Therapeutic approaches

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.

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

I’ve recently completed two posts on assessing sleep problems in people experiencing persistent pain, and today I turn my attention to strategies for managing sleep problems – without medication. Why without medication? Because to date there are no medications for insomnia that don’t require a ‘weaning off’ period, during which time people often find their original sleep problems emerge once again… I’m not completely against medications for sleep or pain – but I think they need to be used with care and full disclosure about the effects, side-effects, and the need to eventually withdraw from them.

The approach I’m advocating is a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi). CBTi is a form of treatment that is now considered to be first line therapy by both the British Association for Psychopharmacology (Wilson, Nutt, Alford, Argyropoulos, Baldwin, Bateson et al, 2010), and the American College of Physicians (Qaseem, Kansagara, Forciea, Cooke, Denberg et al, 2016). It includes sleep hygiene, cognitive therapy for the thoughts and beliefs associated with sleep, and sleep restriction for those who clinically need it. The modified version I advocate is based on Dr Guy Meadows ACT-based approach and I’ll cover that next week, but I’ll describe the classical CBT approach first.

Basic principles

The basic idea behind a CBT approach to insomnia is that although the initiating event may be out of our control, it’s unlikely to be maintaining the problem – and the factors maintaining the problem are typically the habits people have, and the thoughts and beliefs about their sleep problem.

Sleep is a behaviour that is infinitely malleable, as anyone who has travelled far enough on long-haul flights will know (and parents of small babies as well!). There are cues we use to decide when we should head to bed, and how long we should stay asleep. Bodies in turn respond to these cues and modify automatic processes such as digestion, urine production, and body temperature to ensure we stay asleep for as long as needed. When those cues change – for example, we’re in a new time zone when it’s light at the “wrong” time, and we’re hungry at the “wrong” time, we have trouble staying asleep until the body adjusts. Some people say we can manage a two-hour time zone shift every 24 hours, but in some sensitive people even a one-hour daylight savings change can upset the apple-cart!

If sleep is a habitual behaviour, then we can manipulate the cues to our benefit when sleep is elusive. We learn to associate things like the routine we follow prior to going to bed, light in the room, the “winding down” process we use, and even the timing of our snacks and drinks as a way to signal to the body/mind that we’re sleepy/tired.

There are three basic steps in CBTi: stimulus control (aka sleep hygiene), cognitive therapy, and sleep restriction – with the usual relapse prevention steps an essential part as well.

Sleep hygiene (stimulus control)

The basis of sleep hygiene is to control the stimuli associated with going to sleep so that we clearly indicate to the body/mind that it’s time to get to sleep. That means some basic “rules” around what we do in the time preceding getting into bed, and what we do when in bed trying to sleep.

The golden rule is that the bed is for sleep and sex – not for worrying in, not for watching TV or using the computer or phone or tablet, not for arguing in, not for talking on the phone. If you’re awake in bed for longer than 20 minutes, it’s time to get out of bed until you’re sleepy/tired (more on this in a moment), keeping the lights down low, doing something tedious or boring, then returning to bed to actually sleep.

Simple, commonsense things like keeping the room dark and warm, blocking out the worst of the noise, NOT using a TV or radio or any other noise-making device to go to sleep, ensuring caffeine intake is limited, having a regular bedtime and wake-up time, not taking naps through the day and timing when exercise and relaxation are undertaken are all part of sleep hygiene and most of us are aware of these steps. If they’re not familiar to you, this site is a good one – click.

Cognitive therapy

The cognitive therapy part is about managing the thoughts and attitudes that can exacerbate the sleep problem – things like having a busy mind, worrying about not being able to sleep, believing that it’s crucial to have a certain number of hours of sleep or the next day will be awful, getting that sinking dread as bedtime approaches, following any number of almost (and sometimes actual) obsessive rituals to achieve sleep – and so on…

As usual, with any conventional CBT, dealing with these thoughts involves firstly reality testing – Is it true that you must have a certain number of hours of sleep or the next day will inevitably be terrible? Must the room be absolutely silent or sleep will elude you? Then challenging or disputing those thoughts – “It’s possible I’ll feel tired tomorrow, but I can still function even if I’m not at my best”, “It might take me longer to fall asleep but I’ll get to sleep even though I can hear a clock ticking”.

These simple approaches are reasonably easy to implement – and they are effective. But if sleep is still a problem, and the person isn’t getting more than 4 hours sleep a night, it’s time to bring in the big guns.

Sleep restriction

There are two parts of altering sleep habits that are particularly challenging: getting out of bed after 20 minutes of being awake (especially in the wee hours of the morning!); and using sleep restriction. Neither are easy, yet both are effective.

The idea behind sleep restriction is to reduce the amount of time being in bed while not actually being asleep. Simple huh? So that period from when you first hop into bed and until you actually fall asleep is called sleep latency – and the longer your sleep latency, the less sleep you actually get. You become inefficient at sleeping, and worst, your body/mind learns that it’s OK to be in bed wide awake, and as I mentioned earlier, people begin to associate even going into the bedroom as a negative thing which revs up the autonomic nervous system making it even more difficult to fall asleep.

The nuts and bolts are to work out what time you actually fall asleep, and only go to bed at that time. So if you stay awake until 2.00 or 3.00am, you only go to bed at 2.00am. And you keep your morning wake-up time the same as normal. Yes, this means you end up being only able to sleep for the time between 2.00am and 7.00am! Ouch!

The idea is to extinguish the “habit” of being awake while in bed, reducing the association between being in bed and wide awake, while getting you absolutely tired and sleepy that you fall asleep into a deep sleep quickly. Once this falling asleep part happens regularly (usually for a week or so) then it’s possible to begin a very gradual process of bringing the bedtime back to a more reasonable hour – I usually suggest 15 minute increments, returning to the previous step if falling asleep begins to be difficult.

