“It’s just you’re battling with yourself”: How pain-related imagery impacts on functioning in chronic pain
Rooney, Natalie Therese
Background: Psychological research has consistently demonstrated the importance of cognitions in the form of thoughts and images on an individual’s wellbeing. Having pain-related verbal cognitions has been shown to lead to poorer outcomes for patients (McCracken & Turk, 2002). Research in other conditions has shown mental images have a more powerful impact on emotion than verbal cognitions (Holmes & Matthews, 2005). To date however, little work has explored the role of mental imagery in adjustment to chronic pain. Methods Fourteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals with chronic pain. Interview transcripts were analysed according to grounded theory methods to construct a substantive theory of the impact spontaneously-invoked images of pain have on functioning. Results Eight participants reported pain-related imagery and three reported mental images associated with related symptoms. In line with previous findings (Gillanders et al., 2012; Gosden, 2008) the frequency and intensity of pain-related images influenced the degree of distress experienced. There was a distinction made between intrusive mental images and visual descriptions or metaphors of pain. The former being conceptualised as a visual cognition and playing a role in the aetiology and maintenance of distress in chronic pain and therefore an adverse impact on functioning. Conclusion Enhancing our understanding of pain related imagery and its impact on functioning could inform the design of interventions in clinical practice. Working systematically with patients’ idiosyncratic pain related images and the beliefs that are associated with them could be a helpful specific target for therapy.