Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 4


In the previous few posts on what to do with all that assessment information I’ve talked about generating a formulation to guide treatment, and a little about how teams might work together to generate one. This post is a little different because I want to situation the discussion around the ultimate aim of therapy.

I usually work with people who have long-standing pain that hasn’t changed much and doesn’t seem to be disappearing. I’m not a nihilist, but I do wonder if clinicians are trying too hard to “change pain” when the body doesn’t seem to respond all that much to whatever we offer when it comes to musculoskeletal pain! Perhaps all we do is offer support to the person as their body gets on with the job of settling down…?

Anyway, my focus is to help people respond flexibly to what life has thrown at them – because while pain poses one of the greatest problems for people, often it’s not the pain as such but what we do to avoid or control pain – or, for that matter, what we do to avoid or control the results of avoiding or controlling pain. Confused? Let me unpack it a little with an example.

About the time I started this blog wayyyyy back in 2007 I had a concussion and developed post-concussion syndrome. I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate, find words, remember things, switch my attention from one thing to the next, and to deal with sensory overload. I was advised to rest and let my brain recover in its own time – all good. BUT I never expected that recovery to take almost two years! so I returned to part-time work after two weeks. In my head I was balancing my fatigue/headache/difficulty concentrating against my need to return to work, keep my employer happy, and do things that mattered.

If I flip that motivation on its head, I wanted to control both my symptoms and my fear/guilt of failing and perhaps losing my job/fear of sitting still and doing nothing/fear of feeling useless. After all, I was the vocational rehabilitation therapist for the service I worked in!

By trying to control my fear of not doing, I created a whole bunch of trouble for myself – I failed at controlling my symptoms – they grew out of hand and I eventually had to take some time off work, got quite depressed, and achieved exactly what I’d hope to avoid – needing to stay at home doing nothing!

When we think of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for living with pain, we often think of the person working hard to control or avoid pain and our focus is on helping them to be willing to make room for pain and begin doing things – and yet I’ve met a great many people who have got caught up in a vicious cycle of over-doing and under-doing, or who “get on with it” with gritted teeth and sheer determination! So one thing we can be looking for in our “first contact” is to identify how workable are the ways the person is approaching this time in their life, a time when they’re dealing with pain and life restrictions, stress, balancing priorities, working, family and so on.

ACT provides a series of six processes that together offer a way to be flexible about how we handle what life throws at us, and help us do what matters in our life. In an ACT formulation, we’re looking for unhelpful patterns that constrain how flexibly we can do what matters. Some of the patterns we might see could be:

  1. Unwillingness to stop and create space for pain so the person gets stuck acting as if there is no pain, trying to do everything the same way as normal but either getting fatigued and stressed and just hanging on in there, or doing short bursts of “normal” and crashing periodically.
  2. Getting stuck with rigid beliefs about what’s going on like thinking the pain must be able to be fixed and quickly, or that the pain is the most horrible disaster ever and everything about life must be shelved until it’s fixed.
  3. Comparing what he or she can currently do against a previous level of performance and being frustrated and angry because this doesn’t fit with how they see themselves, and especially thinking that this is the way it’s going to be forever…
  4. Losing sight of important things like being with family, or seeing friends because of feeling irritable, sad, thinking they don’t want to see them like this, not being able to do the things they used to do, waiting for the pain to reduce, or looking for the fix.
  5. Anticipating calamity or remembering disasters either about “the last time I tried doing this” or “because I saw this happen to [name]” and then feeling utterly stuck.
  6. Casting about being erratic or just not sticking to a plan, getting off track maybe because results don’t happen, or maybe because it’s something new and feels unfamiliar, or perhaps because someone else suggested another option…

There are always other ways people respond to pain, not just the patterns I’ve listed here, but these are some common ones I’ve seen. In ACT we’re looking for unworkable patterns that don’t lead the person towards being the kind of person they want to be, doing the things that bring meaning in their life.

When I’m jotting these things down, I’m looking to identify the core things the person isn’t willing to experience: thoughts, emotions, memories, situations. I want to understand what the person does to avoid them – like things the person has stopped doing or deliberately avoids, the ways the person avoids or controls emotions associated with that thing (like drinking more alcohol, zoning out, lashing out), and what I observe during our initial assessment like skipping over topics that feel uncomfortable.

I want to understand the cost or “unworkability” from the person’s perspective: what’s the impact of responding in these ways. I need to understand what’s going on in the person’s context – their family life, employment situation, influence of case manager or insurance/compensation, friendships. And I want to look at the factors that might be adding to the person’s inflexible responses, and these are myriad and often include what we do as clinicians – like being told to stop doing a favourite hobby “because it might be damaging” (how many people with low back pain have been told to stop running, stop fishing, stop dancing, stop lifting, to sit in a certain way, walk in a certain way, lift in a certain way, stop slouching, walk faster, slower…?). And of course I want to understand a person’s strengths: have they had an experience like this before? Do they have strong values? Have they succeeded in some area in life? What brings them joy and takes them into the zone? How have they modified the way they do things so they can do what matters?

I like to do this in collaboration with the person (how else could I do it?!) and to look at the good and not so good of everything they’ve done along with the context. Because one thing that always resonates with me is that people do what they do because it’s worked in the past. Always. At least once.

For more on ACT, you can’t go past the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science – https://contextualscience.org/

And Chapter 2 from Lance McCracken’s book Mindfulness and Acceptance in Behavioral Medicine, 2011, Context Press, New Harbinger:

Vowles, K.E, & Thompson, M. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain, pp31 – 60.

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