The process is reasonably difficult – not because it’s hard to stay awake (after all, the person has been practicing it for some time!) but because of the mind chatter. It’s truly tough when your mind starts having a go at you, suggesting you can’t sleep, or you’ll be so incredibly tired you won’t cope, or you’ll be cranky and that it’s dangerous and how on earth  will you go at work without any sleep? And this is where having access to a really good clinician can be helpful, although there are apps that provide a pretty good alternative if a human isn’t available.

For a detailed examination of the literature on sleep restriction therapy, Kyle, Aquino, Miller, Henry, Crawford, Espie & Spielman (2015) provide a really good systematic analysis of how sleep restriction is employed in research trials.  For a plain language version of CBTi, this is a good description – click

As I mentioned above, I’ll be going through a slightly different version of CBTi – an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach to insomnia that is also gaining popularity and an evidence base. Come right on back next week for that exciting episode!


Kyle, S. D., Aquino, M. R. J., Miller, C. B., Henry, A. L., Crawford, M. R., Espie, C. A., & Spielman, A. J. (2015). Towards standardisation and improved understanding of sleep restriction therapy for insomnia disorder: A systematic examination of cbt-i trial content. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 23, 83-88.

Manber, R., Simpson, N. S., & Bootzin, R. R. (2015). A step towards stepped care: Delivery of cbt-i with reduced clinician time. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 19, 3-5.

Qaseem, A., Kansagara, D., Forciea, M., Cooke, M., Denberg, T. D., & for the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of, P. (2016). Management of chronic insomnia disorder in adults: A clinical practice guideline from the american college of physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine, 165(2), 125-133. doi:10.7326/M15-2175

Wilson, S., Nutt, D., Alford, C., Argyropoulos, S., Baldwin, D., Bateson, A., . . . Wade, A. (2010). British association for psychopharmacology consensus statement on evidence-based treatment of insomnia, parasomnias and circadian rhythm disorders. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 24(11), 1577-1601. doi:10.1177/0269881110379307

Assessing problems with sleep & persistent pain

Problems with sleep affect most of us from time to time. We know we might find it difficult to get off to sleep because of a busy mind, a different bedroom, changes to our schedule – but for most of us, sleep returns to our normal fairly quickly. For some of us, though, sleep problems continue for weeks, months or even years. And for people living with persistent pain, sleep can be one of the most difficult things to deal with, yet it’s also one of the most common (McCracken & Iverson, 2002). Studies of sleep problems in people with fibromyalgia show abnormal sleep continuity as well as changes in sleep architecture – this looks like increased number of times waking, a reduced amount of slow wave sleep and an abnormal alpha wave intrusion in non rapid eye movement, termed alpha-delta sleep (Dauvilliers & Touchon, 2001). People with fibromyalgia may also experience primary sleep disorder such as sleep apnoea or periodic leg movements during sleep.

The effect of rotten sleep is quite clear: pain increases the day following a disrupted night’s sleep, while high levels of pain on one day has less of an impact on subsequent sleep – but if you’ve been sleeping poorly for a while, all of this becomes something of a blur (Johnson, Weber, McCrae & Craggs, 2017; Slavish, Graham-Engeland, Martire & Smyth, 2017)! When we add in the effects of poor sleep on daily activity, and begin to unpack the relationships between sleep, pain and mood (Goerlitz, Sturgeron, Mackey & Darnell, 2017) well it’s a bit of a complicated matter, and one that I think we need to address when someone comes in for help with their pain.

Assessing unrefreshing sleep or poor sleep can be a reasonably straightforward process, but it needs to be carried out systematically. The event/s that initiate poor sleep may be very different from the events that maintain poor sleep, and while it’s interesting to know what started the sleep difficulties – in the end it’s possibly more important to work out what’s maintaining it.

The following is my attempt to outline what I look for when I’m discussing sleep with someone.

1. Is sleep really a problem? Sounds a bit odd, but some people have a strong belief that they need a certain number of hours of sleep a night, and when they’re not getting that magical number, it can be quite worrying – and actually kick off a sleep problem!

  • My key question here is do you wake feeling like you’ve had a good sleep? The number of hours of sleep is irrelevant, to a large extent, if you wake up feeling refreshed. If the person I’m talking to wakes up feeling OK I quickly swing into trying to understand why they’re worried about their sleep – and reassuring them that having a certain sleep duration is not fixed. In fact, sleep length changes over time – remember when you were a kid and slept for hours and hours? And when you were a teen and sleep in until midday if you could, but stayed up most of the night? These are pretty normal changes in pattern and nothing to worry about.

If you don’t feel refreshed, then I dig a little deeper…

2. What’s your sleep routine? This is about finding out the time someone goes to bed, how long it takes to fall asleep, what time a person wakes up, and gets up. I’ll also ask about the pre-bedtime routine: what’s the evening routine like? when do the screens go off? what’s the last drink of the evening? what’s the bedroom environment like?

  • I’m looking for a consistent bedtime at around the same time each night, a “wind down” ritual where the same things happen each night to prime the mind for sleep. I’m also looking for factors that might make it more difficult to fall asleep once in bed – screen time (devices, laptops, TV), dealing with worries, solving problems, having arguments, difficulty getting comfortable.
  • I’m also looking for a consistent wake up time, and whether the person gets out of bed then – or lies in bed and maybe falls asleep again…
  • A comfortable room temperature, a dark room, relatively little noise: all of these very basic things help keep bed for sleep (and sex) but not for much else.

