ACT – Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

… a little more about Pain Catastrophising subscales

I’ve been writing about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and how to use this instrument in clinical practice these last two posts here and here because the construct of catastrophising (thinking the worst) has become one of the most useful to help identify people who may have more distress and disability when dealing with pain. Today I want to continue with this discussion, but looking this time at a large new study where the subscales magnification, rumination and hopelessness have been examined separately to understand their individual impact on pain severity and disability.

Craner, Gilliam and Sperry looked at the results of 844 patients with chronic pain prior to taking part in a group programme (a heterogeous sample, rather than a single diagnosis, so this group probably look at lot like those admitted to high intensity tertiary chronic pain management services such as Burwood Pain Management Centre here in Christchurch).  Most of the participants were female, European/white and married, and had chronic pain for an average of 10.7 years. Just over half were using opioid medication to manage their pain.

Along with the PCS, participants also completed some very common measures of disability (Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory – MPI) and quality of life (SF-36), and the CES-D which is a measure of depression.

Now here comes some statistical analysis: multiple hierarchical regression! Age, sex, duration of pain and use of opioids were entered into the equation and found to account for only 2.0% variance of the pain severity subscale of the MPI – but once the PCS was added in (subscales entered separately) an additional 14% of the variance was accounted for, but the helplessness subscale was the only one to contribute significantly to the overall variance.

When Pain Interference was  entered as the dependent variable, all the same demographic variables as above contributed a meagre 1.2% of the variance, but when the Pain Severity subscale scores were added, 25.5% of the variance was explained – while the combined PCS subscales contributed 6.5% of the variance. Again, helplessness was the only subscale to contribute to Pain Interference.

Moving to quality of life – the physical subscale of the SF-36 was used as the dependent variable, and once again the demographic variables accounted for only 1.5% variance in physical QOL, with Pain Severity accounting for 23%. PCS subscales contributed only 2.6% of the variance, with only the magnification subscale being identified as a unique contributor. When the mental health subscale was used, again demographics only accounted for 1.2% of variance, with pain severity accounting for 12.4% of the variance. This time, however, the PCS subscales contributed 19.5% of the variance with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the variance.

Finally, examining depression, demographics contributed a small amount of variance (3.3%), with pain severity additing 9.8% of variance. The PCS subscales were then entered and contributed a total of 21% to the prediction of depression with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the overall depression variance.

The so what factor

What does this actually mean in clinical practice? Well first of all this is a large group of patients, so we can draw some conclusions from the calculations – but we need to be a little cautious because these participants are a group who have managed to get into a tertiary pain management facility. They’re also a group with a large percentage using opioids, and they were pretty much all European – and from North America, not New Zealand. I’m not sure they look like the people who might commonly come into a community-based facility, or one where they’d be referred directly from a GP or primary care centre.

At the same time, while this group may not look like the people most commonly seen for pain management, they share some similar characteristics – they tend to magnify the “awfulness” of pain, and then feel helpless when their pain is bothering them. Surprisingly, I thought, ruminating or brooding on pain wasn’t a unique contributor and instead the helplessness scale contributed the most to pain severity, pain-related interference (disability associated with pain), poor mental health quality of life, and low mood, while magnification scale contributed to poorer physical health quality of life, mental health quality of life and low mood.

What this means for practice

The authors suggest that the construct measured by the helplessness subscale might be a factor underlying poor adaptation to life’s difficulties in general, leading to passivity and negative emotions. They also suggest that magnification might be a unique contributor to perceiving obstacles to doing the things we need to do every day, while hopelessness might mean people are less likely to participate in enjoyable activities and then in turn contribute to feeling low.

Importantly, the authors state: “We offer that simply collapsing the 3 dimensions of this phenomenon (ie, rumination, magnification, helplessness) may actually conceal nuanced relationships between specific dimensions of catastrophizing and outcomes that would might inform treatment approaches.” Looking at the overall scores without thinking about the subscales is going to give you less information to use for individualising your treatment.

