Psychology and Coping
How does a person cope with a severe injury that will result in a lifelong disability? Are there certain personal psychological characteristics that make it more difficult for a person to cope and deal with a physical disability? Are there also characteristics that protect the affected persons, support and make it easier for them to cope with the disability? Does it happen that people become stronger through dealing with this new life situation?
These are all questions that are examined in psychology. Psychological characteristics play a key role when dealing with a physical disability and are examined by our research group. In doing so, we follow a resource-oriented approach which is called positive psychology. This means we do not only try to answer the question which role do the “weaknesses” of a person play; in fact, we examine how the affected people’s strengths and resources – such as self-efficiency, optimism, meaning of life and friendships – influence the coping process, quality of life, and health throughout life. Our research group uses the answers to these questions as a basis for testing new treatment options to support physically disabled people in their lives.
A spinal cord injury (SCI) has severe consequences on the lives of the affected people. The challenges and difficulties in connection with SCI can also form the basis for posttraumatic growth, i.e. for personal change that may be perceived in a positive way by the affected person. Examples therefore are that people experience personal growth, stronger relationships with fellow people or an increased appreciation of life.
The project’s goal is to create a better understanding of the development and meaning of such positive changes during the coping process of persons with SCI. We examine whether certain coping strategies – e.g. repressing or facing problems actively – facilitate or impede the development of positive changes. In order to better assess the clinical relevance of positively assessed changes, further research examines in how far these changes are connected to the physical and mental well-being. Furthermore the project explores to what extent the perceived positive changes correlate with real changes that have occurred over time. Based on these results it can be concluded in how far positive changes are suitable starting points for therapies that are supposed to support the coping process in case of SCI.
Sometimes our lives are turned upside down through negative life events from one day to the next. Examples are the loss of a loved person, separation or also the occurrence of a chronic condition. Coping with a new situation is an individual process. Studies from previous years show, however, that a major part of the population reacts with mental resilience, i.e. the ability to overcome crises rapidly. Does mental resilience also play a role in the context of a chronic condition? And which are the factors that support this process?
We intend to examine more closely which circumstances facilitate or impede mental resilience after onset of a chronic condition. For this purpose, we are conducting two projects: The first one focuses on people with chronic conditions such as rheumatism, cancer or diabetes. The second project examines mental resilience after onset of spinal cord injury. The goal of both projects is to gain an insight into how people deal with the new life situation. The results are supposed to help identify the key factors that influence mental resilience. This forms the basis for a focused support of the affected people.
Pain after spinal cord injury
People with spinal cord injury (SCI) often suffer from pain as a result. It can be caused by the SCI and may subside during the rehabilitation phase. However, pain may also stay the same over a longer period of time, occur suddenly at a later point of time, or, it may even become stronger. If the pain persists beyond the period of the expected recovery (about 3-6 months), it is defined as chronic pain.
Almost 75 % of the people with SCI living in Switzerland report that they suffer from medium to severe chronic pain which may have a major effect on everyday life. The causes of pain are manifold and are influenced by the interaction between physical, psychological and social factors. To date it remains unclear why some people do suffer from pain and others with the same SCI don’t.
The purpose of the project «Pain after SCI» is to be able to predict a potential development of pain on the basis of physical, psychological and social factors. The gained knowledge will contribute to finding effective and early pain treatment and thus to avoiding that the pain becomes chronic.
Pain treatment through positive psychology
Pain is primarily treated with medication. However, medication reduces the pain only in one third of the affected people – and it reduces their pain only by half and does not eliminate it altogether. Furthermore people taking pain medication report having many unwanted side-effects such as nausea, fatigue or vertigo. It is therefore essential to look for successful treatment options and to impart effective strategies as to how to deal with pain.
We examine the outcome of positive-psychological exercises as a new treatment option. The basic concept of the exercises is simple: Pain is naturally connected to negative emotions such as fear, anger or anxiety. These emotions are important relating to the first occurrence of pain since they strongly motivate the affected people to protect themselves and to take action against the pain. In case of long-lasting pain, however, a vicious circle develops: Negative emotions occur more frequently, bad mood increases and, in turn, contributes to an increased perception of pain. Thus the pain becomes chronic.
Positive-psychological exercises try to break this vicious circle through promoting positive emotions. They consist of simple exercises such as «writing down three nice or funny experiences of the day», «doing a good deed» or «meeting friends». These exercises help to increase positive emotions such as excitement, love or cheerfulness. This protects from a bad mood and can thus reduce pain.