Innovative online program helping people living with chronic pain regulate emotions and reduce flare-ups

Australian researchers have developed a novel online program to help people living with chronic pain better self-regulate and handle negative emotions as well as mitigating painful flare ups.

Published today in the Journal of Pain, researchers at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and UNSW have developed an Emotional Recovery Program for people living with chronic pain which has shown to help lessen pain intensity, by teaching skills to regulate and dial down difficult and intense emotions.

With 1 in 5 Australians experiencing chronic pain, this debilitating condition radically limits people’s lives and can often mean difficulties regulating emotions such as fear, worry, stress and low mood.

Sadly, people in chronic pain frequently face long wait times for treatment of more than a year, with access further restricted for rural, regional, and remote areas and indigenous communities. This is more apparent over the past year, with COVID-19 impacting access to treatment due to clinic closures and increased the risk of infection.

Developed by leading chronic pain researcher, Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin, and Emotional Recovery Trainer, Nell Norman-Nott, the Emotional Recovery Program is a blended treatment that includes six online emotion recovery skills training sessions delivered via Zoom and a web app via interactive modules and video tutorials.

Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin, says chronic pain is more than an awful sensation, it can affect our feelings, emotions beliefs and the way we are.

“Developing an effective emotional recovery program for treating the emotional suffering associated with chronic pain, is key in the management of chronic pain.

“Many chronic pain sufferers live in rural and remote areas and don’t have access to treatment. Therefore, we have developed our Emotional Recovery Program so it can be delivered online for all chronic pain sufferers in Australia to access, no matter where they live,” said Associate Professor Gustin.

Nell Norman-Nott says the trial showed there is now evidence that learning skills in emotional regulation helps people dial down difficult and intense emotions and lessen the intensity of pain.

“We commonly hear from people with chronic pain that emotional problems such as intense anger, excessive worry and stress can increase the intensity of pain.  And the impact of COVID-19 has played a huge part in this, due to the contracted access to treatment due to clinic closures and the risk of infection.

“As an internet-delivered intervention, the Emotional Recovery Program is remotely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and smart device, while also mitigating risks associated with COVID-19 infection,” said Mrs Norman-Nott.

To learn more about the online emotional recovery program, please email the Emotional Recovery Team at neurorecoveryresearch@unsw.edu.au

About the Emotional Recovery Program Study

  • To investigate the effectiveness of the Emotional Recovery Program, researchers chose to use a single case experimental design with multiple baselines, with participant’s pain and emotions measured up to 30 times over the course of the study to track changes before, during and after the Program.
  • This approach gave detailed insight compared to other pre/post study designs to explore individual participant responses to the treatment to notice exactly when change occurred.
  • The study design further allowed a small population of three participants but was still powered to show efficacy due to the continuous monitoring of pain and emotions.
  • As an internet-delivered intervention, the Emotional Recovery Program is remotely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and smart device, increasing access, especially to remote and rural communities and those with restricted mobility.
  • The results demonstrate a large effect of the novel Emotional Recovery program to help people with chronic pain better self-regulate and handle their negative emotions and to mitigate painful flare ups. Learning skills in emotion regulation was further related to improvement in other related factors including depression, coping behaviours, and sleep problems.
  • The team of researchers led by Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin and Emotional Recovery Trainer, Nell Norman-Nott, included Dr Negin Hesam-Shariati, Dr Yann Quidé and Professor James McAuley from NeuRA and UNSW.

About Chronic Pain

  • Chronic pain is a significant problem affecting 20 percent of the global population amounting to around 3.4 million Australians.
  • Chronic pain results in enormous suffering and cost to individuals, their loved ones, and society.
  • The economic costs in Australia are >$139 billion annually, and alarmingly 20% of chronic pain sufferers have considered suicide as a way to end their emotional suffering.
  • Pain medication such as analgesics are often prescribed for chronic pain, but many have side effects and risks of addiction while doing little for psychological problems such as depression.
  • Living with chronic pain frequently means difficulties regulating emotions such as fear, worry, stress and low mood. Common causes of worry and stress are concerns about the future and how it will be possible to cope when living with the constant presence of pain.