In a clinical setting I’d be reviewing the individual subscales of the PCS alongside both disability and mood measures to see if the suggested relationships exist in the scores this person has given.

I’d be taking a look at the repertoire of coping strategies the person can identify – and more, I’d be looking at how flexibly they apply these strategies. Extending the range of strategies a person can use, and problem-solving ways to use these strategies in different activities and contexts is an important part of therapy, particularly occupational therapy and physiotherapy. Another approach you might consider is helping people return to enjoyable activities that are within their tolerance right here, right now. By building confidence that it’s possible to return to things that are fun we might counter the effects of helplessness, and help put pain back where it belongs – an experience that we can choose to respond to, or not.

I’d also be taking a look at their tendency to avoid feeling what their pain feels like, in other words I’d like to see if the person can mindfully and without judging, complete a body scan that includes the areas that are painful. This approach is intended to help people notice that alongside the painful areas are other nonpainful ones, and that they can successfully be with their pain and make room for their pain rather than attempting to block it out, or over-attend to it. The way mindfulness might work is by allowing people to experience the sensations without the judgement that the experience is bad, or indicates some terrible catastrophe. It allows people to step back from the immediate reaction “OMG that’s BAD” and to instead take time to view it as it actually is, without the emotional halo around it.

Pain catastrophising is a useful construct – but I think we need to become more nuanced in how we use the scores from the questionnaire.

Craner, J. R., Gilliam, W. P., & Sperry, J. A. (2016). Rumination, magnification, and helplessness: How do different aspects of pain catastrophizing relate to pain severity and functioning? Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(12), 1028-1035.

Ups and downs and rocking and rolling

What a week it has been! Not only an unexpected result in the US elections, but also a very large earthquake north of Christchurch, along with a tsunami alert for the entire eastern coastline of New Zealand. Luckily I live far enough away from the shoreline that I didn’t have to evacuate, but the sirens certainly work!

As a result of these events, which I firmly believe are NOT associated except in time, the post I was going to make seems a bit redundant, so I’m going to talk about resilience and what it really means.

For someone who has lived through thousands of earthquakes since September 2010, resilience is almost a dirty word. People living in Christchurch are a bit tired of being called resilient.  You see, it’s not the quakes that are the problem – it’s the aftermath. The “new normal” that we’ve been living through these past years. The thousands of road cones lining almost every street. The constant detours as bits of road are dug up and sewerage, storm water and water pipes relaid. The delays. The ongoing processing needed to work out “where am I?” in the streets we used to know so well.

Resilience is intended to refer to “bounce back”. The thing is, I don’t think we bounce back to exactly the way we were before – we’re irrevocably changed by all experiences, but especially ones as significant as the earthquakes, or even political changes. That we don’t “return to normal” is one of the main reasons I don’t believe reports of people “going back to normal” if pain is completely removed. Why? Because people actively process and make meaning from everything that happens to them – and the meanings that are given to experiences don’t ever completely go.  We know, for example, that we can’t “unwire” nerves that have fired together, so what actually happens is that alternative paths or connections between nerves are formed. This means that under the right circumstances, those original paths will fire again… And people who have experienced chronic pain will, even if their pain eventually goes, know exactly what that pain meant, how it affected them, and I’m certain will be very aware of any new pain that seems to be similar to the one that was just there.

Resilience to me is therefore not so much about “bouncing back” as it is about being able to take stock of what actually IS, determine the paths that lead on in the direction of important values, and then choosing to take those paths. And this can often mean taking detours because old paths aren’t negotiable any more. That can be, and is, disturbing. It can be frustrating, fatiguing and far more demanding than the idea usually invoked by the word “resilience”.

So, in the next days and weeks, let’s think less about being resilient, and more about being flexible – flexibly persisting, if you will. We need to persist to get anywhere, do anything. We need to be flexible about how we get there and how we do what we value. We’ll need passion, but more than passion, we’ll need commitment.


