You know, making changes in life is never one of those beautiful uprising graphs like this:
There are days when life looks fantastic, then you hit a flat spot and it all goes pear-shaped.
While overall you’re definitely making progress, it doesn’t always feel like that especially during a set-back. And this is normal and predictable – but we nearly always fail to plan for it, so the set-back can pounce like a Tigger.
The thing is, though, that as clinicians we can forget this when we’re working with people living with pain. We’re so keen to see people make positive changes that we can forget just how hard it can be when change needs to happen right throughout the daily habits and lifestyle of the person. And so when someone begins to slow down in their pace of change, perhaps even fall back a bit, we can be somewhat unhelpful.
If set-backs are a normal part of making progress, why don’t we help people prepare for it? Forewarned is forearmed, or so they say (not sure who “they” is, but “they” are wise).
Preparing for set-backs
What constitutes a set-back? Different things for different people, I think. So for me, a set-back is a time when changes you’ve recently instituted get harder to do. The reasons changes might get harder could be because of a pain flare-up, or having less pain than usual. They could happen when life gets especially busy. Or the weather has turned colder (or hotter). Or because it’s holidays, or family members are unwell, or a new puppy gets added to the family. Set-backs can happen when anything disrupts the routine, and when the high of deciding to make a change begins to ebb.
Although set-backs are common, they don’t have to put people off their stride, but they DO need some planning. And it’s important NOT to use pain intensity as the guide to whether a person has handled a set-back well – remember that pain intensity can and does fluctuate for many, many reasons, and it’s not the pain that we’re as concerned about as the ability to handle it without losing track of making changes. Painful flare-ups can be a trigger for a set-back, but so can times when pain settles! In fact, in my experience it’s those times when things are going well, pain is settled and all seems to be ticking along when BAM! people forget to use the skills they’ve been developing and begin to head back down to the familiar but unhelpful ways of coping.
I think it’s really helpful to list all the various things that can get in the way of carrying on with changes.
Then it’s useful to list some ways to get around those factors – for example, if I know that cold weather is going to make it hard for me to get out of bed to go dancing first thing in the morning, I know I can programme the air conditioning so that the room is warm, I can lay my dance clothes out the night before (or practice in my PJ’s!), I can make sure my bedroom is warm in the morning, and I can set an alarm 5 minutes before my practice time to remind me. I can also have the music all ready to go in my player, and I’ve planned what I’m going to practice – in this way I’ve managed to work around the obstacles I know I will encounter. And I add to this by setting a ridiculously low amount that is my bottom line – five minutes! – and then I reward myself by eyeing myself in the mirror after my practice and saying “You’re a dancer!” And yes, I got this off the wonderful Nadira Jamal, Bellydance teacher extraordinaire.
1. Go through the factors leading up to the set-back. Identify all the opportunities where different choices could have been made. It’s the “seemingly innocent decisions” that gradually lead towards slipping up that really erode change.
So it might be that it’s been a really busy week, so I’ve thought that it’s OK to do half my exercises during the week, and because it’s been great to see a good friend, I’ve gone out with her rather than do my relaxation. And when I’ve been with the friend, we’ve gone to the pub and I had a drink or two. I’ve decided to get up and dance for a while. I’ve been enjoying myself and haven’t noticed the time. I have another drink and carry on dancing. My friend and I head home about midnight and I’ve got a busy day ahead tomorrow – ooops! I’m so sore I can’t move!
Does that sound familiar?
Where could I have made different choices? Sometimes it’s about avoiding a negative emotion, or about being in a positive mood and being carried away. Sometimes it’s because I might have been feeling a bit flat and down and so I’ve decided it’s OK not to do something – and ended up having to do things at the last minute. Whatever it is, it’s worthwhile taking some time to work back to the earliest point at which I could have made a different decision, and avoided wandering down the path of least resistance.
2. Use a “Can Cope” plan for dealing with the fallout once it’s happened. This is a short set of actions that are already written down before the inevitable happens, so people don’t have to do the thinking when they’re feeling least like it. I always start with “Stop. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Say something nice to yourself”
The subsequent steps are designed to move from immediate and short-term actions to avoid a complete cr@p out – like doing a stretch or two, going to have a drink of water, taking a few minutes out to say something calming, maybe changing the task to something different for a few minutes, going to talk to someone (or phone them), maybe even taking lunch early. Longer term actions might include taking some medication (as a last resort), changing position, having the names of a few people to get support from, doing a relaxation, and so on.
The “Can Cope” plan can be written down on a small card about the size of a business card (they used to be called visiting cards). Then it can be kept in the wallet and pulled out when needed.
The thing with all of these approaches is that they need to be done BEFORE they’re needed. It’s incredibly hard to think straight when life has gone pear-shaped, so do the thinking before it happens. Make every action very specific – if the person is going to phone someone, list their name and phone number on the form. If they’re going to do some stretches, write them down. If it’s a coping statement, write it down!
And therapists, remember to let the person you’re working with come up with their own plans for how they might get around these things. Remember, people have incredible resourcefulness if WE just get out of the way and stop rescuing before it’s needed. I think the best way is to let the person know you have confidence in their ability to get through. Don’t step in to rescue – it doesn’t teach anyone anything, and it shows that really you don’t think the person is capable of managing by themselves. Unless you want to see a person and be their therapist forever, stand back and let it happen – then work with the person to analyse what went wrong and what they could do differently. Every set-back is a chance to learn!