Cold Georgina

Routines, habits, boredom & variety: Life skills for living with chronic pain?


I’ve just had a wonderful week on holiday. I escaped the internet, social media, telephones, power, flushing toilets, running water… and it was awesome! There’s something good about taking a break from my usual world to do things completely differently. Now that I’m back I’m reflecting on routines and habits, and how they form an important part of my life.

Routines are sets of behaviours (occupations if you know occupational science) that regularly occur in a certain sequence. Habits are behaviours or occupations we do without needing to directly think about them – maybe because we’ve done them so often they’ve become semi-automatic. Both routines and habits are useful because they reduce the demand on our attention and therefore draw less on our cognitive resources.

This can be a good thing – who would want to have to think about every single thing we have to do to get up and off to work each day?

One of the things people working in chronic pain management often discuss with those they see is how to manage activity levels so that important things can get done without leaving the person feeling exhausted, flaring up their pain, or omitting to do things they value. Activity pacing is one of the main strategies discussed, and although the evidence base for this strategy is skinny, it’s a very common approach. BUT, and it’s a big BUT, it requires people to plan and organise both what they want to do, and how and when they do them.

Many people would think this is pretty self-explanatory. Who doesn’t sort out a To Do list and prioritise what needs doing in a day or week?

Ermmm – actually, there are plenty of people who don’t do this regularly. That’s why one of the most common tools in business is time management! Remember the Day Runner Diary? The Four Quadrants (Steven Covey) Approach? The ABC of prioritising? All tools used to organise what does and doesn’t need to be done.

While these tools are readily used in business, it’s rather less often that we think about helping people organise their lives outside of the workplace. I guess this is because most of us think this just happens naturally – intuitively, if you will. Intuition, though, can be defined as “over-learned habits” that we have learned so well we’ve forgotten we ever needed to learn them in the beginning.

The field of habits and routines is part of self-regulation. Self-regulation includes these components, but also incorporates the ways we raise our energy, calm ourselves down, maintain time awareness, set our sleep/wake cycle, and manage emotions.  Self-regulation theory has been proposed as a model for helping people with some forms of chronic pain cope more effectively with their pain and fatigue (Sauer, Burris,  & Carlson, 2010). There’s some neurobiological evidence to show that some forms of chronic pain, notably fibromyalgia, have greater connectivity and baseline activity between regions of the brain involved in self-regulation including the really important parts involved in executive functioning. This means things like switching attention from one thing to another, or responding to threat appropriately (then settling down afterwards) are more difficult.

And some people are born with, or perhaps develop, less effective self-regulatory neural processes – these are perhaps the people who seem to forget deadlines, arrive late, don’t take medications at the right time, perhaps don’t have regular meals, maybe run out of ingredients (or clean clothes!), and generally find it more difficult to get their life together.

Self-regulation treatments are often concerned with ways to down-regulate breathing, heart rate, and to manage attention. Habits and routines, on the other hand, are larger chunks of behaviour that might not be addressed. Maybe this is why some people forget to do their CBT thought records and don’t do the exercises they’re meant to do. As clinicians, we can think these “forgettories” are a sign of noncompliance, lack of motivation, or not really understanding the importance of the things we ask them to do. I suggest that maybe, for some people, it’s more about failing to have some of the foundational skills needed to get organised into a routine so that there’s enough brain space for people to add new tasks into their day.

What to do about this?

I think we can draw from three main sources of literature here. The first is self-regulation theory where people like Nes, Roach, & Segerstrom (2009), Sauer, Burris & Carlson (2010) are looking at some really useful models. By helping people develop mindfulness, relaxation skills, and awareness of internal physiological states, greater ability to self-regulate is developed. But this only addresses the internal states – what about the bigger chunks?

The next source of literature is probably that from mTBI, or post-concussion rehabilitation. One of the features of post-concussion syndrome is difficulty switching attention, becoming fatigued, recognising when and how to stop or slow down. There are plenty of fun games (yes, even Lumosity!) that can be used to help people develop greater cognitive flexibility, memory, and to improve concentration, attention and so on.

But this still doesn’t address the bigger chunks of activity we need to do. So here’s where I think occupational science and occupational therapy might be really useful: all the tools of time management, cognitive props like using a cellphone alarm to remind you to take medications, daily planners, post-it notes, identifying values and using these to prioritise tasks, having a diary, writing lists – all of these can help, provided they’re tailored to the individual’s needs and lifestyle.

So, before you think that habits and routine are boring, and that planning removes variety – or that the person you’re working with who just doesn’t do those exercises is really Just. Not. That. Motivated. Maybe it’s to do with not being all that great at habits and routines or self-regulation, and maybe you can help them get better at these foundation skills.

 

Clark, F. (2000). The concepts of habit and routine: a preliminary theoretical synthesis. Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(Sup 1), 123S-137S.

Nes, Lise Solberg, Roach, Abbey R., & Segerstrom, Suzanne C. (2009). Executive functions, self-regulation, and chronic pain: A review. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 173-183. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12160-009-9096-5

Sauer, Shannon E., Burris, Jessica L., & Carlson, Charles R. (2010). New directions in the management of chronic pain: Self-regulation theory as a model for integrative clinical psychology practice. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(6), 805-814. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.06.008

Whiteford, G. (2007). Artistry of the everyday: connection, continuity and the context. Journal of Occupational Science, 14(2), 77-81.

Wiese, Dunn W. (2000). Habit: What’s the brain got to do with it? Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(Sup 1), 6S-20S.

4 comments

  1. Yes, I agree with you about some people just don’t seem to have the structure??
    And I’m talking about some people I love dearly… The odd thing is, some of these individuals seem to get on alright at a professional capacity, but at a personal level they really struggle. There is some grasp of organization and will to do for themselves in some aspects, but it seems other aspects that most people see as priorities just slipped through the cracks.
    Your mentioning a neural capacity here is very interesting and worth considering…

    1. I think, like everything, it’s really complicated! There are more structures around in work life to support being organised, including contingencies (you could lose your job!), prompts (other people, minutes from meetings, meetings with your boss, calendars, computers), social rules and so on. In personal life the penalties can be quite delayed (it’s a while before the power gets switched off even if you don’t pay your bills on time), people don’t complain that you’re always late, and if you haven’t got anything in your fridge there’s always takeaways! I also wonder if there are some beliefs and thoughts that get in the way – like “other people are the priority”, or “if I don’t do it perfectly, I won’t bother doing it”. And then there are fewer structures around that enforce you to get things done. But people do vary in the way they adopt a routine. Kids differ in how quickly they get organised to regularly clean their teeth, do their homework on time, go to bed and get up in the morning, so I guess there’s a myriad ways to explain why some people are more, and others less, organised.

      1. If I can speak to your point from personal experience, I tend to be a perfectionist although unorganized in a visual sense. Like you said, if I can’t complete a task “right,” I can be a non-starter. Working on that.
        My husband is much more visually organized, yet daily upkeep habits don’t seem to phase him.
        It doesn’t bother me as much any more as he is my caretaker and we both have patience. Him more than myself I’m sure.
        There really does seem to be a personality factor driving it beyond how either of us were raised.
        And your points about the workplace make a great deal of sense. It’s quite an interesting topic.

  2. I’m definitely not tidy! I think of myself as very visually oriented – if I can’t see something, it seems to disappear from my attention! This is one reason I really like computers because I can put notes to self all over my desktop and I’ll see them without the risk of losing that precious piece of paper in the muddle that lives on my physical desk.
    I agree, I think there’s much more involved than any single factor, and my observation from my own two children as they’ve grown up is that this begins at birth. Really interesting ideas to explore huh?!

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