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Positive Activities

Coaching Patients to Engage in Positive Activities to Improve Outcomes

Substantial attention has been given to the impact of negative emotional states on persistent pain conditions. The adverse effects of anger, fear, anxiety and depression on pain are well-documented. Complementing this emphasis on negative emotions, Hanssen and colleagues suggest that interventions aimed at cultivating positive emotional states may have a role to play in pain reduction and/or improved well-being in patients, despite pain. They suggest positive affect may promote adaptive function and buffer the adversities of a chronic pain condition.

Hanssen and colleagues propose positive psychology interventions could contribute to improved pain, mood and behavioral measures through various mechanisms. These include the modulation of spinal and supraspinal nociceptive pathways, buffering the stress reaction and reducing stress-induced hyperalgesia, broadening attention, decreasing negative pain-related cognitions, diminishing rigid behavioral responses and promoting behavioral flexibility.

In a feasibility trial, 96 patients were randomized to a computer-based positive activity intervention or control condition. The intervention required participants perform at least one positive activity for at least 15 minutes at least 1 day/week for 8 weeks. The positive activity included such tasks as performing good deeds for others, counting blessings, taking delight in life’s momentary wonders and pleasures, writing about best possible future selves, exercising or devoting time to pursuing a meaningful goal. The control group was instructed to be attentive to their surroundings and write about events or activities for at least 15 minutes at least 1 day/week for 8 weeks. Those in the positive activity intervention demonstrated significant improvements in pain intensity, pain interference, pain control, life satisfaction, and depression, and at program completion and 2-month follow-up. Based on these promising results, authors suggest that a full trial of the intervention is warranted.

Rehabilitation professionals often encourage patients with persistent pain conditions to participate in activities they enjoy. This research highlights the importance of this instruction and patient guidelines can include the activities identified in the Muller article. In addition, mindful awareness training may further enhance a patient’s experience as he or she learns to pay close attention to the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that accompany positive experiences. I look forward to discussing this article as well as sharing the principles and practices of mindfulness in my upcoming course, Mindfulness-Based Pain Treatment at Samuel Merritt University, Oakland, CA. Course participants will learn about mindfulness and pain research, practice mindful breathing, body scan and movement and expand their pain treatment tool box with practical strategies to improve pain treatment outcomes. I hope you will join me!


Hanssen MM, Peters ML, Boselie JJ, Meulders A. Can positive affect attenuate (persistent) pain? Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2017;19(12):80.
Muller R, Gertz KJ, Molton IR, et al. Effects of a tailored positive psychology intervention on well-being and pain in individuals with chronic pain and physical disability: a feasibility trial. Clin J Pain.2016;32(1):32-44.

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