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Accepting the Pain

A new study says patients with chronic pain who manage to accept their condition, and the negative aspects that result from it, reap a wide variety of benefits.
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Fully accepting both the good and bad aspects of one's life — a key tenet of basic Buddhist doctrine — is a challenge for anyone. For a person in chronic pain, such a prescription may seem almost cruel.

But people in that often-debilitating situation who manage to accept their condition — not only the pain itself, but also the other unpleasant or stressful realities they face — reap a wide variety of benefits, according to a newly published study.

These patients "reported better emotional, physical and social functioning" than those who responded with fear or anger, according to the paper, written by Lance M. McCracken and Jane Zhao-O'Brien of the Centre for Pain Research at the University of Bath. "These findings suggest that general psychological acceptance has a significant and unique role to play in the suffering and disability of chronic pain patients."

Previous research has found acceptance of pain is associated with increased functioning. This work extends that notion, concluding that accepting the negative conditions that often result from chronic pain — issues such as unemployment, financial difficulties or relationship problems — can also be beneficial.

The study, published in the dauntingly titled European Journal of Pain, looked at 144 patients (nearly two-thirds of whom were women) beginning treatment in a pain management center in Britain. They filled out a variety of questionnaires designed to measure their levels of depression and anxiety, as well as one "designed to assess people's ability to accept undesirable thoughts and feeling and pursue their goals in the presence of these potentially difficult private experiences."

"The results of our analyses showed that patients who reported a greater willingness to experience negatively evaluated psychological experiences also reported better emotional, physical and social functioning," the researchers concluded. "This suggests, perhaps somewhat ironically, that when people with chronic pain allow themselves to experience at least some of the unwanted psychological experiences that occur in their life and do not attempt to control these, they are more likely to function better and suffer less."

McCracken and Zhao-O'Brien add an important clarification, noting that they define "acceptance" not as "a rigid rejection of all means of control over unwanted experiences, but rather a flexible willingness to have some of these experiences on some occasions."

Such a willingness, they note, allows for a wider range of responses to any given event. Perhaps that freedom — and the lack of internal resistance to conditions that cannot be immediately changed — lessens the patient’s stress level, improving physical and psychological functioning.