Feb 23 2021

Professor Tamar Pincus, Department of Psychology, recently spoke to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Made of Stronger Stuff’ to discuss her research on why the pain we experience in the spine becomes persistent for some people. We recently caught up with Professor Pincus to ask more about pain and how we experience it. 

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of Psychology?

I have been at Royal Holloway since 1998, and my main teaching area in Psychology was in abnormal psychology. Our courses in clinical approaches are incredibly popular, and over the years I taught hundreds- possibly thousands! – of undergraduates. Some of our graduates still get in touch now and then and tell me about their careers. My main role now is as Head of The School of Life Sciences and the Environment, which is one of our two science schools.

2. You recently spoke to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Made of Stronger Stuff’ to discuss your research on why the pain we experience in the spine becomes persistent for some people, can you explain why this may be?

The simplistic common perception of pain as a response to physical injury doesn’t explain most of our clinical picture in chronic pain. Persistent pain, lasting for more than three months and often for years, is very resistant to cure, so we need to find out why some people with injuries go on to recover completely, while others become disabled. My research shows that the way we think about ourselves, our ability to cope, and our mood (especially negative moods, such as anxiety, distress and anger) are sometimes better predictors of this transition to persistent pain than most physical measures. This has led to the development and testing of interventions that include psychological aspects. What is becoming clearer is that, while we can’t prevent pain, we can reduce disability and suffering using these methods.

3. What inspired you to focus your research on pain and well-being?

Pain is a wonderful example of a complex system in which signals from body to brain are mediated by signals from brain to body. This means that our beliefs and expectations can affect the level of pain we perceive. It is also an area of research where findings have the potential to make an immediate important change for people living with pain and those caring for them. 

4. How can we learn to approach pain more optimistically? 

Pain is an unavoidable part of life. How can we learn to approach life more optimistically? By becoming aware of our automatic patterns of thinking that we built up from years of experience, messages from others, and innate tendencies. Once we are aware of these patterns we can choose to stop believing them, especially when these thoughts don’t serve us well.

5. What is your favourite thing about working at Royal Holloway, in the Department of Psychology?

The Department of Psychology is a vibrant community of researchers, teachers, technicians and admin staff who are friendly and helpful. My favourite thing in Royal Holloway is watching the squirrels on the steps up to Founders in spring time.

6. How are you spending your free time outside of work currently?

I don’t get much free time so I like to make the most of it. I walk, paint, play the piano and read a lot.