Coping strategies

How are you going with your resolutions?


It’s seven days into the new year, and if you’ve made New Year’s resolutions I’d like to bet that it’s around now that your resolve is starting to fade… Don’t worry, I’m not going to nag! I am going to point out just how difficult it is to stick with a resolution, goal, action, new habit – whatever you call it.

And take a moment, if you’re a health professional. Just stop for a moment and think about the resolution, goal, action, new habit you’ve just set with your last patient. What are the chances that person will stick with that goal for the week?

Add in the complexities of, perhaps, competing goals or actions set by other clinicians seeing that person concurrently. The thought records, or mindfulness practice, or the planning and prioritising and pacing. Add in the usual daily life activities that need doing: the washing, cooking, shopping for groceries, paying the bills, filling the car with gas, spending time with family (not just any old time, but quality time). And work. And remembering to take medications (even the ones that make you feel drowsy or nauseous).

And not sleeping, finding it hard to rest because pain gets in the way.

And guilt perhaps because why is this person not getting better?

Is it any wonder that the people we try to help seem “unmotivated”? Or that they appear not to be “adherent”?

I keep coming back to something that bothers me about our attitudes towards the people we try to help. There continues to be a sense of “them” and “us”, with “us” being all that is good, proper and right, and “them” being, because we’re humans who like dichotomies, the opposite. After all “they” are seeking help from “us” which automatically puts “us” in the authoritative position.

Now before I get harangued by people saying “oh but not me”, I wonder what it would be like to record yourself in conversation with your colleagues. You know the time at your breaks where you meet around the water cooler or the coffee pot, and you do a mutual moan about work. Check in with your discussion: how do you refer to the struggles of the people you see? Is there a chance, even inadvertently, to use a “should” or “must” word or two? Do you ever think not just about the things you do with the person you’re working with, but the things other clinicians are also doing?

Enough finger pointing. What can we do to (a) shift our own attitudes and (b) help the people we see stick to the things we hope will help them?

Attitude shifts

It’s a tough one. Shifting an attitude is difficult, in part because we don’t recognise we hold attitudes because they seem “normal” or commonplace – and the more ingrained or deep-seated they are, the more difficult it is for us to see them. Attitudes are complex – possibly partly based on memory and partly generated in the moment-in-time (Albarracin & Shavitt, 2018). They also change with difficulty – being in contact with “others”, for example, has been shown to influence attitudes positively, while even imagining positive contact showed about 14% of participants were more likely to explicitly state positive attitudes (Miles & Crisp, 2014). Overall, changes in attitudes based on an intervention or a message seems to have a small effect (d = 0.22) – but these seem to be quite durable changes.

But something affect our attitudes: if we argue for our beliefs, we’re likely to become more stuck in our original beliefs, we add new information to our explanations but don’t readily throw out old information. To shift attitudes, new information needs to provide a “causal alternative” to explain our mental models.

OK, so changing our own attitudes is tough but we can counter the stickiness of our attitudes by considering a few things:

  • Values – linking specific actions to important values helps us to shift our attitudes. For example, we could begin to value why we started to work in health: was it job security? desire to help people? because people are constantly changing and different and it’s an exciting intellectual challenge? Whatever the value, we can begin altering the way we act towards the people we see to embrace the similarities between “them” and “us.
  • Goals – we all vary in the level of general action we’re in. We range from being focused and both moving and thinking quickly to being completely inactive (such as when we’re asleep and not dreaming). Research has shown that if we want people to consider a new attitude, we need to frame this in the context of “being active” (Albarracin & Handley, 2011). Perhaps we need to think of the active part we play in pain rehabilitation – and consider the effects of our attitudes accordingly.
  • Language – metaphors are persuasive, and seem to affect the way our attitudes are formed as well as what we do about them. Metaphors provide a way for us to become more psychologically distant from a concept, or more aware of complex psychological constructs. We can use metaphors when we think about how we want to work with people: are we ‘advisors’ or ‘coaches’ or ‘instructors’? Do we work collaboratively – or do we expect obedience? Do we have a partnership, or do we “direct” treatment?

Helping people stick with actions/goals/new habits

There have been mountains of research papers on behaviour change within a rehabilitation context. We’ve all been drilled on the idea of SMART goals (whatever the SMART acronym is meant to stand for!). We are exhorted to “set goals” from the first visit, and in some situations (New Zealand’s ACC rehabilitation process for example) obligates us to “set goals” which then provide a marker for whether treatment has been successful or not. Problem is, as Gardner, Refshauge, McAuley, Hubsher, Goodall & Smith (2018) found, we tend to set goals that we want, in collaboration with the people we’re working with, yes, but not necessarily the goals the person wants. In fact, their study showed that the treatment orientation of the clinician (all physiotherapists in this instance) predicted the degree of involvement from the person, with those therapists holding a stronger biomedical model being less likely to incorporate the person’s own goals.

Now here I’m going to put some of my clinical experience to work rather than focusing on research, though I hope that what I’m suggesting ties into researched ideas! Locke and Latham (1990) are the godfathers of formal goal setting theory, albeit mainly in an organisational development context, however they have provided much of the information we use when working with the people seeking our help. If you’re looking for more information on goal setting, you should probably begin with their material.

What to try:

  • Begin with the end in mind. What does the person want to be able to do? Be wary of goals incorporating things no-one can completely control, such as “be able to win a race” – because someone else, on that day, may be faster that this person. Similarly, I’m wary of goals that talk about “pain-free” or “without flare-up” because we’re not always going to achieve this. Don’t forget to ask the person about what they want!! They probably don’t care too much about a 5 degree improvement in knee flexion – what they want to be able to do is go up and down stairs.
  • Check out importance and particularly confidence when it comes to goals. A goal that’s unimportant will likely fall out of someone’s brain because it doesn’t matter. A goal that’s too challenging will equally be avoided (often not on purpose but because we don’t really like thinking about things we fear we’ll fail at). If the goal isn’t important – tap into values and why it might matter to the person. Change the goal if the person can’t come up with a compelling (ie emotionally resonant) reason to do it. Build confidence by scaffolding support around the person – how can you make it so that the person feels they can be successful? Begin with their ideas first so you build on their sense of self-efficacy.
  • Generate actions to do rather than goals to achieve. Actions are done or not done. Dichomotous. Goals may or may not be achieved depending on a whole bunch of factors. Make the things the person needs to do simple and yes/no.
  • Reminders or cues help. It’s easy to forget to do your pelvic floor exercises after birth, right? But a whole lot easier to remember when they’re tied into every time you use the toilet! Tie the action to an existing habit like when you’re waiting for the jug to boil, you can do your mindfulness. When you’re cleaning your teeth is a good time to do some squats (try it!). Use a cellphone appointment reminder. Record when the action is done. Set a specific time of day – ahead of time.
  • Tracking actions helps keep on track. Graphs are great! Seeing your progress is reinforcing. But make this process easy – can it be done on the phone? Can it be recorded in a simple notebook? Check up on progress often. Problem solve when things don’t go the way you hope.
  • Problem solve the factors that might interfere with doing the action ahead of time. This might mean posing scenario’s – what would happen if the weather was bad? What would you do if you had visitors? What might get in the way of doing this? What could you say to the person who says “Oh come on, you can leave it for today?”
  • Have days off. Absolute goals that are very specific and must happen every single day are likely to fail, and then we fall into the “what the hell” effect – oh I didn’t do X, so what the hell I might as well not do anything. I recommend for daily actions, that we have two days a week where they don’t need to happen. You might want to plan for five walking sessions, and do them all in the first five days – and then have two days off for good behaviour, or even decide you’re on a roll, and do two extra days. Whatever, the person wins because they’ve achieved the original action.

