British Journal of Health Psychology

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Ways of encoding somatic information and their effects on retrospective symptom reporting

Objectives

Retrospective symptom reports tend to overestimate actual symptom intensity. This study explored how focusing on sensory‐perceptual or on affective‐motivational aspects of a somatic experience influenced retrospective symptom reports in high and low habitual symptom reporters (HSR). We hypothesized that a focus on affective‐motivational aspects of somatic episodes contributes to retrospective overestimation compared to a focus on sensory‐perceptual aspects.

Design

Dyspnoea (rebreathing) and pain (cold pain) were induced during two experimental sessions in healthy women: 21 high and 24 low HSR, selected using cut‐off scores on a symptom checklist. Within‐subject manipulation of sensory and affective processing focus (PF) took place at the encoding phase before symptom induction.

Methods

Dyspnoea and pain ratings were collected immediately after the symptom inductions and after 2 weeks. Breathing behaviour was recorded during dyspnoea trials, while affective state and symptom measures were collected after each trial.

Results

Compared to pain, dyspnoea induction was perceived as more unpleasant, arousing, and threatening (ps < .001). Affective PF led to higher arousal (< .01) and threat ratings (= .01) than sensory PF. Affective PF also led to an increase in retrospective dyspnoea ratings over the course of 2 weeks (= .039), which was not observed for pain, nor for dyspnoea after sensory PF. The effects of PF on symptom ratings were independent of the HSR levels.

Conclusions

The PF during symptom encoding may explain previously observed bias in retrospective symptom reporting. The results are relevant to understand the mechanisms underlying symptom overreporting.

What is already known on this subject?

  • Retrospective symptom ratings are often biased when compared to the momentary assessments.
  • Attending to either sensory or affective aspects of the somatic experience is one of the factors affecting self‐reported symptoms.

What does this study add?

  • Focusing on affective aspects elicited by the somatic experience led to an increase in retrospective symptom ratings over time.
  • This is particularly so for more aversive somatic experiences.
  • Directing the processing focus to sensory aspects during symptom encoding can attenuate bias in retrospective symptom reporting.

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