Clinical reasoning “think aloud”

Occupational therapists are keen on helping people return to doing the things they value – meaningful activity, or participating in valued occupations (same thing, essentially). So, a person might come to see me because they have low back pain and want to work out how to get to work.

My first step is to understand what it is about the back pain that seems to be stopping the person from doing the tasks involved in their work. I usually begin by taking a history – what does the person understand about how their back pain came on, what’s their theory as to why it’s there, what have they done to help their recovery, how are they managing the everyday things they need to do right now. I ask about sleep, sex, personal care, daily routine, and in doing so I’m finding out about the person’s beliefs and attitudes towards their pain, their ability to regulate their arousal level, their mood, their confidence, the influence of others around them (both supportive – and those more subtle influences like their response when the person does something). I’m very careful to try to understand the contexts in which the person is having trouble – and what factors in the context might be supporting change.

In my mind I’m trying to establish a set of possible reasons for this person coming to see me at this time and in this way. I’m running through the various influences I know affect a person’s ability to engage in normal daily activities. Because I have a strong psychology background, I’ll consider functional behavioural analysis, but I’m also sensitive to personal values, cultural norms, and yes, even biological factors such as strength, range of movement, and motor control.

I can try to influence two things: the demands of the tasks in the context of work, and the capabilities of the person, but I need to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. What is the effect of my intervention in the medium to long-term, not just the short-term?
  2. What does this person need in this context right now?

Depending on my clinical formulation, and the overall theoretical model I’m using, I can approach the decision-making in many different ways. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so my end goal is to help this person develop the ability to respond flexibly to the demands of any situation. I want to keep in mind that what I do now can have a long-term influence on what they’ll do over time. Some occupational therapists may instead focus primarily on “what will solve the problem for this person right now” without always thinking about the long-term impact.  As a result, we can see some people with low back pain being given special seating, perhaps a new bed, some adaptive equipment so they can achieve the goal of “doing” – but at the same time, being unaware of the constraints this can put on the person being able to participate in other contexts.

For example, if my client is having trouble getting to work because he thinks his car’s seat should be fixed. If my focus was purely on helping him drive his car in comfort, I could consider assessing his car and giving him some cushioning to make it more supportive. There, problem fixed! But, let’s take a look at the effect of that intervention in the medium term. While he can drive to and from work, he’s learned that he “needs” a special seat or cushioning to help stop his discomfort. He’s also learned that his back pain is something he “shouldn’t” experience.

Based on what he’s learned from my intervention, what do you think can happen if he continues to experience back pain in the work setting?

His personal model of pain will have developed a couple of interesting quirks (and ones we often see in clients) – he’s learned that posture influences his back pain, and that there is a posture that “fixes” it. He’s learned that he should have his back in a particular position to be comfortable. He’s also learned that because he can influence his sitting position in the car, he “should” be able to influence his sitting position in other contexts – like, perhaps, his office desk or the seat in his digger. He might even, if his belief that his back “should” be in a particular position is especially strong, begin to try to keep his back in this position while doing other activities like walking or carrying things, or using tools. Most insidiously, he has learned that his back pain is something he should not have. It’s a sign to him that he has to “fix” his sitting position or he’s doing something wrong. But back pain is common, many factors influence it, and it often doesn’t settle completely.

If I instead want him to be able to respond flexibly to many different settings, I’ll need to think more carefully about my intervention. My underlying reasoning has to capture the workability of any suggestions I make – and workability not just in the car while driving, but at work, while doing other tasks, at other times.

I may work together with him to find out what it is about the pain in his back that particularly bothers him. Pain itself is usually not the problem – it’s what the pain represents, the effect on doing things both here and now, and in the future. In my client’s case, perhaps his back pain is particularly frustrating for him because he values getting to work and feeling ready for anything. He doesn’t want to feel like his goals are being blocked (he doesn’t want to feel exhausted and not ready for work), he doesn’t want his back pain, and his mind is telling him he needs to be “ready for anything” even though he is in the middle of a bout of back pain. In ACT terms, he’s avoiding the negative feeling of frustration, of potential failure, of feeling exhausted and his back pain, and he’s doing what all humans do – trying to control those emotions so that he doesn’t feel them! Makes perfect sense – except that the solution (giving him a cushion for his vehicle) could pose its own problems.