There is no doubt that changing habits is tough. It’s even tougher when there are a lot of changes to implement. And even tougher still when the therapist sits in judgement of the person who is trying to juggle everything while not being at full capacity. I wonder if we as therapists could begin to view our work with people as a truly collaborative affair, where we recognise the incredible challenges the people we see are dealing with. Maybe our New Year’s Resolution could be “how to be a better therapist”.

Albarracın D, Handley IM. (2011). The time for doing is not the time for change: effects of general action and inaction goals on attitude retrieval and attitude change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100(6):983–98

Albarracin, D., & Shavitt, S. (2018). Attitudes and Attitude Change. Annual Review of Psychology, 69(1), 299-327. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011911

Gardner, T., Refshauge, K., McAuley, J., Hübscher, M., Goodall, S., & Smith, L. (2018). Goal setting practice in chronic low back pain. What is current practice and is it affected by beliefs and attitudes? Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 1-11.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Miles E, Crisp RJ. (2014). A meta-analytic test of the imagined contact hypothesis. Group Process. Intergroup Relations. 17(1):3–26


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On the problem of coping


Coping. Lots of meanings, lots of negative connotations, used widely by health professionals, rejected by others (why would you need coping skills if you can get rid of your pain?).

I’ll bet one of the problems with coping is that we don’t really know what we’re defining. Is coping the result of dealing with something? Or is it the process of dealing with something? Or is it the range of strategies used when dealing with something? What if, after having dealt with the ‘something’ that shook our world, the world doesn’t go back to the way it was? What if ‘coping’ becomes a way of living?

The reason this topic came up for me is having just written a review for Paincloud on activity patterns (Cane, Nielson & Mazmanian, 2018), I got to thinking about the way we conceptualise ‘problems’ in life.  It’s like we imagine that life is going along its merry way, then all of a sudden and out of the blue – WHAM! An event happens to stop us in our tracks and we have to deal with it.

But let’s step back for a minute: how many of us have a well-ordered, bimbling existence where life is going along without any hiccoughs?!

Back to coping. The concept of coping is defined by Lazarus and Folkman (1980) as “the cognitive and behavioral efforts made to master, tolerate, or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts among them.” It’s identified as a transactional process and one that occurs within a context where the person has both resources and constraints, and a direction in which he or she wants to go.

By contrast, if we look at the research into coping in people with persistent pain, most of the attention is on the “what the person does” and the resources he or she has (see for example Rosenstiel & Keefe, 1983; Jensen, Turner, Romano & Karoly, 1991; Snow-Turkey, Norris & Tan, 1996; and much more recently, measures of coping by Sleijswer-Koehorst, Bijker, Cuijpers, Scholten-Peeters & Coppieters, in press). There are some studies exploring the goals set by the person (Schmitz, Saile & Nilges, 1996), but few studies examine the context in which the person is coping – nor what happens once the coping efforts are successful.

Measuring coping falls into three main buckets: the repertoire (how many strategies do you have?); the variation (which ones do you use and do they match the demands?); and the fitness approach (the choice of strategy depends on the way a person appraises the situation) (Kato, 2012). Out of these three, Kato chose to develop a measure of coping flexibility. Coping flexibility refers to “the ability to discontinue an ineffective coping strategy, and produce and implement an alternative coping strategy”. The Coping Flexibility Scale aims to measure this ability, based on the idea that by appraising the situation, implementing a strategy, then appraising the effectiveness of that strategy and applying a new one, the person is more effective at dealing with the challenge.

One of the most popular measures of coping for pain is the 14-item Coping Strategies Questionnaire (Riddle & Jensen, 2013). It suggests different ways of coping, some of which are seen as helpful, while others are not. Oddly enough, and why I started writing this blog, it doesn’t include the way we go about daily activities – activity patterns. In the study by Cane, Nielson & Maxmanian (2018), two main forms of activity pattern were found: avoidant-pacing, and  overdoing (as measured by the Patterns of Activity Measure – Pain). The avoidant-pacing group used pacing for daily activity management, but did so with the intention of avoiding flare-ups. The overdoing group just did a lot of activity. After treatment, some people moved group – from the two original groups, two more emerged: avoidant-pacing, pacing, mixed and overdoing. The pacing group basically did what everyone says is a great way to manage pain: picking out the right level of activity and sticking with it, using a quote-based approach. The definition used in this study was “… preplanned strategy that involved breaking activities into smaller parts, alternating periods of activity and rest (or an alternate activity), and using predetermined time intervals (or quotas) to establish when to stop an activity. The description of activity pacing provided to patients identified the goal or function of activity pacing as facilitating the completion of activities and ultimately increasing overall activity and functioning.”

As usual there are vulnerabilities in the way this study was conducted, and the main one for me is the follow-up period is non-existent. The reason I worry about this is that in my daily life, as I’m sure happens in many of yours, my pattern of activity varies wildly from week to week. Some weeks, like the weeks just before I headed to Sunderland for Paincloud, and the weeks just after I got back, were incredibly busy. I pushed myself to get things done because there were a heap of deadlines! This week I plan to have some down-time – this afternoon, in fact, because I want to play with some silversmithing.

And it occurred to me that we expect such a lot from the people we work with who live with pain. We ask all sorts of intrusive questions about daily life and we expect people to be able to recall what they did, why they did it, and to make changes and be consistent about these until we’re satisfied they’re “coping”.

But what if coping is actually the way we live our lives? What if coping involves all the myriad self-evaluative activities we all do – like, how hungry, tired, irritable, frustrated, rushed, achey, restless, enthusiastic, apologetic we feel – and endlessly and constantly adjusting the actions and behaviours we do so we can do what, for a moment or two, we think is The Most Important thing for now.

Life is a constant flowing forward. It’s a stream, an avalanche, a train going one way only. We can’t stop the world to get off. And once we’ve “coped” with something, life doesn’t return to “normal” because we’re different. Maybe our priorities change, or our circumstances have, or we have a new insight into what we want, or we work out the goal we had is more important than we thought. What if we are expecting the people who live with pain to do something we’re not even capable of?

I suppose part of my musing is related to mindfulness. Mindfulness involves continually returning to what I want to pay attention to, and doing so without judgement, and also observing without judgement. But it always involves coming back to what I intend to attend to. On and on and on. And the lovely thing about it is that it’s endlessly gentle and forgiving. Let go of the things I forgot to do, or the rushing towards what needs doing. I wonder what would happen if we encouraged people to be mindful for brief moments throughout the day all day long. Would that encourage coping flexibility? Would it encourage using a broader repertoire of ways of dealing with things? Would it help people to be more aware of everyday choosing and prioritising and managing actions to meet what’s valued in life?

To summarise: currently coping is measured using a “catalogue” of actions, often out of the context of daily decision-making and activity management. Activity management can vary from day to day, hour to hour, month to month. Being flexible with how we go about life seems, at least to me, to depend on my being aware of what’s important to me, what my energy is like, and the context in which I life. How well do we measure these constructs in pain management?

