Learning to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’


If ever there was an over-used quote from a pop-psychology book the ‘feel the fear’ quote has to be a prime contender! However, in exposure therapy for kinesiophobia, this is exactly what we are doing. If we don’t activate the feeling of anxiety just a teeny tiny bit, then we are not going to achieve an awful lot!

So, the steps from yesterday are to identify a range of activities that the person doesn’t feel they can do (and therefore avoids doing), get the person to rank them in order from ‘least bothersome’ to ‘most bothersome’ (or whatever scale you want to call it – some people call it the ‘yukkiness’ scale!).

Then it’s time to find out exactly what the person really fears about the movement. To do this, I ask the person ‘what goes through your mind when you think of yourself doing this movement?’ – it can be an image, a phrase, or some sort of prediction. It’s this prediction, or hypothesis, that is being tested in our ‘behavioural experiments’.

By exposing the person to the opportunity to test their belief that something ‘horrible’ or ‘awful’ will happen if they carry out the movement, several things happen:

  1. their anxiety level increases initially
  2. they get the opportunity to see that their feared consequence either doesn’t happen, or if it does, it is something they can tolerate
  3. their elevated anxiety subsides (we simply can’t maintain high levels of anxiety for very long)

It’s important to work out exactly what the person is concerned about.

  • Is it that they think some damage will occur? – how will they tell it has?
  • Is it that they think their pain will inevitably increase – and more importantly, that this will be ‘horrible’? – what does ‘horrible’ look like or mean?
  • Is it that they can see themselves falling, being looked at, being laughed at? – what does this mean to them, or about them?

We can then run through several different ways of addressing their underlying beliefs.

  • We can using cognitive therapy to work with their automatic thought, and evaluate the probability that the negative event will happen.
  • We can use cognitive therapy to probe more deeply to find out what it means for this event to happen, and perhaps uncover a more significant belief or attitude that can be worked on in therapy.
  • We can also find out what the worst possible consequence could be, and why it might be so awful. Or what the most likely consequence could be, and whether they could cope with that.

Having done this, we can then start to ask the person if they’re prepared to see what happens if they try one of the movements that bothers them. This is the ‘behavioural’ part of this process and it’s critical to include this as well as the cognitive aspects indicated above.

Reassuring the person that we are certain that they can handle the situation (that they have the skills not to freak out!), or that we are clear that the harm they think will happen won’t occur gives the person a sense of your confidence in their skills. I always make sure that they do have skills to reduce their physiological arousal – usually using diaphragmatic breathing, and calming self statements – before starting this process. I also make sure that we start low enough on the hierarchy so that their anxiety is only just increased so they don’t refuse altogether.

The activities in the PHODA are daily activities that almost everyone has to do in life. For this reason it’s usually not too hard to get the person to agree that the activity is something they think is important to learn to do. If the person starts to balk, it may be because the activity isn’t that important to them, or that they really lack confidence that they can do it successfully. If this is happening, it’s time to return to exploring importance, and increasing confidence using motivational interviewing strategies. Moving down the hierarchy gives the message to the person that they don’t have the skills to cope, and that they have every right to be afraid, and that you’re not confident that it will be OK.

Then the process is reasonably straightforward.
Demonstrate the movement using efficient biomechanics. Note that I’m not suggesting ‘safe’ movements, or ‘proper’ movements – because this suggests that if and only if the person uses the right technique they will be safe. This is a form of safety behaviour that reduces the anxiety that we really want to have present. What safety behaviours do is act as a sort of lucky charm, and when the lucky charm isn’t present, the avoidance that has maintained the fear returns. Nothing is actually learned!

Then ask the person to rate how much concern they have right now about doing the movement.
Continue with asking the person to then rate how strongly they believe that their hypothesis will come true if they do the movement.

Then it’s their turn to do it. I move quite swiftly into this phase, because it’s the anticipation of doing the movement that generates the anxiety. The longer you delay, the more anxiety, the less likely they are to be able to settle their anxiety level down after the movement.

Once they’ve carried the movement out using efficient biomechanics, it’s time to ask them to re-rate their concern about doing the movement, then re-rate the probability that their feared consequence will occur if they do it again. Most times the rating has reduced, but sometimes it hasn’t gone down by much.

If their rating of the probability hasn’t changed, you can ask ‘how often do you think you need to do this to change your rating?’ You can use logic (How many times have you seen people actually fall over when they bend forward? How many times have you fallen over when you bend forward?) or you use other cognitive strategies to help them re-evaluate their belief, then re-test using the behavioural experiment again. You can also ask the person to develop a new experiment that might be a better test of their belief (to make it more likely that their feared outcome occurs).

For a really good article reviewing models of inhibitory learning in exposure therapy, Craske et al. (2008) have written ‘Optimizing inhibitory learning during exposure therapy’ for Behaviour Research and Therapy. Worth a read, even if you’re inclined to go glassy-eyed at loads of psychological stuff. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably quite happy to read psychological stuff, so head on over to it!

More tomorrow on exposure therapy – so y’all come back now!

CRASKE, M., KIRCANSKI, K., ZELIKOWSKY, M., MYSTKOWSKI, J., CHOWDHURY, N., BAKER, A. (2008). Optimizing inhibitory learning during exposure therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(1), 5-27. DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2007.10.003

ResearchBlogging.org

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