We all have typical ways of going about our daily routines and solving problems. Mostly these work – until we encounter a situation where they don’t. If we’re flexible enough, we’ll figure out a way to change what we do in that instance, and this will become another strategy to draw on, and might even become another habit that works – until it doesn’t.
In pain rehabilitation, there are certain patterns of activity that have received a lot of research attention. Activity avoidance is one of them, while task persistence is given rather less air time (though it’s emerging as an intriguing area to study (Hasenbring, Andrews & Ebenbichler, 2020)). But perhaps what we’ve looked into less are aspects of adjusting to life with pain that raise uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. These in turn make it more difficult for a person to change how they go about daily life.
Some examples I’ve heard from people I’ve worked with:
- I need to keep pushing through the day because I’m the boss, and a hands-on manager. If I stop being hands-on, there’s nobody to pick up the slack. Things won’t get done.
- I’m a mum, and I can’t let my children go off to school without them having had breakfast, and making their lunches, and there’s all the parent-teacher events. I can’t just stop.
- When I left the lawn half-done, my partner jumped in and did it for me, then got really angry with me and I’m not doing that again!
- I was a professional athlete. Going to the gym is horrible. I’m a failure – I’m lifting these tiny weights and I used to lift massive ones.
- I’m going back to work on this graded programme, but I can’t fit my gym programme in, and that’s the only way I’m going to fix my core strength.
These situations are pretty common. The clash between “pain management” and the reality of daily life. Daily life is messy, and there are social factors at play, there’s the unpredictable, the real fear of criticism or loss of a job or someone not taking up the slack while the person makes changes in how he or she does life. It’s far easier to prescribe exercises in a controlled place, to track progress by weights, repetitions and cardiovascular fitness or range of movement.
Doing self management, things like pacing or setting time aside for movement, or spending time in meditation or asking someone to help: these are easy in the short-term, right? But not quite as easy if you think of these things needing to happen for life. In fact, some people with pain begin to feel like this new life isn’t really a life at all! Where’s the spontaneity?
When we begin drawing on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) a common error is thinking the “acceptance” part is only about accepting pain, and stopping treatment, ie let’s focus on being willing to experience pain in the pursuit of what’s important. And there’s good evidence supporting the process of doing valued activities as one of the key processes in ACT, as well as being a key outcome (Vowles, Sowden, Hickman & Ashworth, 2019). All the occupational therapists say “preach it!” because, of course, this is what occupational therapy as a profession is based on!
So what else needs to be the focus if we’re using ACT in persistent pain management? As you can see from the client examples I’ve given, there are more effects from pain and self-management strategies than just being willing to experience the ouch. People hold fused beliefs about what kind of a person they are: the reliable worker; the dutiful parent; the responsible boss; the super-athlete; the compliant patient. The strategies people use to cope with persistent pain may impinge on ideas a person holds about themselves.
Furthermore, things clinicians tell people – like “your exercises will reduce your pain”, or “you must learn to fire this muscle to help stabilise”, or “meditation needs to be done this way” – can also become fused ideas. A lot like wearing a splint for years “because the therapist said I must”, or using a particular chair “because the therapist said it was the best for me.”
Any time we begin introducing new ways of doing things, we’re likely to encounter people who will find it hard to see why our perfectly reasonable solution won’t fit them in their circumstances. Consequently we can either try hard to persuade the person to do it (creating pliance), or we can decide the person isn’t cooperative and give up. I think there’s a third way: using ACT we can examine the usefulness or workability of the approach preferred by the person, and we can do the same for the new approach. By looking at the good and not-so-good in each option, we can also begin to explore the fused thoughts and emotions, experiential avoidance (what is it the person is unwilling to experience?), values, sense of self (is it me, or a story about me?) – indeed, all the ACT processes are likely to come into play.
What we need to do then will depend on your clinical orientation and the person. If the person judges that what they’re currently doing is working for them – our job is done. We can “leave the door open” for them by indicating that there are alternative strategies the person might want to experiment with in the future, but pushing against a person’s own belief that they’re doing fine just isn’t aligned with ACT.
If the person agrees that no, their current approach isn’t working – then we can begin exploring what’s going on. Occupational therapists might begin with daily activities, perhaps identifying what’s important about them, and then experimenting with (or playing with!) different ways of doing them. As an occupational therapist, I’m likely to want to understand is showing up for the person, maybe draw on other important values to help them to begin to use a coping strategy. The cool thing about ACT is that while committed action must be 100% we can adjust the demands of that action to the level of confidence a person has.
For example, if someone really has strongly fused ideas that “everything needs to be done for the children before they go to school”, we might begin by laying out the children’s lunches but asking the children to put them into their bags. Two things might be going on in this case: one might be about loosening the fused idea that “good mothers do everything for their children” while simultaneously helping the person develop skills to communicate effectively with their children – allowing the children to experience what happens if they forget! (Kids have ways of finding food, believe me)
We could be building on the mum’s value of raising independent children, and drawing on her skills of mindfulness and being in the present moment. We’d need to check in with her willingness to do this: is she 100% willing to let her kids go to school without physically putting their lunches into their bags? If she’s not, we might try making the task a little less challenging. This might look like allowing the children not to brush their hair before going to school, or putting the lunches beside the bags but not inside them. Whatever we do we’re gently allowing her to feel the shiver of anxiety that she hasn’t “done everything for the children” while also using another value “I’m raising independent children” to help her follow through.
In terms of where this example might go, if one of the fused thoughts is that “I feel guilty if I don’t do everything for my kids”, this is likely playing out in other parts of this person’s life. By helping her be willing to experience that anxiety in the pursuit of supporting her children to become independent, she’s developing more space between her thoughts and what she decides to do with them. She’s rehearsing a process where she draws on strengths (values, mindfulness, cognitive defusion) to help her commit to doing something that’s not easy. And doing this in one part of her life begins to open the possibilities for doing this in other parts of her life.
Pain rehabilitation and management is often not so much about dealing with the pain and effects of pain on life, but on life and how we live it. Life is more than whether we’re pain-free, fit or happy, it’s about moving onward in the direction of what’s important to us.
Hasenbring, M. I., Andrews, N. E., & Ebenbichler, G. (2020). Overactivity in Chronic Pain, the Role of Pain-related Endurance and Neuromuscular Activity: An Interdisciplinary, Narrative Review. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 36(3), 162-171.
Vowles, K. E., Sowden, G., Hickman, J., & Ashworth, J. (2019). An analysis of within-treatment change trajectories in valued activity in relation to treatment outcomes following interdisciplinary Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for adults with chronic pain. Behav Res Ther, 115, 46-54. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2018.10.012