Cane, D., Nielson, W. R., & Mazmanian, D. (2018). Patterns of pain-related activity: replicability, treatment-related changes, and relationship to functioning. Pain, 159(12), 2522-2529.

Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An Analysis of Coping in a Middle-Aged Community Sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21(3), 219-239. doi:10.2307/2136617

Jensen, M. P., Turner, J. A., Romano, J. M., & Karoly, P. (1991). Coping with chronic pain: A critical review of the literature. Pain, 47(3), 249-283. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0304-3959%2891%2990216-K

Kato, T. (2012). Development of the Coping Flexibility Scale: Evidence for the coping flexibility hypothesis. Journal of counseling psychology, 59(2), 262-273.

Riddle, D.L &  Jensen, M.P. (2013). Construct and criterion-based validity of brief pain coping scales in persons with chronic knee osteoarthritis pain. Pain Medicine 14(2):265-275. doi:10.1111/pmc.12007

Rosenstiel, A. K., & Keefe, F. J. (1983). The use of coping strategies in chronic low back pain patients: relationship to patient characteristics and current adjustment. Pain, 17(1), 33-44.

Schmitz, U., Saile, H., & Nilges, P. (1996). Coping with chronic pain: flexible goal adjustment as an interactive buffer against pain-related distress. Pain, 67(1), 41-51.

Sleijser-Koehorst, M. L. S., Bijker, L., Cuijpers, p., Scholten-Peeters, G. G. M., & Coppieters, M. Preferred self-administered questionnaires to assess fear of movement, coping, self-efficacy and catastrophizing in patients with musculoskeletal pain – A modified Delphi study. Pain. in press

Snow-Turek, A. L., Norris, M. P., & Tan, G. (1996). Active and passive coping strategies in chronic pain patients. Pain, 64(3), 455-462. doi:10.1016/0304-3959(95)00190-5

Pain science is not a thing


Today’s post is occasioned by reading several discussions on various forums where the term “pain science” and various adjectives to describe this kind of practice. For those who don’t want to read the rest of my ramblings: no, it’s not a thing, science is an approach to understanding phenomena, and I would have thought all health professionals would use a science-based approach to treatment.

I went on to Google, as you do, to find out when this term began its rise in popularity. Google wasn’t particularly helpful but did show that it’s been around since 2004 at least, and seems to have been centred around the US, UK and Australia in roughly May 2004. I can’t grab data from earlier than this, sadly, but I think it’s interesting to take a look at the popularity peaks and troughs…

So, what does “pain science” mean to commentators? I haven’t delved in too deeply to the social media use of the term, but given I’m a social animal and have written my blog since 2007 (which is mainly on “pain science”) I’ve encountered it many times. It seems to be related to using a neurobiological explanation for pain as an experience (referring to the phenomenon and the underlying biological processes involved) rather than focusing purely on biomechanics or tissue damage/nociception as the key force. And it does seem to tie in with the emergence of “Explain pain” as one way of helping people reconceptualise their experience as something they can influence rather than something other people need to “fix”.

Commentators who aren’t in love with the “explain pain” thing have said things like “the pain science camp” or as one person put it “There’s your manual PTs, your pain science PTs, and your just load it PTs etc”

I went on to Twitter and the hashtag #painscience was paired with #BPSModel and #PT and #physicaltherapy (or variations), #chronicpain #exercise #lowbackpain – and so on.

So what do I think pain science means if it’s not a neurobiological approach to pain management? Well – pain science is a lot like cardio-respiratory science, and neurological science, and psychological science – it’s about applying a scientific approach to understanding pain. Science has been defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In this instance, Google is your friend. So science is about systematically studying phenomena through observation and experimenting. If we apply this to pain – it’s the systematic study of structure and behaviour of the phenomenon we call ‘pain’ through observation and experiment. For what it’s worth, scientific study of pain has been going on since… oh at least Descartes, but probably much earlier given that pain is a ubiquitous and essential part of human experience.

To me, understanding pain involves multiple disciplines: yes to biology, and especially neurobiology because the experience (as we understand it now) involves neurobiological processing. But it’s also about psychology
the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context; sociology – the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society; the humanities – the study of how people process and document the human experience; politics – the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power; and Anthropology –  the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life.

So to describe an entire approach to understanding a phenomenon as if it’s a “movement” or “camp” or “dogma” or even “tribe” suggests serious  misunderstanding of both science and of an intervention.

What is “explain pain” then, or pain neurobiology education? – it’s an explanation of some of the biological elements of our nociceptive system as they combine to produce the experience we know as pain. For some people it’s the first time anyone took the trouble to explain why the pain of a papercut feels so bad compared with, for example, the pain of a sprained ankle; and why they still experience pain despite having no “damage” as visible on imaging. It’s an attempt to give people a frame of reference from which to understand their own journey towards recovering from a painful injury/disease/problem. In itself it’s not new: explanations for pain have been used in pain management programmes since the 1970’s (and earlier, if we consider that Fordyce used explanations in his behavioural approaches to pain management), and have routinely drawn on current pain research to help provide explanations that make sense to both the person and the clinician. The distinction between earlier explanations which drew heavily on the gate control theory, and this latest iteration is that the explanations are more complex, pain is considered to be an “output” that emerges from multiple interactions between brain and body, and that’s about it. Oh and it’s been picked up and enthusiastically used by physiotherapists (and other primarily body therapists) around the world.

What’s the evidence for this approach? Well, IMHO it’s not intended to be a stand-alone “treatment” for most people experiencing pain. I see giving an explanation as integral to usual practice, just as we do when we explain why it’s not a good idea to go running on a newly sprained ankle or why we’re suggesting a mindfulness to someone with a panic disorder. So far there have been a lot of studies examining variants of “explaining pain” alone or in combination with a number of other treatments including exercise. A recent systematic review and meta-analsyis of “pain neuroscience education” for chronic low back pain found eight papers (with 615 participants) showing that in the short-term, this kind of education reduces disability (by 2.28 points on the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire which is a 24 point scale) in the short-term and a slightly lesser effect in the long-term  (2.18). There were greater effects when this was combined with physiotherapy, though we often don’t know exactly what is included in “physiotherapy”.  There was some evidence that this kind of education helps reduce pain scores (by 1.32) but only in combination with other physiotherapy interventions. The authors pointed out that the strength of evidence for education on pain in the short term was low to moderate, but that it doesn’t have much of an impact on pain-related fear and avoidance, or on pain catastrophising (Wood & Hendrick, in press).

To compare this with another active treatment, exposure therapy for fear of movement/reinjury in chronic low back pain, de Jong, Vlaeyen, Onghena, Goossens, Geilen & Mulder (2005) performed a careful study of six individuals, using a single case experimental design. (If you’re not familiar with this approach to research – it’s extremely rigorous and useful in a clinical setting, this link takes you to a chapter discussing its use).  The aim was to establish which part of treatment “did the work” to change behaviour, but also measured pain intensity, and fear of pain and movement.  The treatments were information about pain and mechanisms, and the activities were those the person particularly wanted to be able to do. Their findings identified that explanations do little to pain intensity, avoidance or fear – but what actually worked was doing graded exposure. In other words, experiencing something different, DOING that something different in the real world, was more effective than talking about why someone shouldn’t be afraid. A much more recent replication of this study was conducted by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skoluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and shows the same result: doing trumps talking about doing.

