Chronic pain and mental health: What you need to know

by | Mar 8, 2023

chronic pain and mental health

Your hands were already full managing mood and anxiety symptoms. But chronic pain sunk its claws in and your emotional and mental health took a massive hit. Let’s see what we can do about it…

…the study showed pain interference was more problematic than pain intensity for people living with chronic pain.

I began to experience occasional pain in my hip last summer. No big, I’d shake it off and keep rolling.

Well, it worsened over time, so I finally checked in with an ortho six weeks ago. Thirty days and an MRI later: fractured femur, osteoarthritis, torn tendon – dang.

Chronic pain has sunk its claws in. And that’s a massive hit to my already, shall we say, “interesting” emotional and mental health.

Sharing is crucial

I’m learning all I can about what’s going on in my body and mind. And sharing is crucial because 20% of the world’s population – five billion people – are dealing with chronic pain.

And did you know depression and anxiety affect people with chronic pain three times as much as those who are pain free?

We have a lot of work to do and we’ll handle it in two parts. Let’s get part one, a discussion of a new study, underway…

“Protecting mental wellbeing in people with chronic pain”

Not long after I started my fact-finding I bumped into a helpful article. “Being flexible is key to protecting mental wellbeing in people with chronic pain” appeared on the Edith Cowan University (ECU) website.

The piece summarizes a new study, the work of ECUs Tara Swindells and Professor Joanne Dickson.

The details

Swindells and Dickson surveyed 300 people who were living with non-cancer-related chronic pain. The participants replied to questions about their mental wellbeing, the intensity of their pain, and how much pain interfered with their daily routines and activities they enjoy – pain interference.

Dickson observed that the study results suggested people might not have the psychological and/or physical capacity to participate in activities that help them reach their personal goals as a result of pain.

And, of course, that can have significant implications for mental wellbeing.

According to Dickson…

The good news is that this research showed personal goal flexibility (i.e., the ability to adapt and to adjust to life’s difficulties and obstacles) in how we strive to maintain or achieve the things that matter to us can provide a protective buffer in maintaining and promoting mental wellbeing.

Protection, then, comes with flexibility.

The mental health impact

protecting mental wellbeing

“Man, those claws won’t let go – it’s chronic. I’m bummed, edgy, and really need help.”

Though Swindells predicted the opposite, the study showed pain interference was more problematic than pain intensity for people living with chronic pain.

Makes sense to me.

That being the case, in the presence of high intensity pain, people can amp up their mental wellbeing by findings ways to minimize interference with important aspects of their daily lives.

Don’t you think that calls for an intervention target adjustment?

The flexibility factor

The study investigated how goal tenacity – persistently pursuing valued goals – and goal flexibility – adjusting them in response to setbacks or obstacles – might help to explain how some people with chronic pain maintain a sense of mental wellbeing.

So the study, for the first time, determined that goal flexibility and goal tenacity appear to provide a defense against pain interference – flexibility more so than tenacity.


So if you’re able to adjust, adapt and find ways to still achieve what matters to you most in the face of life’s obstacles, that’s going to help protect your mental wellbeing.

That’s why working on flexibility has to be an ongoing priority.


Swindells emphasized that pain management and mental health are multi-faceted. She went on to note that previous pain-related research has shown that physical factors (e.g., sleep, injury, disease) and social factors (e.g., employment, social support, economic factors) play a significant role in pain management.

Swindells summarizes…

The findings from our study add to this body of knowledge. They indicate that variations in adaptive psychological processes provide another useful lens to understand the relationship between pain interference and mental wellbeing.

And there you have it.

All is not lost if…

Okay, chronic pain sunk its claws in you. And it’s a massive hit to your emotional and mental health. Just keep in mind, all is not lost…

If you’re willing to stay flexible.

I’m inviting you to check out part two, Chronic pain and mental health: Psychological interventions. It’s a helpful read.

Be sure to take a look at the full piece on the ECU site: Being flexible is key to protecting mental wellbeing in people with chronic pain

And dig in to the actual study, if you’d like: The Role of Adaptive Goal Processes in Mental Wellbeing in Chronic Pain. It originally appeared in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Last but not least, don’t forget those Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration titles.

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