The reason these basic “sleep hygiene” factors help is that our sleep pattern is malleable. It changes depending on environmental factors like light, noise and temperature. This is why we end up having jetlag – it takes a little while to adjust to the new daily light patterns (especially when you travel from Christchurch, NZ to somewhere like Norway!). Our body temperature drops during the night, our digestive processes slow down (that’s why we tend not to do “number twos” at night) and why we pee a lot less at night than during the day. Setting up a consistent routine helps us retain these habits and “teach” the mind/body to sleep at the correct time.

3. What substances do you use? I’m interested in the usual suspects: caffeine (not only coffee, but tea, energy drinks, dark chocolate), but also alcohol, the timing of medications, and that late night snack.

  • When sleep onset is a bit fragile it’s probably best not to have coffee and allied substances after mid-afternoon, and for some people (like me!) it’s best not to have them after lunch.
  • Medications for persistent pain are often sedating, so people need to know how to use this side effect for the best – and that often means taking medications earlier than first thought.
  • It also means for us, recognising that some medications alter sleep architecture (particularly meds given for, paradoxically, insomnia!). Alcohol might help people get to sleep but it changes the sleep architecture, preventing you from falling into that deepest sleep phase – and waking you up to pee halfway through the night, if you don’t do that already!
  • I also check whether people are smokers, and if they are, whether they wake in the morning absolutely gasping for a smoke, or whether they smoke during the night. Nicotine withdrawal can keep someone awake during those brief periods before and after dreaming sleep, so may need to be managed with patches.
  • Food is also something I check – snacks at midnight are the stuff of school stories, but can become a learned behaviour that we associate with being awake at that time, and maintain disrupted sleep. Maybe a mid-evening protein-based snack is a better option.

4. What’s going through your mind (or what’s your mind telling you) about your sleep? Having hopefully dealt with the basics of sleep hygiene (though I haven’t included exercise yet – that’s coming!), I’m keen to understand the person’s mind chatter about their sleep.

  • Worries, rumination and attempts at problem-solving (yes I’ve solved the problem of world peace!) can all keep us from falling asleep. What we do about those thoughts depends on the sleep management approach we’re using.
  • Often, the worries are actually worries about not sleeping – that paradoxically keep us from falling asleep! Feeling bothered about “how am I going to cope tomorrow if I don’t sleep”, or “I’m going to be so tired tomorrow, I know I won’t manage” are really common.
  • Along with worries about not sleeping, every other unsolved problem seems to pop up courtesy of your mind – this can happen because the person is too busy during the day to stop and ponder (and it’s quiet at night… fewer distractions!) so it’s worth finding out what is going through the person’s mind and dealing with those issues.

5. What’s your pattern of sleeping through the night? This is about the pattern of arousals – when, how long for, what the person does during these times.

  • Some understanding of normal sleep architecture is useful here so you can help the person understand why waking just before/just after dreams occurs.
  • Reviewing the habits at these times helps to understand the factors that maintains being awake at the wrong times! Waking briefly but without being aware of it is normal, but when internal or external factors intrude during lighter periods of sleep, we become more aware of being awake and can begin to do things that keep us awake, like watching TV, turning the radio on, having a snack, worrying.

To be continued…

These are some of the very fundamentals of assessing sleep problems. Next week I’ll review some more – and the week after look at strategies that can help!


Dauvilliers, Y., & Touchon, J. (2001). Le sommeil du fibromyalgique : Revue des données cliniques et polygraphiques (sleep in fibromyalgia patients: Clinical and polysomnography pattern.). Neurophysiologie Clinique/Clinical Neurophysiology, 31(1), 18-33. doi:

Goerlitz, D., Sturgeron, J., Mackey, S., & Darnall, B. (2017). (395) sleep quality and positive affect as mediators of daily relationship between pain intensity and physical activity. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), S73.

Johnson, M., Weber, J., McCrae, C., & Craggs, J. (2017). (397) the catch 22 of insomnia and chronic pain: Exploring how insomnia and sleep impact the neural correlates of chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), S73-S74.

McCracken, L. M., & Iverson, G. L. (2002). Disrupted sleep patterns and daily functioning in patients with chronic pain. Pain Research & Management, 7(2), 75-79.

Slavish, D., Graham-Engeland, J., Martire, L., & Smyth, J. (2017). (394) bidirectional associations between daily pain, affect, and sleep quality in young adults with and without chronic back pain. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), S73.

When philosophy and evidence collide: is an occupation-focused approach suitable in pain management?

I have often described myself as a renegade occupational therapist: I like statistics, I think experimental research is a good way to test hypotheses, I don’t make moccasins (though I occasionally wear them!), I’m happy reading research and figuring out how I can apply findings into my clinical practice.

Occupational therapy is a profession that continues to evolve. The origins of occupational therapy lie back in the “moral” model of treatment for mental illness when advocates found that giving people things to do helped them become well (mind you, some of the reasons for admission to a “mental asylum” were things like “wandering womb”, novel reading, laziness and “female disease” read it here on Snopes). As time passed, occupational therapy was a way to “occupy” troops recovering from war wounds, and later, tuberculosis. At various points, occupational therapists have tried to enclose practice within prevailing models: anatomical, biomechanical, neurological. And then the scope broadens and the profession returns to “occupation” and all it means. Out of this latest movement, and informing occupational therapy practice today is the idea of “occupational science” – this is the “basic science” examining the factors that underpin occupational therapy practice (Yerxa, 1990).

Unlike most “basic sciences”, occupational science draws on areas of knowledge including anthropology, sociology and political science; all social sciences that bring their own philosophical biases to understanding social phenomena. Occupational science is about “what people do in daily life” – those routines, rituals, practices, customs and daily doings that support us in our roles, shape our place in the social world, and help us form an understanding of who we are in the world. Things like how we go about getting up, the way we serve a meal, the way we dress ourselves, how we go from one place to another, the hobbies and fun things we do – all fundamental building blocks of daily life. Occupational therapy, therefore, informed by occupational science, is focused on helping people participate in daily life as fully and equitably as possible, irrespective of health status, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, age and so on.