When we sit down and take a cold hard look at what we do in pain management we can see that the field has to draw on a huge range of disciplines and fields of study to understand the problems people experiencing pain have. This is, in fact, why Bonica and colleagues first established the International Association for the Study of Pain, and why multidisciplinary (and now interprofessional) pain management teams and approaches were established. None of us can possibly hold all the knowledge needed to work effectively in the area. At the same time, as health professionals working with people, we do need to have some foundation knowledge about biology, disease, illness, psychology, sociology and anthropology. These areas of study inform us as we work hard to help people get their heads around their pain. Do we need to be experts in all of these fields? Yes – if you work completely in isolation. No – if you work within an extended team (whether co-located or otherwise). Pain research will continue to push our understanding ahead – and to be responsible health professionals, we must incorporate new understandings into our practice or we risk being unprofessional and irrelevant. I would go as far as to say we’re irresponsible and harming patients if we fail to incorporate what is known about pain as a multidimensional experience. It’s time to back away from temporary guruism and move towards a far more nuanced, and perhaps less flighty approach to understanding pain.

Pain science. No, it’s not a thing. Pain being examined through multiple scientific lenses: definitely a thing.

NB for the avoidance of doubt: pain is never a “thing” but examining pain through multiple scientific lenses involves many “things”. (Merriam-Webster – click)


de Jong, J. R. M., Vlaeyen, J. W. S. P., Onghena, P. P., Goossens, M. E. J. B. P., Geilen, M. P. T., & Mulder, H. O. T. (2005). Fear of Movement/(Re)injury in Chronic Low Back Pain: Education or Exposure In Vivo as Mediator to Fear Reduction? [Article]. Clinical Journal of Pain Special Topic Series: Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Chronic Pain January/February, 21(1), 9-17.

Schemer, L., Vlaeyen, J. W., Doerr, J. M., Skoluda, N., Nater, U. M., Rief, W., & Glombiewski, J. A. (2018). Treatment processes during exposure and cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic back pain: A single-case experimental design with multiple baselines. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 108, 58-67.

Wood, L., & Hendrick, P. A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of pain neuroscience education for chronic low back pain: Short-and long-term outcomes of pain and disability. European Journal of Pain, 0(0). doi:doi:10.1002/ejp.1314


Wandering back from the IASP World Congress


Meetings, meanderings, mind-expansions

I’ve been away for abut 10 days, attending the World Congress of the International Association for the Study of Pain. It was a time of meetings with wonderful people I’ve met via the interwebs, with researchers and clinicians, and most importantly, with people living with pain.

It was also a time for meanderings – around the very walkable city of Boston, embracing history and looking towards the future, and mind meanderings as well.

And because it was a conference, it was also mind-expanding. New ideas, new ways of investigating this human experience of pain, new discoveries, and new applications.

… and expanding the way we help people who live with pain.

What struck me between the eyeballs?

Good things: for the first time, people living with pain were included in the proceedings. I’m reminded of the old saying from the disabilities movement “Nothing about us without us” – well, it’s finally arrived at the World Congress! There are some concerns about this move amongst clinicians, and there’s no doubt that some of the people I’ve seen for whom the experience of being seen about their pain has been disheartening, stigmatising and frustrating, are very angry. I think, though, that continuing to avoid meeting with people who are in this space serves only to fuel their rage, and perhaps it’s time for us as clinicians to learn what it is about their experiences that we can learn from.

Professor Fiona Blyth talking about the Global Burden of Disability – 21%

Another “between the eyeballs” moment was when Professor Fiona Blyth discussed the knowledge that 21% of the total global burden of disability, and that this is increasing more quickly in developing countries because of the rapidly increasing percentage of older people (with multiple MSK comorbidities) – but here’s the kicker: There has been little-to-no change in funding policies to reflect this increasing burden of disease. You read that right. Funding goes to diseases that can kill you – but very little goes to the diseases that simply leave you disabled for the rest of your days.

Not so good things: Well, much of the research shows that change is incremental and that while strategies like exercise have reasonably good research support what actually matters is that exercise gets done: the form of exercise for persistent pain is a whole lot less more important than issues of adherence (Professor Kathleen Sluka’s plenary lecture showed this).

There was a good focus on behavioural science and pain, disability and response to treatment. And plenty of emphasis on sharing the responsibility for using psychologically-informed treatments with all health professionals, not just psychologists.

Why have I included this in my “not so good things”? Because a very recent Twitter discussion suggests that there continues to be a misperception that by using a psychologically-informed treatment, the aetiology of a pain problem is therefore assumed to be psychological.

There continues to be tussling over whether a biopsychosocial (or sociopsychobiological) model has sufficient emphasis on “the bio”, along with misinterpreting the historic origins of Engel’s thinking. Various people argue that “all is bio” or “but it’s reductionist” – yet readers of Engel’s original writings will recognise an interactional systems approach, where an effect in one factor will likely have flow-on effects everywhere else.

The final “not so good” for me was the dearth of discussion about occupational therapy’s historic and ongoing involvement in pain and pain management. There were at least 20 occupational therapists at the meeting, and despite Fordyce including occupational therapists in his original behavioural approach to disability (Fordyce, Fowler & Delateur, 1968), scant evidence of occupational therapy’s important contribution to this field over the years.

This is important because occupational therapy is one of the few professions to have adopted, retained and integrated a sociopsychobiological approach to healthcare. If you’re ever thinking about asking “how does one profession use the BPS model?” maybe talking with an occupational therapist will help you.

I was lucky to have a chance to offer a piece of research conducted by Brian Rutledge and me, looking at the function of an online discussion group (yes! Facebook!). The purpose was to establish whether the group Exploring Pain Science functions as a “Community of Practice“. The answer is a resounding Yes! and you can review the poster here – click

There will be a paper forthcoming, and some further analysis of the processes used in this group.

…Why look at Facebook groups?

Well, one reason is that there was a resounding call for knowledge translation – and all manner of ways thought to be useful in this pursuit. But as far as I am aware, using Facebook groups (especially ones that have emerged “organically”) is both a popular strategy – and one that has been under-examined in pain research – for people trying to implement what they’ve read or heard from research into their daily practice.

Hope this very brief tour through just a couple of the things I’ve been pondering since this World Congress will encourage YOU and others to join IASP. It truly represents the only global organisation that is transprofessional, wedded to a biopsychosocial model of pain, and one that is progressing our understanding of pain so much.


Fordyce, W. E., Fowler, R. S., & Delateur, B. (1968). An Application of Behavior Modification Technique to a Problem of Chronic Pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(1), 105-107.


What it means to be a therapist


I wrote the following response to a discussion held recently on a Facebook group Exploring Pain Science – about the term “catastrophising”. It’s a term that elicits great anger and frustration from people living with persistent pain, and I see the term used poorly by clinicians as a judgement about another’s experience. There’s certainly plenty of research showing relationships between high levels of “thinking the worst” about pain, and poorer outcomes – but HOW we as clinicians respond to someone in distress may be more of a problem than the act of a person describing their fears and worries about the future. This is what I wrote:

I’ve been pondering – I think I see people as doing the absolute best they can to make the best decisions they can based on what they know at the time. And “knowing” means all the messy uncertainty, lack of logic, emotion and coercion from others! So whatever a person is doing to manage is the best they can do. All I can do is offer some options that I’ve seen other people use, maybe provide some more information, maybe even more accurate information, support people to be guided by what they see as important (usually values), and be there for them as they make their own minds up about what to do next. I’m a cheerleader, encyclopaedia, visualiser (lay out the options in a way that makes sense), perhaps a guide but only in so far as helping people notice things they hadn’t before.

