010-0306-5
Paola Schiapparelli • Gianni Allais • Ilaria Castagnoli Gabellari •
Sara Rolando • Maria Grazia Terzi • Chiara Benedetto (2010). Non-pharmacological approaches in migraine prophylaxis: Part ii Neurological Sciences, 31 (S1), 137-139 DOI: 10.1007/s10072-010-0307-4

Self efficacy and fear of movement mediate pain intensity and disability in acute pain
Most clinicians working in chronic pain management are well aware that the time it takes for people to finally be referred for management of their pain is far too long and some of the readers of this blog who work with people who have acute pain may wonder whether anything I write about applies to them and the people they treat.  To both groups of readers – today’s post should apply!

Arguably the most common reason for people seeing a doctor is because of a musculoskeletal pain.  Treatment is usually quite simple: diagnosis, pain relief, anti-inflammatories and gradual return to function.  It’s this last part of treatment that seems to cause the most trouble for people – what if the pain doesn’t settle, what if I’m damaging my body, how long should I “rest” it, how often should I move it?

Despite all the promotion of the psychosocial “yellow flags” as risk factors for ongoing disability, many doctors find it difficult to initiate the discussion, and even more difficult to know what to do if they happen to identify them.  There’s also been discussion about whether identifying and managing risk factors is worth it – psychosocial interventions in the acute and subacute stages of pain haven’t been all that effective.

My thoughts are that maybe “psychosocial” is both scary for clinicians who usually work in a biomedical model (suitable, I hasten to add, for most acute pain problems), and is too broad a term.  One psychosocial factor is not the same as another!

Breaking it down and learning more about the specific issues and how to address them might be worthwhile.

Söderlund and Åsenlöf, in this study looked at acute pain – whiplash associated disorders (WAD) and a “musculoskeletal disorder” group of patients who were recruited from a hospital emergency department and had ankle fracture or sprain, wrist fracture or sprain, shoulder joint luxation, upper arm or forearm fracture.  All participants were asked to complete the Pain Disability Index, Pain Intensity Diary (using the numeric rating scale), and the Tampa Kinesiophobia Scale, the Self Efficacy Scale (not the Pain Self Efficacy Scale) and the Pain Catastrophising Scale.  I should add that this study was conducted in Sweden, so these were all Swedish versions of these instruments.

Both groups were compared with each other – the whiplash group were significantly younger than the group with musculoskeletal disorders, but otherwise the groups were similar in ratio of men to women, education, socio-economic status, and even in terms of the variables of interest (scores on the tests above), the groups differed only on self efficacy with the whiplash group scoring more highly on the self efficacy scale.

After multiple regression wizardry on the scores from the musculoskeletal group, they found the indirect effect of pain intensity on pain-related disability via fear of movement and (re)injury was significant, with the relative magnitude of common variance in percent due to direct effect of pain intensity on disability 63%. The relative magnitude of indirect effect of fear of movement and (re)injury was 37%.

By comparison, in the whiplash group initially all of the variables were significant – what this means is that pain intensity directly influenced disability, but the effect of pain intensity was also mediated by catastrophising, self efficacy and scores on the TSK.  After further multiple regression wizardry, the authors found that self efficacy mediated the effect of pain intensity on disability, as well as pain having a direct relationship with disability.  In percents, common variance due to the direct effect of pain intensity on disability was 74%. The relative magnitude of indirect effect of self-efficacy was 26% in the whiplash group.

What does this mean?

Well, the first finding is that self efficacy, at least in the whiplash group, is an important aspect of recovery from acute whiplash.  On the other hand, people with general musculoskeletal injuries were more influenced by their concerns about moving, and while pain intensity had an effect on disability, it was avoidance and fear that also made a contribution to their disability.

The authors suggest that one explanation for the different effect of self efficacy between the two groups could be associated with the different behaviour from treating clinicians – the usual sprains and strains may well have received somewhat cursory attention from staff, given crutches, told to be a bit careful and not put full weight on the limb and sent off into the distance.  People with whiplash, however, could have been given more reassurance, and encouragement to move normally.  This could have left those with musculoskeletal disorders wondering how best to recover, what the signs were that it was safe to use the limb normally, and perhaps quite anxious about the level of pain they were experiencing and what it meant.

At this stage, there is no data to support this interpretation of the difference between the two groups.  Fuel for more research I think! However, it does raise the interesting possibility that different psychosocial factors may be influential within different injury types in the acute stage.

What this means for treating clinicians is that it’s important to be aware of the influence of lack of confidence (self efficacy) and heightened fear of movement and assess both.  The sort of questions to ask might be “How confident are you about getting back into your everyday activities?”; “What concerns do you have about starting to use your [ankle/wrist/neck] normally?”; “What do you think might be going on in your [ankle/wrist/neck]?”

They’re not difficult questions to ask – but maybe they don’t get asked very much.  Let’s break this “psychosocial factors” down into specific actions for clinicians to take.

