Received wisdom in cognitive behavioural therapy says that to change behaviour, a person must first change his or her thinking. This has created a tension between those clinicians who emphasise the cognitive aspects of pain management – and those who focus on helping people with pain do more. Should we educate and target cognitions, particularly those sticky core beliefs – or can we use behaviour change as a way to help the person make gains?
The answer is, as you’d have guessed, not black and white. In fact, as several authors and researchers have pointed out (see the references below for just two), not only is the cognitive behavioural approach to chronic pain management a mixed bag of strategies, there is very little information on the process of change that occurs during treatment.
Here’s what I’ve seen clinically – while some people are ready to change, others are not. I need to work with this second group using motivational interviewing approaches to help them identify their own reasons for doing things differently.
This might mean creating a sense of dilemma – identifying where they are now in terms of goals and satisfaction with life, and creating awareness both of the possibility that life might be different, and what that might look like. This helps people recognise their “stuckness” and creates momentum for change. From there, it’s far easier to help them develop goals and start to problem-solve what needs to happen to reach them.
Another group of people are those who are relatively inflexible in their thinking and behaviour – they’re stuck not because of a dilemma, but because they’re continuing to use strategies that have worked for them in the past, but are not working now. It’s like they have trouble working out another way of approaching problems.
A good example of this is a man who has always been fit and before his pain began was a representative sportsman. His approach was always to do more than what was required. He was stuck because doing this when he had pain created a “boom and bust” approach to activity. For this kind of person, I like to use what Steven Hayes (ACT) likes to call “creative hopelessness” – pointing out that it’s not the methods the person is using, but their purpose. I use experiential methods to do this – gettng the person to monitor what has happened over the week, and asking him to establish what he believes: his mind and what it tells him? or his experience and whether it works.
Cognitive change doesn’t necessarily occur before behaviour change
It’s strange, but true, that despite our best efforts, twelve months after people have completed a pain management programme, few are still using the strategies we help them develop. While some are goal setting, or using relaxation, or exercising, or even checking in with their thinking – the majority are simply getting on with life (Curran, Williams & Potts, 2009 – doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2005.09.004). And even more strange – people who start making behavioural changes early in a pain management programme seem to do best, while those who actually complete between-session activities also seem to do best (Heapy, Otis, Marcus, et al., 2005).
Persuasion, challenging core beliefs, and education have their place – for the right reasons, at the right time, for the right person – but they don’t alter the fundamental issue alone.
What is that issue? It’s about an attitude shift towards “sitting with” uncomfortable thoughts and sensations, and working towards valued goals despite those thoughts and sensations. It’s about a spirit of gentleness and willingness to recognise those thoughts and sensations as the mind’s way of solving problems – and at the same time, accepting that it’s entirely possible to do what is important despite the presence of these thoughts and sensations.
Morley, S., & Keefe, F. (2007). Getting a handle on process and change in CBT for chronic pain Pain, 127 (3), 197-198 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2006.10.025
Morley, S. (2004). Process and change in cognitive behaviour therapy for chronic pain Pain, 109 (3), 205-206 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2004.02.008
Curran, C., Williams, A. C. d. C., & Potts, H. W. W. (2009). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for persistent pain: Does adherence after treatment affect outcome? European Journal of Pain, 13(2), 178-188.