Widows, widowers ‘emotionally inoculated’ against chronic pain

Widows, widowers ‘emotionally inoculated’ against chronic pain

Widowed chronic pain patients experience less emotional suffering and greater psychological hardiness when faced with lifestyle stress, such as physical pain, than their married, divorced, separated or single counterparts, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University-led study.

Marriage has long been tied to longer life and better health because of the psychological support and immediate connection it provides to another individual, but a study in press in the journal Pain Research and Treatment shows that after experiencing the death of a spouse, an individual may derive some form of “emotional inoculation” that serves to protect them against future lifestyle threats.

Intense pain makes coping with everyday stress and responsibility overwhelming. Specifically, the suffering associated with chronic pain includes intense levels of depression, anxiety, frustration, fear and anger. Additionally, pain patients may experience dramatic disruption of lifestyle, an inability to reduce the intensity of their pain and a sense of helplessness and lack of control over their health.

To evaluate the influence of marital status on psychological resilience, or the ability to cope with life in the face of threats, researchers from VCU and Virginia Tech studied 1,914 chronic pain patients. They controlled for ethnicity, age and pain sensation intensity.

“People are living longer, and an individual is likely to live several years after the death of their partner. My patients often share with me their anxiety about having to ‘go it alone’ after the loss of their loved one,” said principal investigator James B. Wade, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine.  “This study identifies good news regarding how the elderly successfully cope with life’s challenges on their own, and the findings speak to the strength of the human spirit to recover and to develop new psychological strength after misfortune.”

Wade and his team hypothesized that married chronic pain sufferers would benefit from spousal support and therefore would experience less emotional suffering compared to the other marital groups, but instead found those subjects who had experienced the death of a spouse suffered significantly less frustration, fear and anger than subjects in all other marital categories, and less depression and anxiety than divorced individuals. Although separated and divorced subjects experienced the loss of a spousal relationship, only those subjects whose spouse had died experienced less emotional turmoil in response to pain.

Researchers did explore whether widows and widowers differed in their emotional response to pain, and gender did not prove to be a significant factor. Therefore, both widow and widower derived the same psychological hardiness benefit from having endured the painful loss of a spouse.

Wade and his colleagues do not believe that this form of psychological resilience among the widows was merely a product of wisdom that comes with age. Importantly, even after controlling for their subject’s age, the relationship between the widow/widower status and the resulting psychological protection against emotional suffering remained strong.

“Our human nature is such that after being confronted by, and forced to adapt to, one of life’s greatest losses we adjust to this loss by developing greater psychological hardiness,” Wade said.

James B. Wade, Ph.D., collaborated with Robert Hart, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry, VCU; James H. Wade, Department of Psychology, Virginia Tech; Donald. D. Price, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry, VCU School of Medicine; and Jasmohan S. Bajaj, M.D., Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, VCU and McGuire VA Medical Center.

Editor’s Note: A copy of the study is available at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/prt/aip/928473/.

About VCU and VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see www.vcu.edu.

James B. Wade, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine, discusses his study in which widows and widowers were found to experience less emotional suffering and greater psychological hardiness when faced with lifestyle stress, such as physical pain.