I can position my intervention in a couple of different ways. Honouring the value he places on being ready for anything at work, I can talk to him about how well that’s working for him right now, given he’s having a bout of back pain. Could he be willing to allow himself to be less “ready for anything” while he recovers from his back pain? I could also suggest that he could take the time to be present to his back pain, to be aware of and experience his back – and his feet, arms, shoulders and breath – while driving to work, so that he can notice the times when it’s really bothering him, and when it bothers him less, and that along with his back pain he also has areas of comfort and strength. I could provide him with a cushion – but ask him to think about what happens when he has to sit in other chairs, and ask about the workability of carrying a cushion wherever he goes.

The point is that while occupational therapists can help people do the things they want and need to do, some of our efforts can constrain people’s options over time. We don’t live the lives of our clients – but sometimes we can assume the client’s priority is to solve an immediate problem, while overlooking the other competing values the person also holds dear.

I’ve included some readings that have informed this blog post – while they’re not directly referenced in my post, they help inform my clinical reasoning.

Damsgard, E., Dewar, A., Roe, C., & Hamran, T. (2011). Staying active despite pain: Pain beliefs and experiences with activity-related pain in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 108-116. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6712.2010.00798.x

DeGood, Douglas E., & Cook, Andrew J. (2011). Psychosocial assessment: Comprehensive measures and measures specific to pain beliefs and coping. Turk, Dennis C [Ed], 67-97.

McCracken, Lance M., & Vowles, Kevin E. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness for Chronic Pain: Model, Process, and Progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178-187.

Stenberg, Gunilla, Fjellman-Wiklund, Anncristine, & Ahlgren, Christina. (2014). ‘I am afraid to make the damage worse’ – fear of engaging in physical activity among patients with neck or back pain – a gender perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 28(1), 146-154. doi: 10.1111/scs.12043

Trompetter, Hester R., ten Klooster, Peter M., Schreurs, Karlein M., Fledderus, Martine, Westerhof, Gerben J., & Bohlmeijer, Ernst T. (2013). Measuring values and committed action with the Engaged Living Scale (ELS): Psychometric evaluation in a nonclinical sample and a chronic pain sample. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1235-1246.

van Huet, H, & Williams, D. (2007). Self-Beliefs About Pain and Occupational Performance: A Comparison of Two Measures Used in a Pain Management Program. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health Vol 27(1) Win 2007, 4-12.

Making sense of pain

Humans have an incredible desire for things to make sense. We want things to fit a story or what’s expected – and we get right discombobulated (it’s a word) if we encounter a situation where things don’t make sense. To a certain extent we can blame our use of language for this, because it’s the way we’ve learned to pair words with concepts, and to associate multiple concepts together. For example, we learn “ouch” is associated with that unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that we’ve learned goes along with scrapes or bumps or cuts. We’ve also learned that “ouch” goes along with “it will go soon” and “don’t use that bit too much or it will hurt for longer” as well as “big boys don’t cry” and “you’re just being lazy if you don’t suck it up” and “whiners talk about their back pain all the time” and other similar notions. This is how humans connect visible objects (nouns) with words and other invisible concepts to create a network of meaning that, among others who share similar language and culture, means we can communicate with one another and go beyond the here and now and into the future and recall the past.

Even when events don’t make sense, we struggle to create a sense from it – we even say things like “this doesn’t make sense” as a way to classify the event along with a bunch of other “events that don’t make sense”. 

Why does this matter?