Söderlund, A., & Åsenlöf, P. (2010). The mediating role of self-efficacy expectations and fear of movement and (re)injury beliefs in two samples of acute pain Disability & Rehabilitation, 32 (25), 2118-2126 DOI: 10.3109/09638288.2010.483036

A brief review of cognitive behavioural approaches for pain management
Cognitive behavioural approaches for pain management are not exactly the same as cognitive behavioural therapy for mental health problems.  While there are some underlying concepts that are the same, cognitive behavioural approaches for pain management include a wider range of strategies, and are far less readily defined than the very structured approach used in mental health.  In fact it has only been in the last few years that research into the process of change in pain management have been conducted.

What defines a cognitive behavioural approach?

  • The assumption that people can learn to accept their chronic pain
  • That people can broaden their self-concept beyond being “a patient” into being “a person with pain”
  • That people can learn or re-explore skills to deal more effectively with their pain (Morley, Biggs & Shapiro)
  • Managing or living well despite pain
  • Pain behaviour that limits living well becomes the target
  • CBT provides the skills to (ultimately) change behaviour
  • Provided by any/all members of the interdisciplinary team (common treatment model)

What are the goals of this approach? (NB in no particular order!)

  • To reduce pain intensity
  • Increase functional activity, including work
  • Reduce/rationalise use of health care
  • Reduce distress
  • Improve quality of life

One of the main aims of this approach is to ultimately help the person with pain become his or her own therapist – to effectively self manage pain.

How do we do this?

The exact combination of strategies and approaches that “do the trick” in this kind of approach is not yet known.  It could even be that the specific techniques that people learn may not, in themselves, be all that important.  Maybe it’s the emphasis throughout treatment that there is hope for a life even if pain is present that helps patients become people again.  Research simply doesn’t tell us this yet.

Certainly, in the years that I’ve been working in pain management, the core elements have changed little, with perhaps, the addition of graded exposure and the mirrorbox and laterality work for certain problems.

How do we begin with this approach?

  • Assessing what the person with pain considers to be the main problem (the problem/s that pain “causes”, rather than pain alone)
  • Asking why he or she is looking for help right now (what were the triggers? It could be the person, or someone else who has initiated the treatment-seeking)
  • Identifying the changes he or she wants to see (how will the person know treatment has been successful?)
  • Listing the behavioural difficulties the person is currently having

Some of the ways I do this are to ask the person “what would you be doing now if pain was less of a problem?”

There’s a reason I use that phrase “less of a problem”, because I pretty much don’t refer to pain intensity again.  Pain is likely to be present and to fluctuate throughout treatment and afterwards.  I want to model that it’s the fear of pain, rather than the pain itself that is most disabling.  Even when pain is intense, it’s more helpful to relax and go “with” the pain than be fearful and tense the body to resist it.

A first step is often to introduce a model of pain and how it affects the individual.  This is a personalised model of pain, individualised for this person – but based on what we currently know about pain from research.  Various explanations can be used, but I draw from what the person tells me about their experience of pain to generate their specific model.

Most times, it seems to help people to discuss a current neurobiological model of pain – and this is often where “Explain Pain” or similar descriptions can be really helpful.  Taken at a pace that people can manage, and using their own examples, helps people to quickly grasp information that many medical students only begin to learn in 3rd and 4th year of study.

How does this step help?

Cognitive behavioural theory suggests that people appraise or judge situations very quickly, on the basis of past learning, current arousal state, and future predictions.  Automatic thoughts then generate an emotional response.  This emotional response influences behaviour.  The relationships between these four factors can be bidirectional.

By giving people a more accurate and more realistic view of their pain – as something that can be understood (at least in part), and managed, and isn’t signalling harm – people can be far less distressed by it.  You can think of how your knowledge that a flu jab is a helpful way to prevent getting the flu and how this helps you cope with the sting of the needle, and compare it with how you would interpret and respond to being stuck with a dirty needle wielded by a hoodlum in a dark alley! The thoughts and beliefs we hold about sensations influence emotions and behaviour.

Eliciting an individual’s automatic thoughts about pain, and helping them recognise that the way they view their pain may be accurate-but-unhelpful, is one part of the cognitive behavioural approach to pain management that all members of the team need to reinforce.

The remainder of a cognitive behavioural approach to managing pain is focused on helping people engage with activities they value, and doing so in a way that (1) is manageable for now and (2) recognises the sensitive nervous system can be stirred up quickly by things other than physical activity.  Skills are developed to set goals, manage gradual increases, problem solve ways around obstacles, manage arousal levels, and work with thoughts and beliefs that become stirred up by doing things differently.