With a focus on not only helping people participate in occupations, but also using occupation as therapy, it’s not surprising to find a plurality of approaches to treatment. I have seen art used to help people with persistent pain represent the impact of pain on their sense of self – and to celebrate changes that have happened as a result of pain management. I have seen gardening used to help people become stronger, more confident to move and to reconnect with a hobby they had given up because of pain. I have seen people begin new hobbies (geocaching anyone?) as part of occupational therapy. I have used excursions to the local shopping mall to help people regain confidence and reduce their fear of crowded places where they might get bumped. Graded exposure is also an approach occupational therapists use to help people generalise their emerging skills to approach feared movements instead of avoiding them.

What I hope I don’t see is a return to a compensatory model for persistent pain. You know what I mean here: using gadgets or aids to “make life easier” when a person is dealing with persistent pain. Things like a special long-handled tool so people can pick something up from the floor – fine in a short-term situation like immediately post hip arthroplasty, but not so much when the problem is longstanding fear and avoidance. A special vacuum-cleaner so the person doesn’t have to bend – it’s so much easier yes, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem which can be remedied.

Why is a compensatory model not so good for persistent pain management? Well, because in most instances, though not all, the reason a person isn’t doing a movement when they’re sore is not because they cannot – but because that movement increases or might increase pain, and no-one really wants to increase pain, yeah? By providing a gadget of some sort, or even working through a way to avoid that movement, occupational therapists who use this sort of approach are ignoring the strong evidence that this reinforces avoidance as a strategy for managing pain, doesn’t address the underlying fear, and risks prolonging and actually reinforcing ongoing disability. This approach is harmful.

Helping people do things that might hurt isn’t a very popular idea for some clinicians and a lot of people living with persistent pain. It feels at first glance, like a really nasty thing to do to someone. BUT graded exposure is an effective, occupationally-focused treatment for fear of movement and fear of pain (Lopez-de-Uralde-Villaneuva, Munos-Garcia, Gil-Martinez, Pardo-Montero, Munoz-Plata et al, 2016). Used within an acceptance and commitment therapy model, graded exposure becomes “committed action” that’s aligned to values – and engaging in valued occupations is exactly what occupational therapy is all about.

Of course, not everyone enjoys this kind of work. That’s OK – because there are others who DO enjoy doing it! And it’s all in the way that it’s done – a framework of values, commitment, mindfulness and, that’s right, “chat therapy” – which some occupational therapists believe is right outside their scope of practice.

Now unless someone works in a vacuum, via some sort of mind-to-mind process, I cannot think of any therapist who doesn’t communicate with the person they’re working with. Humans communicate effortlessly and continuously. And “chat therapy” is about communicating – communicating skillfully, carefully selecting what to respond to and how, and focusing on clinical reasoning. Of course, if that’s ALL the treatment is about, then it’s not occupational therapy, but when it’s used in the aid of helping someone participate more fully in valued occupations using CBT, ACT, DBT or indeed motivational interviewing is one of the approaches occupational therapists can employ both within an occupation as therapy and occupation as outcome model.

I firmly believe that occupational therapists should follow an evidence base for their work. While I openly acknowledge the paucity of occupational therapy-specific research in persistent pain, particularly using occupation as therapy, there is plenty of research (carried out by other professions) to support approaches occupational therapists can adopt. After all, we already use developmental models, neurological models, sociological models, anthropological ones and yes, psychological ones. And that’s without venturing into the biomechanical ones! So it’s not an unfamiliar clinical reasoning strategy.

What makes occupational therapy practice in pain management absolutely unique are two things: a complete focus on reducing disability through enabling occupation, and a commitment to bringing skills developed “in clinic” outside into the daily lives and world of the people we are privileged to work with. What we should not do is focus on short-term outcomes like reducing (avoiding) bending with some new technique, while being ignorant of other occupational approaches. We are a fortunate profession because all of what we do is biopsychosocial, let’s not forget it.


López-de-Uralde-Villanueva, I., Muñoz-García, D., Gil-Martínez, A., Pardo-Montero, J., Muñoz-Plata, R., Angulo-Díaz-Parreño, S., . . . La Touche, R. (2016). A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of graded activity and graded exposure for chronic nonspecific low back pain. Pain Medicine, 17(1), 172-188. doi:10.1111/pme.12882

Yerxa, E. J. (1990). An introduction to occupational science, a foundation for occupational therapy in the 21st century. Occup Ther Health Care, 6(4), 1-17. doi:10.1080/J003v06n04_04

Clinical reasoning and why models of low back pain need to be integrated

Clinical reasoning has been defined as “the process by which a therapist interacts with a patient, collecting information, generating and testing hypotheses, and determining optimal diagnosis and treatment based on the information obtained.” (thanks to The model or lens through which we do these processes naturally has a major influence on our relationship with the person, the information we think is relevant, the hypotheses we develop, and ultimately the problems we identify and how we treat them. No arguments so far, yes?

So when we come to thinking about pain, particularly where a “diagnosis” can’t be readily established – or where the treatment doesn’t directly address a proposed causal factor – clinical reasoning should be led by some sort of model, but how explicit is our model, really? And, what’s more, how well does the research support our model, and the relationships between variables?

I’m thinking about my approach as an occupational therapist where my interest in assessment is to identify why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining their current predicament; and my aim is to identify what can be done to reduce distress and disability, while promoting participation in daily occupations (activities, things that need to be done or the person wants to do). For many years now I’ve used a cognitive behavioural model first developed by Dr Tim Sharp who has now moved into Positive Psychology. His reformulation of the cognitive behavioural model works from the “experience” of pain through to responses to that experience, but incorporates some of the cyclical interactions between constructs. The model doesn’t include inputs to the “experience” component from the nociceptive system – but it could.

