Thinking the worst – and willingness to do things despite pain

Catastrophising, perhaps more than any other psychological construct, has received pretty negative press from people living with pain. It’s a construct that represents a tendency to “think the worst” when experiencing pain, and I can understand why people who are in the middle of a strong pain bout might reject any idea that their minds might be playing tricks on them. It’s hard to stand back from the immediacy of “OMG that really HURTS” especially when, habitually, many people who have pain try so hard to pretend that “yes everything is really all right”. At the same time, the evidence base for the contribution that habitually “thinking the worst” has on actually increasing the report of pain intensity, increasing difficulty coping, making it harder to access effective ways around the pain, and on the impact pain has on doing important things in life is strong (Quartana, Campbell & Edwards, 2009).

What then, could counter this tendency to feel like a possum in the headlights in the face of strong pain? In the study I’m discussing today, willingness to experience pain without trying to avoid or control that experience, aka “acceptance”, is examined, along with catastrophising and measures of disability. Craner, Sperry, Koball, Morrison and Gilliam (2017) recruited 249 adults who were seeking treatment at an interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation programme (at tertiary level), and examined a range of important variables pre and post treatment.  Participants in the programme were on average 50 years old, mainly married, and white (not a term we’d ever use in New Zealand!). They’d had pain for an average of 10.5 years, and slightly less than half were using opioids at the time of entry to the programme.

Occupational therapists administered the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure, an occupational therapist-administered, semi-structured interview designed to assess a person’s performance and satisfaction with their daily activities (Law, Baptiste, McColl, Opzoomer, Polatajko & Pollock, 1990). The performance scale was used in this study, along with the Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire (one of my favourites – McCracken, Vowles & Eccelston, 2004); the Pain Catastrophising Scale (Sullivan, Bishop & Pivik, 1995), The Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (Kroenke, Spitzer & Williams, 2001); and The Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (Kerns, Turk & Rudy, 1985).

Now here’s where the fun begins, because there is some serious statistical analysis going on! Hierarchical multiple regression analyses is not for the faint-hearted – read the info about this approach by clicking the link. Essentially, it is a way to show if variables of your interest explain a statistically significant amount of variance in your Dependent Variable (DV) after accounting for all other variables. Or, in this study, what is the relationship between pain catastrophising, acceptance and pain severity – while controlling for age, gender, opioids use, and pain duration. The final step was to enter a calculation of the interaction between catastrophising and acceptance, and to enter this into the equation as the final step. A significant interaction suggests one of these two moderates the other – and this is ultimately captured by testing the slopes of the graphs. Complex? Yes – but a good way to analyse these complex relationships.


Unsurprisingly, pain catastrophising and acceptance do correlate – negatively. What this means is that the more a person thinks the worst about their pain, the less willing they are to do things that will increase their pain, or to do things while their pain is elevated. Makes sense, on the surface, but wait there’s more!

Pain catastrophizing was significantly (ps < .01) and positively correlated with greater perceived pain intensity, pain interference, distress due to pain, and depression – and negatively correlated with occupational therapist-rated functioning. Further analysis found that only pain catastrophising (not acceptance) was associated with pain severity, while both catastrophising and acceptance predicted negative effect (mood) using the WHYMPI, but when the analysis used the PHQ-9, both pain catastrophising and pain acceptance uniquely predicted depressive symptoms.  When pain interference was used as the dependent variable, pain acceptance uniquely predicted the amount of interference participants experienced, rather than catastrophising. The final analysis was using the performance subscale of the COPM, finding that pain acceptance was a predictor, while catastrophising was not.

What does all this actually mean?

Firstly, I found it interesting that values weren’t used as part of this investigation, because when people do daily activities, they do those they place value on, for some reason. For example, if we value other people’s opinions, we’re likely to dress up a bit, do the housework and maybe bake something if we have people come to visit. This study didn’t incorporate contexts of activity – the why question. I think that’s a limitation, however, examining values is not super easy, however it’s worth keeping this limitation in mind when thinking about the results.

The results suggest that when someone is willing to do something even if it increases pain, or while pain is elevated, this has an effect on their performance, disability, the interference they experience from pain, and their mood.

The results also suggest that catastrophising, while an important predictor of pain-related outcomes, is moderated by acceptance.

My question now is – what helps someone to be willing to do things even when their pain is high? if we analyse the CPAQ items, we find things like “I am getting on with the business of living no matter what my level of pain is.”;  “It’s not necessary for me to control my pain in order to handle my life well.”; and “My life is going well, even though I have chronic pain.”. These are important areas for clinicians to address during treatment. They’re about life – rather than pain. They’re about what makes life worth living. They’re about who are you, what does your life stand for, what makes you YOU, and what can you do despite pain. And these are important aspects of pain treatment: given none of us can claim a 100% success rate for pain reduction. Life is more than the absence of pain.



Craner, J. R., Sperry, J. A., Koball, A. M., Morrison, E. J., & Gilliam, W. P. (2017). Unique contributions of acceptance and catastrophizing on chronic pain adaptation. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 24(4), 542-551.

Kerns IVRD,TurkDC, Rudy TE. (1985) West Haven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (WHYMPI). Pain. 23:345–56.

Kroenke K, Spitzer RL, Williams JB. The PHQ-9: validity of a brief depression severity measure. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 16(9), 606-13.

Law M, Baptiste S, McColl M, Opzoomer A, Polatajko H, Pollock N. (1990). The Canadian Occupational Performance Measure: an outcome measure for occupational therapy. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 57(2), pp82–7.

McCracken LM, Vowles KE, Eccleston C. (2004). Acceptance of chronic pain: component analysis and a revised assessment method. Pain. 107(1–2), pp159–66.

Quartana PJ, Campbell CM, Edwards RR. (2009) Pain catastrophizing: a critical review. Expert Reviews in Neurotherapy, 9, pp 745–58.

SullivanMLJ, Bishop SR, Pivik J. (1995). The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: development and validation. Psychological Assessment. 7:524–32.

Source: Health Skills WP

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