What about people who are really, really fearful of moving and avoid things? Take a look at that reference below – it’s a review of the approaches that have been used for people in this situation.  More on it very soon…

Bailey, K. M., Carleton, R., Vlaeyen, J. W., & Asmundson, G. J. (2010). Treatments addressing pain-related fear and anxiety in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain: A preliminary review. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 39 (1) DOI: 10.1080/16506070902980711

Catastrophising and pain (i)
One reason I love blogging is the discussion between me and readers. I wrote about the language of pain recently, and out of that discussion I’ve spent a few days digging around the literature to look at what is known about the relationship between language, pain and catastrophising. I’d argued in my post that metaphoric language can reflect distress both in the communicator and the listener, and that this is supported by fMRI studies in which various parts of the brain are activated when emotion-laden communication about pain is being carried out, while one of my readers thought I might be taking this interpretation too far.

Pain behaviour
My reason for being interested in how we communicate about pain is that talking about pain (including describing it) is a pain behaviour. Pain behaviours are a range of behaviours that occur when we are sore and seeking help, and can include voluntary and involuntary actions. There can be an assumption that people are fully aware of the behaviours they do in relation to pain, so when a person demonstrates a lot of pain behaviour some clinicians believe the person “must” know that this is what they’re doing. This is sometimes the case, but there are numerous factors that can influence the behavioural responses we have to an experience of pain.

Pain behaviours occur on a continuum, however, from involuntary such as the withdrawal reflex, through more voluntary actions such as swearing (yes, it does seem to help!) and ultimately to very complex behaviour such as seeking treatment for pain.  And from an evolutionary point of view, pain behaviours are there primarily to communicate to others that we need or want help.

Pain behaviour and catastrophising
There is a relationship between catastrophising, or “an exaggerated negative “mental set” brought to bear during actual or anticipated pain experience” (Sullivan, Thorn, Haythornthwaite, Keefe, Martin, Bradley and Lefebvre, 2001), and pain behaviours – including verbal reports of pain intensity, seeking treatment including hospital stays, use of medications, and has been posited as one reason health professionals may pursue more intensive and invasive approaches to pain assessment and treatment.  Catastrophising is thought to influence the ways in which people interpret their pain – there are several theories identifying how this might occur.  But first, let’s have a look at how catastrophising is identified.

Measuring catastrophising
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, there are several pen and paper measures of catastrophising.  Questionnaires are simply standardised, or repeatable sets of questions that have been tested and thought to measure some underlying concept – they’re not “x-rays of the mind” and while they’re helpful and allow researchers and clinicians to do statistics on the findings and establish how similar or different one person’s answers are from “the rest”, they are based on language.  The words and phrases that people use reflect the way they interpret a situation, and while the actual wording differs depending on the vocabulary the person commonly uses, the way the person appraises or judges a situation underpins what they say.

There are several problems levelled at questionnaire measurement of catastrophising.  Because catastrophising as a concept is “invisible” – we can’t measure it directly and have to use statements that are believed to be associated with it – some critics have identified that the Coping Strategies Questionnaire, for example, might confuse measurement of catastrophising with measurement of depression.  Others have suggested that catastrophising is so closely related to fear of pain or anxiety or even perceived disability that it might not be worth measuring it as a distinct entity.  The conclusion currently, however, is that catastrophising is a distinct concept, and the most favoured assessment tool is the Pain Catastrophising Scale.

This scale has been found to have three subscales – rumination (or “repetitively (and passively) focusing on the symptoms of distress, and on its possible causes and consequences” – thanks to Wikipedia), magnification, and helplessness.

Three possible theories
Appraisals – Lazarus and Folkman proposed a general model of the ways people respond to situations. Primary appraisal involves determining whether a situation represents a threat, positive or irrelevant. Secondary appraisal involves determining coping options and likelihood of success. The PCS magnification and rumination subscales might form part of primary appraisal, while helplessness might be related to secondary appraisal.
Attention – People who demonstrate elevated levels of catastrophising also seem to focus on pain more than those with lower levels. This suggests that one of the pathways from catastrophising to the experience of pain might be via hypervigilance, or increased tendency to quickly attend to pain – and from there to negatively appraise pain as something difficult to deal with.
Coping – One form of coping is to obtain help from other people. A model that could explain the usefulness of catastrophising might be that by communicating distress, help might be obtained from other people, so that the individual doesn’t have to cope alone. The experimental and clinical evidence supporting this function of catastrophising, as demonstrated through pain behaviour and verbalisations, seems to be reasonably compelling – and my thoughts are that one way in which catastrophising language “works” is through empathy, which itself seems to be related to those darned mirror neurones.

The question nonpsychologists might have is – so do I need to use the PCS to identify people who catastrophise? And if I know someone tends to catastrophise, what does it have to do with me?

And that is for another post, so y’all come back now!

Sullivan MJ, Thorn B, Haythornthwaite JA, Keefe F, Martin M, Bradley LA, & Lefebvre JC (2001). Theoretical perspectives on the relation between catastrophizing and pain. The Clinical journal of pain, 17 (1), 52-64 PMID: 11289089