With all the attention being given to cognitive functional therapy (and deservedly so, IMHO) it’s tempting to leap aboard the modality train and go take a course, isn’t it?
Although I’ve picked on CFT today, it could just as easily have been any of the New! Awesome! Better! therapies that hit the clinical headlines on a frequent basis. The temptation to go “Look! Shiny!” and learn about the latest thing isn’t confined to teenagers following some social media trend. Yup, even sober-sides nearly 60-year-olds like me still want to go on learning, getting better at what I do, keeping up with what’s popular…
And yet I worry just a tad when I see the number of therapies that have kicked off with a hiss and a roar but later don’t seem nearly as promising as they did when they started. Why is that? What am I worrying about?
New ideas can often get picked up without critique, as if a new idea comes fully birthed and complete. The slow decades of development, the theory that underpins an approach, and the careful ways researchers couch their conclusions can be completely ignored in the rush to show that ‘I’m up-to-date’ – and that’s a problem. Why? Because while a hallmark of an expert is in describing complex concepts in a very simple way, when we learn a new therapy we are most certainly not expert. So we’re likely to pick up on superficial and relatively black and white ideas, but fail to be aware of how these ideas are scaffolded by theory (Paas & van Merrienboer, 2020).
The difference between a technician and a professional is, I believe, in how deeply a professional will understand the theory. Theoretical knowledge teaches principles, and principles allow us to be versatile as we apply theory to different settings (Kirk, 2022). It takes time to move from superficial to deep understanding, something we expect during undergraduate learning as we develop epistemic cognition (the process of acquiring, understanding, employing and adapting knowledge to specific contexts) – and mostly, we will have had highly structured learning experiences during our training that will have made this process almost invisible to us as we learned them (Yeung, et al., 2021).
I think this makes postgraduate ‘lifelong learning’ tend towards reinforcing known assumptions – clinicians search for habitus (a set of dispositions that ‘incline’ people towards particular practices) because these fit with ‘things the way they are.’ Yeung and colleagues argue that it’s important to develop epistemic reflexivity, or ‘making strange’ the assumptions that go to make up clinical practice, so we can begin to recognise how these assumptions influence clinical reasoning. This process, however, might not be included in our professional training because it can lead to awkward questions – ones like ‘why’ and ‘what if’ and ones without satisfactory answers. Oh darn.
We can blame limited attention to epistemic reflexivity for the superficial way in which Explain Pain has been adopted. Explain Pain is a great way to begin learning about pain mechanisms, and when delivered in the way that the authors hoped it would, offers people with pain a way in to engaging in therapy that might not look much like what they’d thought they’d get. BUT too many people get the book shoved under their noses as ‘therapy’ in the mistaken hope that (a) the person’s pain will magically reduce simply because they know pain is ‘an output of the brain’; and (b) it works as a stand-alone treatment. It does not, except perhaps for fellow nerds like me.
You see, if your world view of therapy is that people are blank slates on which new information is thought to fix things, or that your job is to ‘correct’ abnormalities, and that you are the Holder of Truth, then a therapeutic innovation like Explain Pain can get picked up and bolted on to everyday practice as if it’s just another modality or technique. All the theory underpinning how and why information and learning might be useful (whether this is from a cognitive behavioural approach, or an educational one) gets lost. And the effectiveness either diluted, or at times, negated.
With CFT, built as it is on psychological principles (operant, classical conditioning, cognitive therapy, experiential learning) and delivered by confident therapists who understand movement and aren’t afraid of pain, the results are great. There is something inherently safe in being in a clinical setting with a confident clinician, exploring previously avoided movements in new and gently graded ways.
What CFT is not, however, is a recipe for correcting wrong beliefs, for pushing people into movements they’re afraid of and before they’re ready, by clinicians who themselves are uncertain, and who are looking for ‘movement dysfunctions’ or ‘deficits.’ It’s not intended to be bolted on to ‘usual practice’ which, as we can readily see from the diverse beliefs and practice about back pain in therapists in the ‘usual care’ arm of just about any RCT we care to review, is pretty messy.
To learn a new approach means making existing practice ‘strange.’ It means feeling awkward. Assumptions about ‘the problem’ and what we should do about it can get questioned. It means starting as a novice – therapy takes longer at first because we have to think harder. Our slick competence gets rattled as we can’t just reach for the things we usually (and automatically) reach for.
I’ve learned three forms of therapy that deviate a long way from my original occupational therapy practice. CBT meant I needed to learn cognitive theory, behavioural theory, how to elicit thoughts and beliefs, and link these to actions the person did. The hardest part of CBT was delaying my problem identification until I’d collected enough information to develop a formulation. Then I learned Motivational Interviewing, with its focus on values and eliciting personal reasons for change. Being willing to employ small sets of phrases and summarising then putting the question back to the person for their decision was hard after having spent so long thinking that I knew best. Finally I started learning ACT, and plunged into the complex world of understanding relational frame theory, the power of a behavioural and experiential way of learning that circumvents words (which are my natural home).
In each case, I’ve had to question the assumptions I’d developed as I delved into the theory underlying these approaches. I’ve really had to challenge myself to relate each new concept to what I already thought of as ‘truth.’ The origins of even starting to poke into ‘psychological’ approaches were embedded in my initial biopsychosocial learning that was inherent in my occupational therapy training – and I was lucky enough to have learned these ideas when they were relatively new and just being introduced by Engel. But I have had to question this perspective as well – and the way I view Engel and his work is quite different today from the way I first understood it.
Parting shot: Being attracted to a new and groovy practice is part of being a human. We’re nothing if we’re not curious (see this post from a few months ago). Let’s keep in mind, though, the need for ongoing critical analysis. Ask questions like: What are we trying to do here? What is the purpose of this approach? What are the theories underpinning this approach? What strategies or means are being carried out to achieve the results? What are the assumptions of this approach? Who benefits from these assumptions? Who is most directly affected by this? Are there alternative perspectives? What else might need to change for this to work? How would we know it had worked? – click here for one of the easily accessed critical thinking worksheets, this one from National Geographic.
Kirk, A. (2023). How physiotherapy students approach learning and their clinical reasoning capability (Doctoral dissertation, University of Otago).
Paas, F., & van Merriënboer, J. J. (2020). Cognitive-load theory: Methods to manage working memory load in the learning of complex tasks. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(4), 394-398.
Tremblay, M. L., Leppink, J., Leclerc, G., Rethans, J. J., & Dolmans, D. H. (2019). Simulation‐based education for novices: complex learning tasks promote reflective practice. Medical Education, 53(4), 380-389.
Yeung, E., Gibson, B., Kuper, A., Shaw, J., & Nixon, S. (2019). Making strange’: exploring the development of students’ capacity in epistemic reflexivity. Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation, 1-15.