Many other models exist. Some of them are quite recent – the STarT Back Tool, for example, provides a very simplified screening approach to low back pain that some people have identified as a clinical reasoning model. Another is by Tousignant-Laflamme, Martel, Joshi & Cook (2017), and is a model aimed at pulling all the various approaches together – and does so with a beautifully-coloured diagram.


You knew there would be one! What I think these two models omit is to generate some relationships between the constructs, particularly the psychological ones. You see, while it’s a cyclical interaction, there are some relationships that we can identify.  And over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the known associations, just to begin to build a picture of the relationships we can assess before we begin generating hypotheses.

For example, we know that the nervous system, and in particular our mind/brain, is never inactive and is therefore never a completely blank slate just waiting for information to come into it, but we also know there are relationships between the intensity/salience/novelty of a stimulus that attract attention, and that this competes with whatever cognitive set we have operating at the time (Legrain, Van Damme, Eccleston, Davis, Seminowicz & Crombez, 2009). So one relationship we need to assess is current contexts (and there are always many), and the times when a person is more or less aware of their pain.

Now, what increases the salience of a stimulus? For humans it’s all about meaning. We attribute meaning to even random patterns (ever seen dragons and horses in the clouds?!), so it’s unsurprising that as we experience something (or watch someone else experiencing something) we make meaning of it. And we generate meanings by relating concepts to other concepts – for a really good introduction to a very geeky subject, head here to read about relational frame theory. Relational frame theory is used to explain how we generate language and meanings by relating events with one another (The Bronnie translation! – for an easier version go here). Wicksell and Vowles (2015) describe this, and I’m going to quote it in full:

As described by relational frame theory, the theoretical framework underlying ACT, stimulus functions are continuously acquired via direct experiences, but also through their relations with other stimuli [5]. This implies that a behavioral response is not due to just one stimuli but rather the relational network of stimuli. Pain as an interoceptive stimulus is associated with a large number of other stimuli, and the actions taken depend on the psychological function(s) of that relational network of stimuli. A seemingly trivial situation may therefore elicit very strong reactions due to the associations being made: a relatively modest pain sensation from the neck trigger thoughts like “pain in the neck is bad,” which in turn are related to ideas such as “it may be a fragile disk,” and “something is terribly wrong,” that eventually lead to fatalistic conclusions like “I will end up in a wheelchair.” Thus, even if the initial stimulus is modest, it may activate a relational network of stimuli with very aversive psychological functions.

In other words, we develop these networks of meaning from the time we’re little until we die, and these mean any experience (situation, context, stimulus, event, action) holds meaning unique and particular to the individual. And these networks of meaning are constructed effortlessly and usually without any overt awareness. Each event/experience (yeah and the rest) then has further influence on how we experience any subsequent event/experience. So if you’ve learned that back pain is a Very Bad Thing, and you’ve done so since you were a kid because your Mother had back pain and took herself to the doctor and then stopped playing with you, you may have a very strong network of relationships built between low back pain, resting, healthcare, abandonment, sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, mother, father, pills, treatment – and the this goes on.

So when we’re beginning to construct a clinical reasoning model for something like low back pain we cannot exclude the “what does it mean” relationship. Every time someone experiences “ouch!” they’re processing a network of associations and relationships and behaviours that go on to influence their response to that experience – and affect attention to it and subsequent response to it.

Over 1000 words and I’ve not even started on emotions and pain!

Take home message: Even if we think we’re not addressing “psychological” stuff – we ARE. Omitting the “what does it mean to you?” and failing to factor that in to our clinical reasoning and subsequent treatment means we’re walking uphill on a scree slope. Oh, and telling someone they’re safe does not change those associations, especially if they’re longstanding. There’s more needed.


Legrain V, Damme SV, Eccleston C, Davis KD, Seminowicz DA, & Crombez G (2009). A neurocognitive model of attention to pain: behavioral and neuroimaging evidence. Pain, 144 (3), 230-2 PMID: 19376654

Sharp, T. J. (2001). Chronic pain: A reformulation of the cognitive-behavioural model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(7), 787-800. doi:

Tousignant-Laflamme, Y., Martel, M. O., Joshi, A. B., & Cook, C. E. (2017). Rehabilitation management of low back pain – it’s time to pull it all together! Journal of Pain Research, 10, 2373-2385. doi:10.2147/JPR.S146485

Wicksell, R. K., & Vowles, K. E. (2015). The role and function of acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral flexibility in pain management. Pain Management, 5(5), 319-322. doi:10.2217/pmt.15.32

Do pain management programmes really influence “doing” in daily life?

Disability and coping are two of the most important targets in persistent pain management, along with distress and pain intensity (the latter perhaps being the most difficult to influence). A question, however, is whether existing measures of disability truly capture the activities or occupations that people most value. For example, if house cleaning is just not my thing, even if my functioning improved over the course of a programme, would I choose to spend that new capability on vacuum-cleaning or out there in the garden?!

The Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (MPI)(Kerns, Turk & Rudy, 1985)  is a true workhorse of pain management measurement: It’s a measure that provides, via the subscales, an estimate of the complex inter-relationships involved in pain-related disability and distress. Three profiles of coping approach have been derived from the MPI indicating “Adaptive Coping” – the person is likely to continue to improve and engage in living well if they carry on as they are; “Interpersonally Distressed” – the person is experiencing difficulties with relationships and is feeling unsupported by others around them; and “Dysfunctional” – the person is struggling with their pain, and both disability and distress can feel overwhelming.

