Around 2001 I read what I believe is the first randomised controlled trial of ACT for people living with chronic pain (McCracken, 1998). I quickly dived into this ‘new’ therapy – it appealed to me because it resonated with my own experiences with psychological therapies for depression, and in the way I had learned to live alongside my own pain. For those who don’t know, I developed chronic pain around the age of 22ish (dates are hard to remember!) and after seeing a pain specialist was given those fateful words ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do from a medical perspective.’
Why did ACT resonate so well? Because I’d tried to do the things that CBT offered. All the ‘maladaptive thoughts’ (stinkin’ thinkin’), the reframing (no, life doesn’t suck completely, it just sucks here, and here…), the behavioural activation (just keep on doing, even though it’s not rewarding) – all the things I was supposed to do to ‘fix’ my depression and my pain, but actually made me focus more on my thoughts, and more on the reality of being a single mother with two small children working full-time, studying part-time, and yes, feeling overwhelmed and at times pretty desperate.
ACT was different. ACT focused on noticing first. Noticing what was here and now. And when I was being present in the moment I could see my children as wonderful, quirky, loving kids (who also made a horrendous mess that I could never keep on top of!). I could see the colours in the flowers and trees in the nearby Botanic Gardens. I could notice my left earlobe (it doesn’t get sore – neither does my belly button!).
Learning ACT was not easy. ACT is a slippery therapy for anyone who wants a step-by-step protocol. There are common parts to ACT as an approach, like creating a sense of ‘these things don’t work – but it’s not for want of trying, it’s because humans don’t work this way’ (because the harder we struggle to control a thought or a feeling, the more it sticks to us), like being present and noticing, choosing actions that align with what matters: these were relatively familiar to me because of my occupational therapy background. Occupational therapists often start by asking people about what they want and need to do, then begin by setting actions that help the person do those things, but ACT can start anywhere on that darned hexaflex.
How might I go about learning ACT today? Because I know me, I would begin by looking at the end. What’s the end goal with ACT? It’s about being able to continue doing what matters (making our lives count in the ways we want them to), despite what life throws at us. I take this to mean that although the form or outer expression of what matters to us might change over our lives, the intent or values underpinning those actions is retained. And sometimes the values might change a little as we focus on one for a time, and others step back.
The thing is, changing how we do things is hard! I’ve often said to people with pain that I can teach the skills of pacing, for example, in an hour. What’s difficult is dealing with what our minds say, the reactions from other people, our own feelings about making changes and dealing with these other reactions, and the inner sense of wrongness that can come up – like ‘what kind of a person stops half-way through a task just to go take a break?’ And this is why ‘education’ for pain has to go beyond telling someone what to do.
As a total nerd, I like to know the theory or the organising structure supporting a therapy. ACT is based on solid science and I don’t just mean relational frame theory! ACT is a cognitive behavioural therapy, with the major distinction between ACT and CBT being how language is viewed. This means knowing about behaviour change from a Skinnerian perspective. It really does help to understand classical and operant conditioning. It moves us away from working hard to avoid things we don’t like, and towards things that are rewarding to us. The influence of moving in the direction of things we want has a different flavour from avoiding things we don’t want.
For example, if I work hard to avoid feeling my pain, I'll notice my pain whenever I do anything. This makes pain so much more present to me! If, instead, I want to enjoy the delights of what my body can do because I love to move to music, there are so many ways I can do this! I can tap my toes and my fingers in time to the music. I can hum along. I can chair dance. I can sit and internally dance to it. I can stand up and do a wiggle. I can even get up and dance! I can walk in time to the music, I can choose the tempo of the music I move to... the world opens up to me.
I do ACT as I understand it. I try to use ‘doing’ as the vehicle for working through the various processes because how we do anything is how we do everything. I try not to just talk about ACT. ACT is a doing therapy where, by paying attention to what happens in the moment and bypassing the commentary our minds make (and the stories we hold onto about who we are), the effects of what we do become the guidance we need.
For example, if I feel better in my body by doing chunks of activity then doing a stretch or a walk or a dance or a body scan, my mind can leap in and tell me I'm being lazy, ineffective, sloppy, and never get anything done. Following the guidance of my mind would lead me away from relishing the lightness and reduced pain I get from chunking my day into bits. If I'm willing to notice how my mind likes to nag AND to notice how wonderful my body feels, guess which one is a better guide? Especially if what really matters to me is how I can be calm at the end of the day when I spend time with my partner! By noticing how my body is, and letting my mind do its thing without buying into the content, I'm much more likely to keep doing the pacing.
There are many courses teaching ACT, and loads of freely accessible material on ACT throughout the interwebs. That’s due in large part to the ethos of ACT and those researching and using ACT-aligned approaches. Unlike CBT which can be tightly regulated, particularly in the USA, ACT is far more generous and open. Anyone can use ACT, it’s intended to view people as people, not bundles of psychopathology. I like this, especially in pain where so many people have already been given unhelpful names and treated with disdain and stigma. It won’t breach your scope of practice because it is about humans being practical about how our minds work, and what trips us up when we hit a life snag. Life snags are everywhere, and being human is, well, who we are!
The challenge for therapists not familiar with psychological approaches is to learn ACT from the perspective of your profession. If you’re a physiotherapist, ACT is done differently from when ACT is used by an occupational therapist or a social worker or a psychologist. We might deal with the same stuff, but our entry point to ACT is often different from a psychologist. I like to begin with actions aligned with values and watch what happens as people begin to do the things. It’s once people begin doing that our minds, beliefs about who we are, our desire not to feel uncomfortable, our memories and expectations all begin to wreak havoc on being guided by what actually happens in real time.
This is why I’m preparing my own online ACT course for therapists who work with people living with pain. The solid foundations of ACT will be there – but we’ll begin by doing the doing. ACT is a different way of being with people, and the best person to experiment with is —– yep, yourself. Keep watching for ACT for pain therapists, coming soon!
BTW this study by Lai et al., (2023) shows 33 ACT RCTs (bearing in mind my reservations about RCTs), with 2293 participants, showing (as usual) small to medium effect sizes for physical function and pain intensity at follow-up; and on depression, anxiety and improved quality of life. Interestingly, people with difficult-to-treat pains like chronic headache and fibromyalgia showed greater benefit than those wioth nonspecific or mixed pain, and again as usual, results were smaller over time. ACT is helpful – so let’s do it!
Lai, L., Liu, Y., McCracken, L. M., Li, Y., & Ren, Z. (2023). The efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for chronic pain: A three-level meta-analysis and a trial sequential analysis of randomized controlled trials. Behav Res Ther, 165, 104308. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2023.104308
McCracken, L. M. (1998). Learning to live with the pain: acceptance of pain predicts adjustment in persons with chronic pain. Pain, 74(1), 21-27. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0304-3959(97)00146-2