Joanne Dickson, Edith Cowan University – Mental Flexibility is Key to Protecting Wellbeing in People with Chronic Pain

Are you in pain?

Joanne Dickson, professor of psychology and mental health at Edith Cowan University, explores how mental flexibility can help.

Joanne M. Dickson is a Professor of Psychology and Mental Health in the School of Arts & Humanities, at Edith Cowan University (ECU), Australia. Her main research focuses on mental health and wellbeing, particularly from a goal-motivational, prospective cognition and affect perspective.

Mental Flexibility is Key to Protecting Wellbeing in People with Chronic Pain

Chronic pain affects around one in five people.

Doing things you love and having goals are fundamental for wellbeing. But pain can make doing the activities you enjoy psychologically, physically and/or emotionally very challenging.

Our research comprised 300 people, living with chronic pain.  We survey people about their mental wellbeing, goal flexibility and persistence, pain intensity, and how much pain interfered with their everyday pursuits that mattered to them.

Pain that disrupted daily life activities, rather than the intensity of the pain itself, was shown to pose the biggest threat to a person’s mental wellbeing. It seems people can find ways to maintain their mental wellbeing – even when their pain intensity is high – providing it does not interfere with their engagement in meaningful daily activities.

Notably, our research found goal flexibility (i.e., the ability to adjust goals in response to setbacks) and goal tenacity (i.e., the ability to persist under difficult circumstances) – were both associated with increases in mental wellbeing, although flexibility had the strongest protective effect in maintaining wellbeing.

Previous research has shown pain management includes many physical factors (for example, age, sleep, injury, and disease) and social factors (such as, employment, social support, and economic factors).

Our findings add to this body of knowledge from a psychological perspective. For people living with pain, being able to adjust meaningful life activities, when needed, in response to difficult life challenges can help maintain mental wellbeing.

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