But the disability components of the MPI don’t really indicate the kinds of activities that people might be passionate about – or those that are relevant to their lives. The items are about general activities people “typically” do – in a North American setting. I know they’ve been validated in many different populations but they still represent a general idea of activity and function rather than the unique and idiosyncratic occupations that people do. (What's the difference? An occupation is the unique way I perform the important tasks of my day - the way I dash around the house while simultaneously cleaning my teeth, getting the dogs outside, making sure the curtains are opened and the appliances off just before I head out the door! We could call this "getting ready for work" but the way I do it, and the way you do it is probably very different!)

Why is that important? Well, because people value different occupations differently, and because values drive motivation, a broad measure of disability may not capture the true value of a pain management programme. And this is why the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure (COPM) (Law, Baptiste, McColl, Opzoomer, Polatajko & Pollock, 1990) is often used by occupational therapists to establish exactly what it is a person wants to be able to do. Goal Attainment Scaling is another option.

The study

In this study by Persson, Eklund, Lexell & Rivano-Fischer (2017), the aims were to assess longterm changes in MPI profiles over the course of a year; to look at associations between “Adaptive Coper” profiles at follow-up and improvements in occupational performance; and to look at factors at baseline that might be used to predict changes over time. Participants were, as usual, attending a tertiary pain management centre at a University hospital. They took part in a 21 day programme (oh the luxury of time!), and were seen by a team working together (oh the luxury of a co-located team!) including a psychologist, physician, physiotherapist, occupational therapist and social worker (oh for interprofessional teamwork!). The measures taken at pre and post were the MPI, COPM, and background demographic details.

Now here’s where the analysis gets pretty technical: dropout rates and pre-treatment differences amongst the MPI profiles were analysed using Matt-Whitney U, Kruskal-Wallis, chi-squared and independent t-test. Cross-tabs were used to describe the distribution of the MPI profiles. McNemar’s test was used to assess changes over time on each of the four profiles, and ultimately the participants were grouped into four profiles: never AC (Adaptive coper); losing AC; gaining AC, and stable AC, and these groupings were used to analyse associations between changes in MPI profile and changes on COPM from baseline to follow-up. And this, folks, is why occupational therapists NEED to learn statistical analyses! Because they went on to use univariate and multivariate logistic regressions to see whether demographic factors would predict these profiles at follow-up, incorporating satisfaction and performance scores on COPM.

What did they find?

More participants started the programme with a profile of dsyfunctional or interpersonally distressed than adaptive coper – and at both discharge and follow-up the adaptive coping group increased to be the largest subgroup. 20% of the participants ended up in the “gaining AC” group, 11% the “stable AC” group, 6% formed the “losing AC” group, and 63% were never in the adaptive coping group at all. Not so terrific in terms of broad outcome measures, but pretty consistent with other programmes around the world.

On the more individualised outcome measure of the COPM, people in the never AC group showed least clinically relevant improvement, both the stable AC and gaining AC groups showed more improvement on occupational performance and satisfaction with performance than the never AC group, while the stable AC group improved more than the losing AC group in terms of occupational performance changes.

Long-term changes showed those who started as AC were more likely to stay that way over time, and baseline scores for occupational performance were significantly associated with being AC at follow-up – in other words, people who felt OK about what they could do in terms of occupation, tended to become more capable and less disabled over time as measured by the MPI. More importantly, those people who had higher baseline scores on occupational satisfaction were 1.3 times more likely to shift to the AC group over time. “Clinically relevant improvements on performance and satisfaction with performance at 1-year follow-up, in occupations prioritized by the participants, were associated with having an AC profile at follow-up.” (p. 6).

Confidence in doing important occupations breeds confidence in other parts of living with persistent pain.

What does this all mean anyway?

Well, importantly, people who shifted from one of the other profiles to adaptive coping over a year showed clinically relevant improvements in occupational performance and satisfaction with performance – the authors suggest these findings show improvements on and satisfaction with “doing and performing” important occupations. Not being classified into adaptive coping at any time was associated with least improvement in occupational performance and satisfaction. There is an association between “doing/performing” and “coping/adapting” that hasn’t really been studied. Perhaps starting with things people enjoy instead of beating them over the head with things they’ve never been interested in could improve pain management outcomes. Pain management programmes DO influence doing in real life – if real life doing is used as therapy!

The authors also point out that “30–47% of participants who did not show an AC profile at follow-up still showed clinically relevant improvements on occupational performance and on
satisfaction with occupational performance.” (p. 8) This suggests that the MPI coping profiles only represent one part of the outcomes that are important to individuals: occupation being the individualised daily doings that people value very highly, and pointing to the need to explore individualised outcome measurement in more studies. Given that patient-centred pain management is based on individual goals, using only generic measures is likely to give misleading outcomes about treatment efficacy.


Kerns IVRD,TurkDC, Rudy TE. (1985) West Haven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (WHYMPI). Pain. 23:345–56

Law M, Baptiste S, McColl M, Opzoomer A, Polatajko H, Pollock N. (1990). The Canadian Occupational Performance Measure: an outcome measure for occupational therapy. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 57(2), pp82–7.

Persson, E., Eklund, M., Lexell, J., & Rivano-Fischer, M. (2017). Psychosocial coping profiles after pain rehabilitation: Associations with occupational performance and patient characteristics. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 39(3), 251-260.