To me, if someone is thinking the worst, it could be that they don’t have all the information about their resilience that they need, it might be misinformation about what’s happening in their body, it could be conclusions that over-estimate the threat and under-estimate resilience. It might also be difficulty pulling the mind away from sticky thoughts that stop clear thinking, or as one researcher called it “misdirected problem solving” – a way for the mind to remind the person that there’s an unresolved situation. It might also be feelings of helplessness, feeling like there is no point in trying anything new because nothing works anyway, a sense of not having enough energy to keep trying…

Those aren’t necessarily inaccurate thoughts, but they’re certainly not helpful thoughts, especially at 3.00am! So temporarily at least it seems helpful to bear witness to that person’s distress, to make room to be present, not to judge or dismiss but to allow those worst fears to be recognised. Sometimes bringing the worst fears out into the light shows that they can be managed better than expected, sometimes they fade into nothing, and sometimes they allow someone else to be there and support when the person’s run out of puff.

While I can understand how the language of uninvolved clinicians hurts because so often they fail to acknowledge the real distress of the person, I can still recognise that many of the contents of thoughts and beliefs won’t happen, – those scenarios are there wanting recognition, but they may not happen. If they do there will be things to do then – but mostly, when I catastrophise, I use it as energy to recognise how lacking I feel. And that’s not a nice place to be, but it’s simultaneously true (I lack) and untrue (others have what I need).

There’s a process I use for myself called creative catastrophising. I write down my worst fears, get them out on paper, make them visible. Sometimes that’s all I need to do. Other times I begin planning “what if X disaster happened, what would I do” – and when I’m in the right frame of mind, I can figure out a way to get by. I can’t tell anyone else to do that – but it’s a strategy that’s stood me in good stead as I’ve gone through the ups and downs of my life. It’s one way I cope.

Clinicians, if you can bear witness to another’s distress, without wanting to change, fix, judge or DO anything apart from being fully present, you’ll be doing the very best thing you can. The time for doing something “to help” is just around the corner – whatever you do, do NOT tell the person “you’re catastrophising” because this immediately means you’ve moved from being with to judging.

Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing – Theodore Roosevelt


I’m not certain Theodore Roosevelt actually said that – but who cares?! It’s a great statement. For the person living with persistent pain, though, it can be the last thing you want to hear. After all, it’s tough enough getting up and just doing the normal things let alone challenge yourself! So… how can a health professional help?

Let’s briefly recap. Self efficacy is the confidence I can do something successfully if I wanted to. It’s a robust predictor of many health behaviours including exercise, stopping smoking, eating healthily and coping well with persistent pain (Jackson, Wang, Wang & Fan, 2014; Williams & Rhodes, 2016). It was first introduced as a concept by Bandura as part of his theoretical model of behaviour change, and further discussed in an experimental study in a paper investigating systematic desensitisation processes, arguing that this approach to treatment created and strengthened expectations of personal efficacy (Bandura & Adams, 1977). Bandura argued that people develop a sense (expectation) of self efficacy from their own performance, watching others succeed, being persuaded by someone that yes indeed you have the skills to achieve, and also awareness of physiological arousal from which people can judge their own level of anxiety.

Self efficacy is more than a simple “general confidence” construct, however. It’s far more selective than this. For example, although I believe I can successfully dance in my lounge with no-one there and the curtains closed, this does not translate to me dancing on a stage on my own in the spotlights with an audience watching! Self efficacy refers to confidence to succeed and produce the outcome I desire in a given context – and that’s extremely important for pain management, and in particular, exercise for people experiencing pain.

How does self efficacy improve outcomes? There are at least two ways: (1) through the actions taken to manage or control pain (for example, gradually increasing activity levels but not doing too much) and (2) managing the situations associated with pain (for example, people with low self efficacy may avoid activities that increase pain, or cope by using more medication (Jackson, Wang, Wang & Fan, 2014).

To examine how self efficacy affects outcomes, Jackson and colleagues (2014) conducted a meta-analysis of papers examining this variable along with other important outcomes. Overall effect sizes for relationships between self efficacy and all chronic pain outcomes were medium and highly significant. This is really important stuff – we don’t find all that many studies where a single variable has this much predictive power!

As a moderator, the adjusted overall effect size (r=.50) of self efficacy and impairment was larger than the average effect sizes of meta-analyses on relations between disability and fear-avoidance beliefs, and pain as a threat for future damage and challenge for future opportunities. Self efficacy has stronger links with impairment than cognitive factors such as fear-avoidance beliefs and primary appraisals of pain (Jackson, Wang, Wang & Fan, 2014).  Age and duration of pain were the strongest moderators of these associations and suggest that reduced self-efficacy can become entrenched over time. In other words – as time passes, people experience fewer opportunities for success and begin to expect they won’t ever manage their pain well.

An important point is made by these authors: how we measure self efficacy matters. They found that self efficacy measures tapping “confidence in the capacity to function despite pain” had
stronger associations with impairment than did those assessing confidence in controlling pain or managing other symptoms.

Bolstering self efficacy – not just about telling people they can do it!

Given that self efficacy is domain-specific, or a construct that refers to confidence to do actions that lead to success in specified situations, here are a few of my questions:

  • Why are most people attending pain management programmes provided with gym-based programmes that don’t look at lot like the kinds of things people have to do in daily life? It’s like there’s an expectation that “doing exercise” – any exercise – is enough to improve a person’s capabilities.

    BUT while this might increase my confidence to (a) do exercise and (b) do it in a gym – but does it mean I’ll be more confident to return to work? Or do my housework?

  • How often are people attending gyms told to “push on”, or to “stop if it hurts”? And what effect does this have on people?

If their confidence is low, being told “just do it” is NOT likely to work. People need to experience that it’s possible to do things despite pain – and I think, to be able to handle a flare-up successfully. Now this is not going to happen if we adopt the line that getting rid of all pain is the aim, and that flare-ups should be avoided. If we want people to deal successfully with the inevitable flare-ups that occur, especially with low back pain, then we need to (a) be gentle, and grade the activities in an appropriate way (b) have some “ways of coping” we can introduce to people rather than simply telling them they can cope or reducing the demands (c) have other people around them also coping well (and that includes us health professionals)

  • Ensure we attribute change to the person, not to us.

That’s right: not to our sparkling personality, not to our special exercises, not to the machines we use, not to the techniques we have – you get the drift? Progress must be attributed to the person and his or her skills and perseverance. Because, seriously, all this arguing over which exercise regime is best doesn’t stack up when it’s actually self efficacy that predicts a good outcome.

And for case managers who may read this: just because someone has successfully completed an exercise programme, or a vocational programme with exercise as a component, this does not mean the person can manage successfully at work. Well, they may manage – but they may utterly lack confidence that they can. Context matters.

 

Bandura, A., & Adams, N. E. (1977). Analysis of self-efficacy theory of behavioral change. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(4), 287-310.