Well, because we want life to make sense, and to understand what we and others are up to, we create meaning and sense (coherence) even where there is no sense. Sometimes we grasp at straws (otherwise known as explanations from people who may not actually know what’s going on, but can spin a good tale). And at times, grasping at these straws means we ignore our own experience just so we can  hold on to what we think ought to be there. Here’s an example: some of us have back pain. We don’t know why it started, but we try to make sense of why we experience it by drawing on things we’ve been told by others – we might blame age, lifting “incorrectly”, weak “core” muscles, or differences in how long our legs are. Now the explanation itself doesn’t need to even be accurate – what’s important is that by accepting an explanation we become less sensitive to alternative explanations, and even more importantly, we begin to ignore what our own body feels like because we think we should believe what an expert tells us.

The problem with trying to make an explanation work for us, when it’s not necessarily so, is that in adopting that explanation we may find it a lot more difficult to respond flexibly to different situations. For example, if we’ve learned that back pain happens because of poor posture (where “poor posture” means not holding the spine a certain way), then we have more difficulty doing things when we’re in situations where being hunched over is the only way to get into an awkward situation, like when we have to lift a child into the back seat of a car, or put the pots back into the back of the bottom shelf of the cupboard.

Explanations for pain

Because pain is so common, and critical for human survival, we hold deep and powerful beliefs about what pain should mean, and how we should handle it. We probably all learned that pain is temporary and generally settles down once tissues have healed. We might have learned to hide our tears and not to ask for help when we’re sore. We probably grew up knowing that if tissues are really mangled, then it really hurts, and if it’s a paper cut it shouldn’t bother us. And we learned all the myriad concepts associated with pain – like being too withdrawn or tearful means we’re not really very brave, that if we get angry and hit out at someone who’s helping us with our pain, it’s very bad. We learned that it doesn’t hurt as much when someone “kisses it better”, and we learned that we should find out what’s wrong, get it fixed, and get over it.

But what happens when pain violates our past experience and all the explanations we’ve been given before?

What if we have pain that doesn’t disappear? What if the explanations we get given don’t fit with our own experience? What if the very things we’ve been told to do to “help” our pain actually make our lives worse? What if we’re clinicians who find that all the things we’ve been told should work – just don’t.

If we’ve been good learners, most of us will be unsettled by these inconsistencies. Things don’t add up. We probably keep on looking for “the answer” that will fix the problem. We’ll probably feel guilty and perhaps even a bit embarrassed that this pain is different. We might doubt our own experience and worry that we’re being just a bit pathetic or a really don’t want to get better. Or if we’re clinicians, we may wonder if the person wants to get better, or if they’re really doing the exercises the way they should…

And this isn’t helped by well-meaning people who might suggest that we should keep on looking for “the answer” – even when doing this gets in the way of important things we want to be able to do! So we might take the pills that make us feel groggy and constipated. We keep on doing the exercises that are boring and don’t seem to change anything. We do these things not because they work – but because we think they should work. And so we all get frustrated and irritated and just don’t live lives of richness and fulfillment. Perhaps we forget what we want our lives to stand for anyway.

Difficult conversations

It isn’t easy to talk about pain that doesn’t do what it ought to. Our very human nature makes the situation difficult. I’m hoping that by beginning to think more contextually, more about what works in the here and now, about having a range of options to try so we don’t get backed into an unworkable corner just because that’s what someone has suggested should work, that we the people (those living with chronic pain and those working with those who live with chronic pain) might gently and creatively develop some flexibility around what can be such a sticky  concept. Maybe that’s what resilience is?


Guide, don’t instruct: how we talk within sessions

Do you remember your favourite teacher in school? Mine was Mrs Jackson, teacher of my Form 2 class (I think I was 12 years old). She was an outstanding teacher because she expected that we’d do well. She also didn’t tell us what to do – she helped us explore. And if there was one thing I’d like to have happen in therapy sessions with clients, it would be that we learn how to guide instead of instructing.

It’s only recently that I’ve learned why guiding and facilitating is so much more helpful than telling or instructing, and yes it’s because I’ve been reading Villatte, Villatte & Hayes Mastering the Clinical Conversation.