Thinking the worst – and willingness to do things despite pain

Catastrophising, perhaps more than any other psychological construct, has received pretty negative press from people living with pain. It’s a construct that represents a tendency to “think the worst” when experiencing pain, and I can understand why people who are in the middle of a strong pain bout might reject any idea that their minds might be playing tricks on them. It’s hard to stand back from the immediacy of “OMG that really HURTS” especially when, habitually, many people who have pain try so hard to pretend that “yes everything is really all right”. At the same time, the evidence base for the contribution that habitually “thinking the worst” has on actually increasing the report of pain intensity, increasing difficulty coping, making it harder to access effective ways around the pain, and on the impact pain has on doing important things in life is strong (Quartana, Campbell & Edwards, 2009).

What then, could counter this tendency to feel like a possum in the headlights in the face of strong pain? In the study I’m discussing today, willingness to experience pain without trying to avoid or control that experience, aka “acceptance”, is examined, along with catastrophising and measures of disability. Craner, Sperry, Koball, Morrison and Gilliam (2017) recruited 249 adults who were seeking treatment at an interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation programme (at tertiary level), and examined a range of important variables pre and post treatment.  Participants in the programme were on average 50 years old, mainly married, and white (not a term we’d ever use in New Zealand!). They’d had pain for an average of 10.5 years, and slightly less than half were using opioids at the time of entry to the programme.

Occupational therapists administered the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure, an occupational therapist-administered, semi-structured interview designed to assess a person’s performance and satisfaction with their daily activities (Law, Baptiste, McColl, Opzoomer, Polatajko & Pollock, 1990). The performance scale was used in this study, along with the Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire (one of my favourites – McCracken, Vowles & Eccelston, 2004); the Pain Catastrophising Scale (Sullivan, Bishop & Pivik, 1995), The Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (Kroenke, Spitzer & Williams, 2001); and The Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (Kerns, Turk & Rudy, 1985).

Now here’s where the fun begins, because there is some serious statistical analysis going on! Hierarchical multiple regression analyses is not for the faint-hearted – read the info about this approach by clicking the link. Essentially, it is a way to show if variables of your interest explain a statistically significant amount of variance in your Dependent Variable (DV) after accounting for all other variables. Or, in this study, what is the relationship between pain catastrophising, acceptance and pain severity – while controlling for age, gender, opioids use, and pain duration. The final step was to enter a calculation of the interaction between catastrophising and acceptance, and to enter this into the equation as the final step. A significant interaction suggests one of these two moderates the other – and this is ultimately captured by testing the slopes of the graphs. Complex? Yes – but a good way to analyse these complex relationships.


Unsurprisingly, pain catastrophising and acceptance do correlate – negatively. What this means is that the more a person thinks the worst about their pain, the less willing they are to do things that will increase their pain, or to do things while their pain is elevated. Makes sense, on the surface, but wait there’s more!

Pain catastrophizing was significantly (ps < .01) and positively correlated with greater perceived pain intensity, pain interference, distress due to pain, and depression – and negatively correlated with occupational therapist-rated functioning. Further analysis found that only pain catastrophising (not acceptance) was associated with pain severity, while both catastrophising and acceptance predicted negative effect (mood) using the WHYMPI, but when the analysis used the PHQ-9, both pain catastrophising and pain acceptance uniquely predicted depressive symptoms.  When pain interference was used as the dependent variable, pain acceptance uniquely predicted the amount of interference participants experienced, rather than catastrophising. The final analysis was using the performance subscale of the COPM, finding that pain acceptance was a predictor, while catastrophising was not.

What does all this actually mean?

Firstly, I found it interesting that values weren’t used as part of this investigation, because when people do daily activities, they do those they place value on, for some reason. For example, if we value other people’s opinions, we’re likely to dress up a bit, do the housework and maybe bake something if we have people come to visit. This study didn’t incorporate contexts of activity – the why question. I think that’s a limitation, however, examining values is not super easy, however it’s worth keeping this limitation in mind when thinking about the results.

The results suggest that when someone is willing to do something even if it increases pain, or while pain is elevated, this has an effect on their performance, disability, the interference they experience from pain, and their mood.

The results also suggest that catastrophising, while an important predictor of pain-related outcomes, is moderated by acceptance.

My question now is – what helps someone to be willing to do things even when their pain is high? if we analyse the CPAQ items, we find things like “I am getting on with the business of living no matter what my level of pain is.”;  “It’s not necessary for me to control my pain in order to handle my life well.”; and “My life is going well, even though I have chronic pain.”. These are important areas for clinicians to address during treatment. They’re about life – rather than pain. They’re about what makes life worth living. They’re about who are you, what does your life stand for, what makes you YOU, and what can you do despite pain. And these are important aspects of pain treatment: given none of us can claim a 100% success rate for pain reduction. Life is more than the absence of pain.



Craner, J. R., Sperry, J. A., Koball, A. M., Morrison, E. J., & Gilliam, W. P. (2017). Unique contributions of acceptance and catastrophizing on chronic pain adaptation. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 24(4), 542-551.

Kerns IVRD,TurkDC, Rudy TE. (1985) West Haven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (WHYMPI). Pain. 23:345–56.

Kroenke K, Spitzer RL, Williams JB. The PHQ-9: validity of a brief depression severity measure. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 16(9), 606-13.

Law M, Baptiste S, McColl M, Opzoomer A, Polatajko H, Pollock N. (1990). The Canadian Occupational Performance Measure: an outcome measure for occupational therapy. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 57(2), pp82–7.

McCracken LM, Vowles KE, Eccleston C. (2004). Acceptance of chronic pain: component analysis and a revised assessment method. Pain. 107(1–2), pp159–66.

Quartana PJ, Campbell CM, Edwards RR. (2009) Pain catastrophizing: a critical review. Expert Reviews in Neurotherapy, 9, pp 745–58.

SullivanMLJ, Bishop SR, Pivik J. (1995). The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: development and validation. Psychological Assessment. 7:524–32.

