Coping when pain is a potential threat: The efficacy of acceptance versus cognitive distraction

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Abstract

This experiment investigated the impact of brief training in acceptance versus distraction-based pain management on experimental pain tolerance in conditions of lower and higher potential threats. One hundred fifty-one pain-free Chinese adults (93 women, 58 men) randomly assigned to acceptance, distraction or pain education control conditions engaged in a cold pressor test (CPT) after reading validated orienting information designed to prime either the safety of the CPT (lower threat) or symptoms and damaging effects of exposure to extreme cold (higher threat). A 2 (threat level) × 3 (training strategy) analysis of covariance, controlling for pre-intervention pain tolerance and education, indicated the acceptance group was more pain tolerant than other training groups. This main effect was qualified by an interaction with threat level: in the lower threat condition, acceptance group participants were more pain tolerant than peers in the distraction or pain education groups while no training group differences were found in the higher threat condition. Supplementary analyses identified catastrophizing as a partial mediator of training group differences in pain tolerance. In summary, findings suggested acceptance-based coping is superior to distraction as a means of managing experimental pain, particularly when pain sensations are viewed as comparatively low in potential threat.

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