Psychological flexibility, distress, and quality of life in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis: A cross-sectional study

Published:August 29, 2022DOI:



      One of the strongest predictors of successful coping in multiple sclerosis (MS) is the extent to which one can accept the diagnosis and limitations associated with the disease. Acceptance is also one of three core processes of psychological flexibility – a malleable treatment target of some psychological therapies. This is the ability to notice and accept the presence of thoughts and feelings without being swept along by them, engaging in the present moment, and making decisions in line with personal values.
      Poor psychological flexibility is associated with elevated levels of distress in the general population. However, we do not know the level of psychological flexibility in people with MS, or its relationship to distress or quality of life when the disease becomes more physically disabling. The aims of this study were to determine the level of psychological flexibility, and its relationship with distress and quality of life in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS), a subtype of MS with increased severity of disability and distress.


      This cross-sectional analytic study used data collected by the UK MS Register. Pre-existing data on distress, quality of life, disability, and demographics collected by the UK MS Register were combined with a psychological flexibility measure and its component parts, collected for the purpose of this study.
      Patient demographics and questionnaire data were recorded for distress, quality of life, and psychological flexibility. Pearson's correlations were used to examine bivariate relationships between distress, quality of life, disability and psychological flexibility. Whether psychological flexibility moderated the relationship between disability (predictor), distress and quality of life (outcomes) was also investigated.


      Between February and March 2020, 628 participants with SPMS completed the CompACT and had a recent (<12 months) HADS questionnaire (Mage = 60.66, 70.90% women). On the HADS questionnaire subscales, 44% of the sample scored above the MS clinical cut-off (≥8) for anxiety (M = 7.09, SD = 4.57), and 30% above the clinical cut off (≥11) for depression (M = 8.35, SD = 4.21). Psychological flexibility (M = 81.94, SD = 22.60) and its components were each moderately negatively correlated with total distress (r = -0.65), anxiety (r = −0.58), and depression (r = -0.56). A second subsample (n = 434) completed the EQ-5D-5L health-related quality of life measure, which was moderately positively correlated with psychological flexibility (r = 0.47). A third subsample (n = 210) found a weak negative relationship between psychological flexibility and disability (r = -0.16), a weak positive relationship between distress and disability (r = 0.26), and a moderate negative relationship between quality of life and disability (r = -0.56). Psychological flexibility was not found to moderate the relationships between disability and anxiety, depression, or quality of life in SPMS.


      Greater psychological flexibility was associated with lower self-reported distress and higher quality of life in this SPMS sample. It was not shown to moderate the extent to which physical disability predicts distress or quality of life in SPMS.
      These findings demonstrate that greater psychological flexibility is related to better coping outcomes (lower distress, higher quality of life) in SPMS. If psychological flexibility can be increased in people with SPMS, this could lead to a reduction in distress and improvement in quality of life, although directionality could not be attributed with these methods. Further longitudinal evidence and trials of psychological flexibility-focussed interventions are needed.


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