forest walk

Life seems but a succession of busy nothings – Jane Austin

We hold some very contradictory opinions about being busy. On the one hand, Socrates is reported to have said “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”, and on the other Dale Carnegie is quoted as saying “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Pacing, one of the cornerstones of “traditional” pain management, is intended to moderate both under-activity (avoidance) and over-activity so that important things can get done without running out of puff – or having an enormous flare-up of pain with subsequent crash into a jellied lump. Yet people who cope well with pain, and ourselves if we’re honest, are often guilty of doing more when we are highly  motivated to do something (or want to achieve a specific goal), and doing less afterwards so we can recuperate.

What is an optimal level of activity for a person living with chronic pain and why might this be important?

I’ll address the second question first. Fatigue is experienced by many people living with chronic pain. Fatigue is a term “used to describe a period of extreme tiredness, as a result of emotional strain, physical exertion, boredom or a general lack of rest and sleep” (Psychology dictionary) People living with chronic pain often develop a sense of fatigue as part of their pain, and some authors believe that not only is it because of disruption to the delta sleep phase (the deepest sleep we achieve), but also because some brain activity continues all the time as the neuromatrix processes potential threat from the painful parts of the body. This activity may result in changes to brain structure, although brain structures may actually cause some of this effect (Baliki, Geha, Apkarian & Chialvo, 2008; Wiech, Ploner & Tracey, 2008). The practical impact of experiencing fatigue is to reduce cognitive efficiency: it takes longer to solve problems, and even boring tasks can feel very difficult.

Some interesting facts: the effect of fatigue on performance differs depending on an individual’s beliefs about fatigue – there is a thing called “fatigue catastrophising” which, like pain catastrophising, means individuals unduly and negatively assess the effect of fatigue on their ability to do things. Being fatigued influences the ability to switch tasks from one task to another, fatigue reduces the ability to ‘change tack’. Interestingly, being bored increases the likelihood of experiencing fatigue. There is an optimal level of stimulation in which we operate. Stress, while initially increasing alertness, over time results in increased fatigue.

So in terms of the importance of identifying and developing an optimal level of activity, it seems that for people living with chronic pain, there might be a need to carefully work out just what level of activity is sufficient to avoid boredom but not so much as to stimulate unhealthy levels of fatigue.

And now, what is an optimal level of activity for a person living with chronic pain?

This question is a much more difficult question to answer, not only because “optimal” will depend a great deal on an individual’s satisfaction with his or her activity level, but also because it’s difficult to measure, definitions about activity level are unclear, and because there are many assumptions about activity levels that have been retained since the early operant conditioning model of pain was proposed by Fordyce. In this model, avoidance develops by reducing activity levels as a way to reduce pain (or prevent it from increasing), while over-activity is thought to occur when activity increases pain resulting in avoidance. Some research suggests that over-activity is an ongoing habit used by individuals who have always tended to be those that work long hours and remain highly engaged in activities they value.

There has been a lot of interest in the notion of over-activity, in part because of the recent interest in “pacing”, but also because people who “over-do” exhibit some features inconsistent with the old avoidance model. For some reason people who over-do engage in activity that will increase their pain – and yet they continue doing so, despite the need to “recover” or do less on the days following their high activity days. Something is overriding the (expected or usual) sense of concern about experiencing pain at the time of their over-activity.

A study by Andrews, Strong and Meredith (in press) looks at activity patterns and particularly over-activity and avoidance patterns and has been able to validate the construct of “over-activity” as a pattern of activity that increases pain – but inconsistent findings relating to avoidance and over-activity. While pain is known to increase, the effect of this on future activity levels is not yet known.

What I wonder is whether these patterns relate to contextual aspects of activity carried out by people living lives. We all know that we push ourselves some days and chill out a little on others. We know that sometimes we’ll do things that will be either fatiguing or actually generate pain (like when you need to move house, dig the garden in spring, do a fun run, have a Christmas dinner at our place), and for most of us this is something we accommodate by being a little less busy for a couple of days afterwards. If we take actigraph recordings over a week or two (Jawbone anyone?), I’m sure it will also show a pattern of high activity and then lower activity, so that over time the activity levels probably flatten out around a mean level of activity. When we do something we value very much, the perceived sense of effort (fatigue) may be lower – we feel energised and enthused although we are tired. When we do something we don’t value (for me it has to be vacuuming!), it feels more tiring and time goes very slowly.

I wonder if people living with pain need additional time to “recover” because of both increased pain, and also the feeling of fatigue. And whether perhaps we need to also study what it is about the tasks being undertaken that is valued rather than simply the task activity level. Busyness may depend on the value of what is being done.


Andrews, N.E., Strong, J., & Meredith, P.J. Overactivity in chronic pain: Is it a valid construct? Pain.

Baliki, M.N., Geha, P.Y., Apkarian, A., & Chialvo, D.R. (2008). Beyond feeling: Chronic pain hurts the brain, disrupting the default-mode network dynamics. The Journal of Neuroscience, 28(6), 1398-1403. doi:

Wiech, K., Ploner, M., & Tracey, I. (2008). Neurocognitive aspects of pain perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(8), 306-313. doi: doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.05.005

One comment

  1. To hell with Dale Carnegie and his worship of productivity! I used to believe in it myself, so my opinion comes from painful experience.

    People with chronic pain need to have a completely different outlook on life, and the last thing we need is to viewed as unproductive. This American-style exhortation to constant busyness only castigates us for “wasting time” and “doing nothing”, when our inactivity actually hides a constant inner battle against utter despair and the arduous search for inner peace and self acceptance.

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