Estlander AM, Takala EP, Viikari-Juntura E., (1998). Do psychological factors predict changes in musculoskeletal pain? A prospective, two-year follow-up study of a working population. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 40:445-453

Jackson, T., Wang, Y., Wang, Y., & Fan, H. (2014). Self-efficacy and chronic pain outcomes: A meta-analytic review. The Journal of Pain, 15(8), 800-814.

Williams, D. M., & Rhodes, R. E. (2016). The confounded self-efficacy construct: Conceptual analysis and recommendations for future research. Health Psychology Review, 10(2), 113-128.

The confidence that you’ll succeed if you try…


Self efficacy. It’s a word bandied about a lot in pain management, and for a group of clinicians in NZ, it’s been a shock to find out that – oh no! They’re not supporting self efficacy with their patients very much! It means “confidence that if I do this under these conditions, I’ll be successful”.

Self efficacy is part of Bandura’s social learning theory (click here for the Wikipedia entry) where he proposed that much of psychological treatment is driven by a common underlying mechanism: to create and strengthen expectations of personal effectiveness. Bandura recognised that we don’t always have to personally experiment through trial and error in order to learn. Self efficacy expectations were thought to develop from personal experience (let me do, and I’ll learn how); watching other people try (show me, and I’ll see if you succeed, then I’ll copy you); verbal persuasion that aims to convince that you have the capabilities to manage successfully (encourage me, let me know I can, and I’ll try); and how physiologically aroused or alert you are (if I feel confident inside, I’ll try but if I feel anxious or stressed I’m less inclined to) (Bandura, 1977).

Bandura and colleagues established that “different treatment approaches alter expectations of personal efficacy, and the more dependable the source of efficacy information, the greater are the changes in self-efficacy.” (Bandura & Adams, 1977, p. 288). The conclusions drawn from this mean that treatments where people DO and succeed are more effective at enhancing their belief in self efficacy, while watching others, or being told how to do something are far weaker at building this effect.

Bandura began working on this theory while pondering how psychological treatments, particularly for systematic desensitisation or graded exposure, generated their effects. Systematic desensitisation aimed to reduce arousal levels and thus avoidance while being in a relaxed state – therefore the person is exposed to increasingly “aversive” stimuli (stimuli you want to avoid) while remaining calm and relaxed. Bandura thought that there were other factors involved in avoidance behaviour, developing his theory that expectations of negative consequences alone can generate fear and defensive behaviour and that this isn’t necessarily reflected in autonomic arousal and actions. Bandura hypothesised that reducing physiological arousal improved performance not by eliminating a drive to escape – but instead by increasing the confidence that the person can successfully manage the situation.

For parents, the idea that if you believe you can do what you set out to do, is embodied in the little book “The Little Engine That Could” (Piper, 1930/1989). Remember? The little engine that couldn’t because all the bigger engines said so, but then tried and tried and believed he could – and he did!

So, what does this have to do with pain management?

Let’s paint a scenario. Allan comes to see a hands-on therapist because he has a sore back. He believes that hands-on therapy is the thing, because others have said it’s really good. He goes, gets his treatment and wow! Things improve! The next time he has a sore back (because, you know, it almost always comes back) what does he do? Well, on the basis of his past experience, he heads to his hands-on therapist, because he’s confident this will help his pain. The problem is, his therapist has moved town. He’s a bit stuck now because in his town there are not many therapists doing this particular kind of treatment – what does he do? He doesn’t believe that anyone else can help, and he has no belief that he can manage by himself. He has little self efficacy for managing his own back pain.

Self efficacy is not about whether a person can do certain movements, it’s about believing that the person can organise skills to achieve goals within a changing context – not just what I will do, under duress, but what I can do, what I’m capable of doing, and what I say I’ll probably do.

Self efficacy is not a belief that a specific behaviour will lead to a certain outcome in a certain situation, it’s the belief that I can perform that behaviour to produce the outcome.

So, self efficacy isn’t a generalised attitude – it’s a specific belief about certain actions, certain outcomes in certain situations. It’s not a personality trait like hardiness, or resilience, or general confidence or self-esteem, it’s about being confident that I can generate a solution to a problem in a particular part of my life.

The times when we’re least confident are often when we’re facing a new experience, or we’ve had a bad experience previously. Particularly if we’ve seen other people fail at the same thing, or succeed but do so with much fear and loathing. In the case of pain, there are ample opportunities to have a bad experience in the past, and to learn from other people around us that – oooh back pain is something to be afraid of, and you can’t manage it alone – you need to get help from someone else. Consequently, many people have very low self efficacy for successfully dealing with a bout of low back pain.

And health professionals: we can foster this.

How? By implying that success is due to what we do, rather than being a natural process of recovery. By suggesting it’s something about our “magic hands” or pills, or injections or surgery or special exercises, or “using the core correctly”. In doing so, we’re generating a belief that the person cannot manage alone. That it’s not what the person does, but the magic hands, pills, injections, surgery, special exercises or using the core…

Damush, Kroenke, Bair, Wu, Tu, Krebs and Poleshuck (2016) found that self management approaches to pain increase self efficacy, self management actions, and reduced pain intensity and depression in a group of community patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain and depression. A typically tough group to work with because confidence to succeed at anything is pretty low in depression. Self management aims to ensure the credit for recovery lies with the person doing things that help – creating and supporting a belief that the person has the capability to successfully manage their situation. The techniques? Simple strengthening and stretching exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualisation, in a group setting. Strategies that typically don’t need technology, but do provide support. Information about the natural history of recovery was included – so people were given realistic and optimistic information about their recovery, whether it meant pain reduction, or not. The usual goal setting, problem-solving, and positive self talk were encouraged, and people set goals each week to achieve – maybe based on something from the session, or something the person wanted to do for themselves.

This is not a high-tech approach. This is simple, straightforward pain management as it has been done for years (right back as far as the mid-1970’s and Sternberg!). And through it, these people become increasingly confident that they could successfully manage their own mood and pain independently. As a business model it’s probably not the best for repeat business – but oh how good for those participants who could go away and live their lives without having to think of themselves as patients.

More on self efficacy in the next couple of weeks – we can help people to become confident that they can succeed at managing their pain if it should happen again.

 

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review,  84, 191-215.

Bandura, A., & Adams, N. E. (1977). Analysis of self-efficacy theory of behavioral change. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(4), 287-310.

Damush, T., Kroenke, K., Bair, M., Wu, J., Tu, W., Krebs, E., & Poleshuck, E. (2016). Pain self‐management training increases self‐efficacy, self‐management behaviours and pain and depression outcomes. European Journal of Pain, 20(7), 1070-1078.

Maddux, J. E. (2016). Self-efficacy Interpersonal and intrapersonal expectancies (pp. 55-60): Routledge.

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (iv)


The fourth step in learning to sleep well within an ACT framework, is build. My previous posts were: Discover and Accept and Welcome.

In build, we’re beginning to build new practices. This is about learning how much sleep you need, and when you need to head to bed and wake up again.

I know when I had trouble sleeping at night (I refused to call it insomnia, but it most definitely was!), I thought I’d tried everything to help. I had used all the sleep hygiene strategies like no devices in bed, no TV in bed, do some relaxation as I lay down, have a regular bed-time and wake-up time – and one of the things I tried to do was eliminate coffee after lunchtime. While most of the time coffee isn’t a problem for me, I learned that when I was vulnerable to not sleeping, coffee and similar substances (including chocolate and alcohol) were not good for me. And today I still don’t drink coffee after lunch and limit myself to three or so cups a day.

