Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Bronwyn Thompson - Resilience, catastrophising and positive emotions

Bronwyn Thompson is the voice behind HealthSkills, a cool blog that focuses on pain management and occupation therapy. In this research review post, she looks at a study on resilience and catastrophising.

On this night when America is voting against its own interests in electing populist tea party candidates for Congress - people who are only focused on opposing Obama, not on doing anything productive for America or its citizens - it's very easy to catastrophise. We're certainly going to need to some resilience to get through the next few years.



Catastrophising, or thinking the worst, is one of those psychological factors that we know influences distress and disability in people with chronic pain. It’s quite a common phenomenon, and sometimes can stand us in good stead – after all, if we can think of the worst things that can happen, then plan to avert those possible disasters, then life will be sweet, yes? ermmmm – no, as a matter of fact. Catastrophising can actually function to narrow our thinking down, reducing the range of options we can come up with to manage situations, and it can also function to focus us on things that haven’t worked out while at the same time minimising our appreciation of things that are working well.

In chronic pain, catastrophising is often an outcome to measure – the thought is that if people learn to think more positively about what might happen when their pain is bad, they’ll be in a better position to cope with their pain. This is thought to reduce the level of distress by being more realistic about the potential for negative things to happen. People who can face difficult times with a greater sense of the real level of threat can harness resources more effectively and often avert negative situations before they happen.

There are a number of interesting theories about resilience and how people cope more positively with life’s situations. One of these theories is the ‘broaden and build’ theory first developed by Fredrickson, (2001). In the ‘broaden’ part of this theory, it’s thought that positive emotions serve to broaden what we attend to and think about, and in doing so, widen the range of things we consider and think about so that we can think of more options than we consider when we’re under stress. This is thought to help us cope better with stress because we can think of a greater range of things that might work to help us out of that particular difficulty.

Some of the other relevant discussions about resilience and positive emotions suggests that while resilience can be thought of as a trait, or a fairly stable ‘way of viewing the world’, one aspect of reslience that is important is the ability to generate and have positive emotions. Maybe having positive emotions is just a by-produce of resilience, or maybe it’s that if we can remain positive despite stressors being present, then we will be able to be resilient – but it’s certainly evident that when people are able to find something positive in a difficult situation, or if they can find something funny in their situation or even find something to comfort and therefore increase positive mood, they seem to cope better than people who ‘think the worst’ and then remain focused on these negative aspects of their situation.

How does this fit with catastrophising and chronic pain?

Well, in an interesting ‘daily process study’ by Ong, Zautra and Reid, people who were being seen for their chronic pain were asked to keep a daily diary and record catastrophising, pain intensity, and both positive and negative emotions over a period of 14 days. At the beginning of the study they were asked to complete a set of questionnaires including a measure of resilience, neuroticism, and the usual range of demographic details.

The aim of the study was to see how resilience characteristics related to catastrophising, positive and negative emotions, and pain. There were four main questions: (1) Is there a gender difference in catastrophising? (2) Is there a relationship between the level of resilience and the changes experienced in pain catastrophising? (3) Do positive emotions reduce pain catastrophising? and (4) Is the relationship between resilience and pain catastrophising influenced by positive emotion?
Read the whole article to find out what the study revealed.

Papers cited:

Ong, A., Zautra, A., & Reid, M. (2010). Psychological resilience predicts decreases in pain catastrophizing through positive emotions. Psychology and Aging, 25 (3), 516-523 DOI: 10.1037/a0019384

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218–226. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.218

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there!
Thanks so much for your kind words about my blog - and the link to my article. It's amazing to see the wide range of people who pass by the blog, and especially to see the positive ways people use it.
Thanks heaps!