Minding your body: Interoceptive awareness, mindfulness and living well

We all grow up with a pretty good idea of what our body feels like; what normal is. It’s one of the first “tasks” of infancy, it seems, to work out what is me and what is not. When people experience a disturbance to the way their body moves or feels, it can take some time to get used to that new way of being. In pregnancy, where the body takes on a different shape and dimension, it’s not uncommon to bump into things because the new shape hasn’t yet sunk in!

This awareness of “what my body feels like” is called interoceptive awareness (IA), and I was intrigued to read this paper by Hanley, Mehling and Garland (2017) in which IA is examined in relation to dispositional mindfulness (DM). DM is thought to be the innate tendency to notice without judging or automatically reacting to what is going on. IA may be extremely sensitive in some people – for example, people with health anxiety might notice their sweaty palms and heart palpitations and then worry that they’re about to have a heart attack, or the same symptoms in someone with social anxiety might be experienced as indications to LEAVE RIGHT NOW because EVERYONE is looking at ME.

I’m not sure of research into IA in people with persistent pain, although I am positive it’s something that has been studied (see Mehling, Daubenmier, Price, Acree, Bartmess & Stewart, 2013). As a result, in my conclusions I’m going to draw from my experience working with those living with persistent pain, and extrapolate wildly!

This study aimed to establish the relationship between various items on two questionnaires used to measure IA and DM: the MAIA (Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness), and the FFMQ (Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire). The paper itself discusses the first measure as empirically derived and confirmed by focus groups, and having associations with less trait anxiety, emotional susceptibility and depression – in other words, high scores on this measure (awareness of body sensations and judging those sensations) are associated with important factors influencing our wellbeing. The second measure is described as “one of the most commonly used self-report measures of DM”. It consists of five scales thought to measure important aspects of mindfulness (observing, not reacting and acting with awareness).

Along with these two measures, the authors examined wellbeing, which essentially was defined as a tendency to accept oneself, have a purpose, manage the environment, develop good relationships, continue to grow as a person and be independent and autonomous. We could probably argue about these dimensions in view of what may be a cultural component (autonomy may not be highly favoured in some communities).

Recruitment was via mTurk, Amazon’s crowdsourcing website. As a result participants possibly don’t represent the kinds of people I would see in clinical practice. And half of the 478 participants were excluded because people didn’t complete all the questionnaires. I could quibble about this sample, so bear that in mind when you consider the results.


Turning to the results, the first finding was a good correlation between all three questionnaires, with the FFMQ more strongly correlated with psychological wellbeing than the MAIA. But these researchers wanted more! So they carried out canonical correlation analysis, which is used to correlate the latent variables present in measurement instruments. It’s complicated, but what it can tell us is how underlying aspects of two unrelated measures might fit together. In this instance, the researchers found that two of the FFMQ (non-reacting and observing) were related to six of the eight MAIA factors (attention regulation, self-regulation, trusting, emotional awareness, body listening and noticing). They also found that FFMQ ‘non-judging’ and ‘acting with awareness’ were associated with MAIA ‘not worrying’ subscale.

What does this tell us? Well, to me it’s about grouping somewhat-related items together from two instruments to work out their contribution to something else. The authors thought so too, and therefore completed a further analysis (told you it was complicated!), to look at a two-step hierarchical multiple regression where the two sets of scales were entered into equations to see how much each contributed to the psychological wellbeing score. Whew!

What they found was interesting, and why I’m fascinated by this study despite its shortcomings.

What can we do with this info?

Being mindfully observant and non-reactive seems to be associated with a person’s ability to notice and control attention to what’s going on in the body. Makes sense to me – knowing what goes on in your body but being able to flexibly decide how much to be bothered about, and what you’re going to do about those sensations will make a difference to how well you can cope with things like fatigue, hunger, the need to change body position or to sustain a position when you’re focusing on something else – like hunting!

Apparently, being able to attend to body sensations is also part of regulating your emotional state, and if you can do this, you’ll generally experience your body as a safe and “trustworthy” place. And if you can do this when your body doesn’t feel so good yet still remain calm and accepting, this is a good thing. In the final analysis, these authors called the first cluster of statements “Regulatory awareness” – being aware of your body and regulating how you respond to it. The second cluster related more with non-judging and acting with awareness, so the authors called this “Acceptance in action”.

For people living with persistent pain, where the body often does not feel trustworthy and there’s an increased need to “ignore” or “let go” or “not judge” painful areas, it seems that one of the most important skills to learn is how to self regulate responses to IA. To take the time to notice all the body (not ignore the sore bits, nor obsess about the sore bits). This doesn’t come easily because I think for most of us, we’ve learned we need to notice pain – after all, ordinarily it’s helpful! The second part is to accept in action – in other words discriminating between unpleasant body sensations are should be worried about, and those not needing our attention is an adaptive skill. Perhaps mindfulness gives us better capabilities to discriminate between what needs to be taken into account, and what does not.

Interestingly, the least strongly associated response items were related to using words to describe what goes on in the body. For me this suggests experiential practices might be more useful to help people develop these two skills than simply talking about it. And suggests that maybe we could use meditative movement practices as a good way to develop these skills.

R.A. Baer, G.T. Smith, J. Hopkins, J. Krietemeyer, L. Toney, (2006) Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness, Assessment 13 27–45.

Hanley, A. W., Mehling, W. E., & Garland, E. L. (2017). Holding the body in mind: Interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 99, 13-20. doi:

W.E. Mehling, J. Daubenmier, C.J. Price, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A.L. Stewart, (2013). Self-reported interoceptive awareness in primary care patients with past or current low back pain, Journal of Pain Research. 6

W.E. Mehling, C. Price, J.J. Daubenmier, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A. Stewart, (2012) The multidimensional assessment of interoceptive awareness (MAIA), PLoS One 7  e48230.