So… what’s different about ACT and this stage of learning to sleep again?

Well, people with pain often talk about being interrupted by their pain – of waking up in the middle of the night because of pain and then not being able to get back to sleep. While there is some truth to the idea that we wake because of pain, in fact we all wake up over the course of a night. You’ll know the typical “sleep architecture” (click here for a nice explanation) where we fall into a deep stage of sleep fairly soon after heading to bed, and that we have periods of REM or rapid eye movement sleep (dreaming sleep) at regular intervals over the night. What you may not be as aware of is that in the periods just before and just after REM sleep, we’re actually awake. Not very awake – but awake enough to roll over and get comfy again. If your bladder does what mine does, I usually have a quick trip to the loo around 2.30ish, and go right back to sleep again.

When you have pain, chances are greater than you are more aware of those lighter periods of sleep and, like I do with my bladder, notice that you are awake. If you then start noticing your pain… or your worries… or your mind starts dropping comments to you, then it’s possible you’ll stay awake. Partly this is because the biological drive to fall into a deep sleep at the beginning of the night has been partly satisfied. Partly also because experiences like pain are very salient or important. So are noises (the cry of a baby, that tapping sound on the window, the car roaring down the road) and during the lighter periods of sleep we’re more likely to wake fully rather than just roll over. We’re not actually waking more often as much as waking more fully, and perhaps for longer than normal.

Building new patterns means some basic “rules” – but rules that are held lightly. In other words, it’s fine to change things up a little from time to time (after all, birthdays, travel, having a cold, or getting a puppy are all things that can disrupt sleep), but broadly these things seem to be habits of good sleepers:

  1. Heading to bed around the same time-ish each night (or within 20 – 30 minutes of this time). Same applies to waking up – and to help you wake, an alarm clock (I do use my phone for this), and in winter, I use a bright SAD light, and bump up the temperature on my electric blanket. Light and warmth both tend to make you wake up a bit more quickly, so it’s helpful for me during winter when I have seasonal affective disorder (winter depression).
  2. Knowing that it’s normal to take around 10 – 15 minutes to fall asleep, and being OK with this.
  3. Changing how long you sleep for will take a few weeks – it’s a habit! So don’t go changing your bedtime or wakeup time too often. If you’re using sleep restriction (going to bed a little later than normal, perhaps getting up a little earlier) you can return to a more “normal” length as part of fine-tuning how long you need to sleep for your needs. But, don’t change things too often!
  4. If you have a late night out (or if you’re travelling over a time zone or two), try to get up at your usual time. Yes, this means keeping the same wake time over the weekends as the week days!
  5. Develop a kind of “wind down” habit – but again, hold this lightly because sometimes there are enjoyable events on late, or you have people visiting, that may mean you’re a little more alert than normal. But on the whole, basically spend around 30 – 45 minutes giving your mind signals that you’re heading to bed. This means cleaning your teeth, checking the doors, stopping watching TV or going on devices, maybe get into your jimjams (PJs!) and heading to bed with a book or magazine.
  6. When you’re in bed, just quietly lying there, letting thoughts wander in and out without getting caught up in the content, and you’ll notice yourself quietly falling asleep. This is totally normal. If you do get caught up in your mind chatter, as soon as you notice you are gently bring your attention to your breathing and the sensations of lying in bed, and this should (at this point in your journey) help you fall asleep.

You can see it’s not too different from what I hope you’ve been practicing all along – just that instead of fighting with those thoughts, or getting all tangled up in them, you’ve got skills to let them go, and just be there in the darkness, resting.

There are a lot of specific issues you may also encounter – things like your partner who snores like a chainsaw, or twitches all night long (I’m the guilty party here!); or when you have a cold or a stuffy nose – the former might take a little longer to deal with, but the latter is usually just for a week or so and I tend to be happy using decongestants just for those few nights when I cannot breathe…. As for the partner noise or twitching, like dealing with your thoughts this is probably about you dealing with your thoughts about the noise or twitching! Again, try welcoming or being willing to listen to or feel those habits. Making some room for them rather than getting caught up in thoughts of smothering him or her! And go back to your usual mindfulness practice.

Finally – the last step is living! We tend to put life on hold when we try to control rotten sleep patterns.  Now it’s time to know that while sleeping badly can come again from time to time, you have skills to roll with it – you know you can manage if you avoid fighting with it or trying to control it. Take those steps to build your new sleep habit, and go out there and DO again!

 

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (iii)


More on sleeping the ACT way. Step one was discover – all the things you’re doing to help yourself sleep, but in your attempts to control the uncontrollable (thoughts, feelings, memories, worries, sensations, the environment and so on). And hopefully you’ve seen that these things can be counter-productive. That flash new pillow and bed is pretty useless if you travel somewhere. The pills need to be stopped at some point – and then you have to withdraw from them. And the thoughts, and sensations (including pain) just carry right on there not matter what you do.

So step two is to accept: accept what you can control, and what you can’t. Radically, this means changing some of the things you do to get to sleep – like pills (but get medical help for this process), doing relaxation, wearing your eyeshades and earplugs, getting up and doing things when you can’t sleep. It usually means a bit of mind chatter!

The common mind chatter is “I’ll fail”; “I know I won’t sleep and then I’ll be useless the next day”; “if I can’t sleep with my pills and earplugs, how will I sleep without them?”; “I’ll feel lousy the next day”; “I’ve slept this badly my entire life, it’s too late for me”; “why me? It’s a punishment”; “but I’ve got [a new job, a baby, a puppy, going on holiday]”; “I’m too tired”

It’s likely, as you begin doing this, you’ll be in bed wide awake – and it’s at this point you can choose. In that moment, you can decide to listen to your mind – or think of your mind as holding an opinion, but one you do not have to follow. In ACT language, what you’re doing here is learning to accept, or be willing to sit with (lie with), to make room for not sleeping rather than struggling to control it. You can’t control your risk factors, you can’t control that you’ve learned to be awake at this time. You can’t control your thoughts about this – but you can lie there and just notice the things your mind is dumping on your doorstep. This isn’t “giving up” – this is radical willingness to come alongside and be with your own sleeplessness.

The best way to learn to do this is – you guessed it, mindfulness.

Now mindfulness is NOT about getting you to fall asleep. You may fall asleep or feel drowsy which is cool, but if you try to use mindfulness “to fall asleep” you’re again trying to control the problem and mindfulness can then become an empty process. You ARE allowed to let your mind wander… just gently bring it back to where you want it to be. Practicing mindfulness can be done anywhere and everywhere – for a few short seconds while cleaning your teeth, sitting in the car, walking through a door – or longer, like at the end of the day, or in the morning.

Some ways to be mindful: notice your senses by bringing your mind to sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touch. Just list all the things you experience – like “a bird chirp”, “the weight of my legs on the seat”, “the smell of coffee”…and as your mind wanders off, as it will, bring it back gently to what you want to focus on.

Another one to try: close your eyes for a few seconds and notice any thoughts or images that pop into your mind. List it – thought, image, work worry, dinner planning.

This skill is one of the most important and useful skills when you’re learning to sleep again. When you lie in bed wide awake, it’s easy to get caught up in the content of what your mind is bringing to  you, rather than just noticing that you are thinking. The problem is, thoughts your mind brings often lead to that heart thump and dry mouth that keeps you wide awake! Instead, directing your focus on to your breathing, or your body contact on the bed, are simple things that help you just notice and be in the present.

If you have pain, mindfulness is one way of letting you experience the ache without that “Oh no, it’s really bad tonight” judgements of that ache. Gently letting yourself notice where you’re sore – and equally, where you’re not sore – and guiding your mind around your body, noticing every part, the painful and the non-painful – allows you to be present with your pain, without fighting against it. Practicing this skill many times during the day really helps you develop this skill. And don’t be surprised if your mind starts trying to either judge or solve the problem of pain, because that is simply the mind doing what it’s done since forever. Be kind to your mind, and bring your attention back to your breath, or your left earlobe, or your belly button, or your little toe…

At night, in bed, mindfulness is not about helping you relax and fall asleep. What it’s there for is to help you guide your mind away from being caught up in the content of your thoughts or feelings or sensations, and back onto just noticing that you are thinking, and bringing your attention onto something like your breath. It can be scary doing this at night because we often want to get out of bed or control what we’re thinking and force ourselves into sleep. And you know it doesn’t work! What mindfulness does is let your brain and mind know that being awake isn’t a threat – remember the flight, fright, freeze response? By letting your mind know you’re not buying into the horror stories, and instead you’re being OK with simply lying there noticing, you’re teaching your mind to let go of the struggle.

  • Start with feeling the sensation of the bed against your body, from the toes to the head. When your mind begins “minding”, bring your attention to your breath. If you get the urge to move or get up (actually, your mind brings the urge), notice it and choose to stay in bed, and bring your attention back to your breath or touch.

Welcome: You’ll find your mind will have a good go at dumping scary thoughts on you when you decide to be present and stay. Remember it’s your mind’s opinions – and be gentle with your thoughts, feelings and yourself. Stay with it, notice your breathing, make room to feel a bit tired (because you were going to be tired anyway, right?!), and be kind, but firm, with your mind, and bring your attention to your breath yet again. You’re resting your body while you’re lying down, and that’s a good thing.

If you find you have a frequent flyer – a thought or worry or sensation that comes visiting when you’re trying to sleep  – you can simply name it “Hi worry”, or “thinking”, or “here you are scared”, or “back again, pain”. Welcoming the thoughts or feelings may feel odd –  but once you’ve noticed it, labelled it, and then welcomed it, go back to your breathing or noticing your body. You can become quite creative with this process – if you have a vivid imagination for visual images, try projecting your thoughts onto a movie screen, or turning them into cartoon letters, or characters from a movie (my pain is a grumpy witch!), or a ball of string all tangled up, or a scrunched towel.  Some people have taken to imagining their thoughts as different voices – squeaky “I’m scared” or deep “I’ll never sleep tonight” – these strategies are ways to help you step back from the content of what your mind is telling you, and see your thoughts as simply thoughts made by your mind.

Click to the next post

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (ii)


Last week I described the “conventional” CBT for insomnia approach (CBTi), but this week I want to introduce an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach which is superficially similar to CBTi but holds to some of the fundamental principles of ACT: mindfulness, and letting go of control. As is typical for ACT, there are no hard and fast absolutes and instead there is a focus on workability – what works, in context.

Most of the content of today’s post is drawn from my personal experience and The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Meadows. There are five basic steps and according to the book it should take five weeks to get sleep sorted. I’m not as convinced about timeframes, so I’ll describe it as five steps.

  1. Discover: this step is about discovering what triggers and maintains insomnia, and focuses on why struggling to start sleeping is counter-productive. That’s right – stop struggling!
  2. Accept: well, with a name like ACT you’d expect some acceptance, right? This is not about resigning yourself to nights of poor sleep, but rather a willingness to let go of the struggle, to be fully present in the now – rather than reminiscing about the past, or predicting the future.
  3. Welcome: everything that shows up in your mind and body (after all, they’re there whether you want them or not!).
  4. Build: a new sleeping pattern by identifying how much sleep you need and when you need it.
  5. Live: during the day and sleep during the night!

Like absolutely any behaviour change, this process is not always easy! It takes persistence, courage and doing things that may not feel like sensible things to do! Let’s begin.

Discover: we do a whole heap of things to try to get to sleep – normal sleepers don’t. Normal sleepers just put their heads on the pillow, maybe let their minds wander over the day, and then gently fall asleep. When people with insomnia try to sleep, we try all manner of things to get to that state – and many of those things either prolong the sleeplessness, or actually wind it up!

Meadows describes four factors associated with the start of insomnia:

  • risks which may be getting older, being female, being a worrier or depressed, having a family history of rotten sleep, maybe being generally full-on;
  • triggers may include life stress, some medical conditions like irritable bowel or a fracture and yes, pain, and medications or alcohol, time zone changes and so on;
  • arrivals are memories, thoughts, sensations, emotions and urges that come to visit when we’re trying to get off to sleep but can’t – and these are partly the fight, flight or freeze response which happens when we begin worrying, or are part of the triggers (and we often think it’s those things that need to be got rid of); and finally
  • amplifiers, or things that are meant to be helping reduce insomnia but can actually make it worse: things like spending longer in bed, sleeping in, going to be earlier, having naps – and oddly enough, some of the things we’re traditionally advised to do to help us sleep. Things like reading in low light, having a warm bath or warm milk drink, watching TV, listening to the radio, playing with devices like the phone…. Even some of the things we do because we’re not sleeping – like getting out of bed and doing things like checking emails, doing some exercise, going to the loo – all of these things are done to try avoid the chitter-chatter of our mind, or eat least to control or distract from it, yet can paradoxically train your brain to be awake right when you really want to sleep… even things like keeping the room dark, wearing earplugs, doing relaxation, sleeping in a different bed from your partner, trying a new mattress or pillow can be a step too far and train your brain to think controlling these thoughts about sleep is the Thing To Do.

I’ll bet that, like me, most people have done all these things – and some of them are part of CBTi. There is a place for them in moderation – but it’s even better to develop the skill of not being caught up in trying to control our thoughts, worries, feelings, body sensations when we’re heading to sleep.

Now I’m sure this is where people are going “yeah but…” and giving a whole list of why your situation is different. Would you be willing to keep reading and look at some alternatives?

The risk of trying to control these arrivals and amplifiers is that while they don’t work, it’s too scary NOT to do them. Your brain learns, as a result, that sleep is a problem. And what does the brain like best? Oh that’s right – solving problems. Except that if you’ve ever tried to “make yourself” stop thinking, or feeling – have you noticed that you just can’t? Try it now: try and make yourself feel happy. Yeah… you either have to recall something enjoyable from the past, or anticipate something in the future. And while you’re doing that, your brain is cranking up. It’s worse if you try to stop yourself from thinking or worrying because that old fight, flight or freeze response kicks in and up goes your heart rate and perspiration and breathing…

So the first step of this programme is to discover all the things you’re doing to control the uncontrollable. We can’t stop feelings, thoughts, memories and so on from arriving. They just do. So fighting with them and trying hard to get rid of them just does not work – they’re there AND you’re feeling stressed because you can’t get rid of them!

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