Have you ever noticed that when we give an instruction like “Sit up straight” or “Use your core” our clients attend to how well they’re doing just that – sitting up straight, or using the core – and at the very same time, they no longer attend to other aspects of their movement (or the context, or even the purpose of the movement). It’s a human tendency to focus on a particular set of features of our environment – and it certainly helps us cognitively because it means we don’t have to attend to everything all at once. BUT at the same time, it means we become relatively insensitive to other features occurring at the same time.

Rules or instructions have their place, or they wouldn’t still be being used in therapy – but their utility depends on how rigidly they’re applied. It makes sense for a super athlete to really focus on certain aspects of their performance, especially when they’re training, and especially when there’s one particular set of movements that will maximise their performance. For people living with pain, however, life is not about a set of performance goals. Instead, it’s about being able to respond adeptly to the constantly changing demands of their lives. And one thing people living with pain often have trouble with is being able to notice what’s happening in their own bodies.

Let’s unpack this. People living with chronic pain live with ongoing pain in certain parts of the body – and human tendencies being what they are, we try to avoid experiencing those sore bits, so our attention either skips over the painful area or it focuses almost exclusively on the sore bits and not on other parts (technically this could be called experiential avoidance). By working hard to avoid experiencing the sore bits, or alternatively focusing entirely on those sore bits, people living with pain often fail to notice what actually happens during movement.

As therapists, we can complicate this. We can instruct people (give them rules) about the movements they “should” be doing. We try to ‘correct’ posture. We advise people to use specific lifting techniques. We say “use your core”.

The effect of these instructions is to further lead our patients away from experiencing what is happening in their body. Instead of becoming aware of the way their bodies move, they attend to how well they’re following our instructions. Which is fine – until the person experiences a flare-up, or moves into a new environment with different demands, or perhaps we complete our sessions and discharge them into the wild blue yonder.

So, people with chronic pain can progressively become less aware of how their body actually feels as they do movements, and at the same time, try to apply rules we’ve given them that may not be all that helpful in different contexts.

We end up with the plumber trying hard to crawl under a house, carrying all her tools, while at the same time being worried that she’s not “using her core”. Or the piano teacher trying to “sit up properly” while working with a student on a duet. And the nurse, working one day in a busy ward with heavy patients, and another day in a paediatric ward, trying to “lift properly” using the same technique.

If we want to help people respond effectively to the widely differing contexts they’ll experience in everyday life, perhaps we need to take some time to help people learn to trust their own body, to experience both painful areas – and those that aren’t painful. We might need to help people work out fundamental principles of movement to enable them to have movement variability and flexibility – and to adjust and adapt when the contexts change.

To do this, we need to think about the way we help people learn new ways of moving. There are two fundamentals, I think.

  1. Guiding people to attend to, or notice, what is – including being OK about noticing painful parts of the body. The purpose behind this is to help people become aware of the various movement options they have, and the effect of those options on how they feel. We might need to guide people to consider not only pain, but also feelings of strength, stability, responsiveness, reach, movement refinement, subtlety, delicacy and power. To achieve this, we might need to spend time developing mindfulness skills so people can experience rather than attempting to change what they experience. The art of being willing to make room for whatever experience is present – learning to feel pain AND feel strength; feel pain AND relaxation; feel comfort AND power.
  2. Guiding people to use their own experience as their guide to “good movement”. In part, this is more of the same. I use words like “experiment” as in “let’s try this as an experiment, what does it feel like to you?”, or “let’s give it a go and see what you think”, or “I wonder what would happen if….” For example, if a person tries to move a box on a ledge that’s just out of reach, how many of you have told the person “stand a bit closer?” While that’s one way of helping someone work out that they might be stronger if they’re close to a load, what happens if the ground underfoot is unstable? The box still needs to be moved but the “rule” of standing close to a box doesn’t work – what do you think might happen if the person was guided to “Let’s try working out how you can move the box. What’s happening in your body when you reach for it?” then “What do you think you might change to make you feel more confident?” (or strong, or stable, or able to change position?).

When we try guiding rather than instructing, we honour the person’s own choices and contexts while we’re also allowing them to develop a superior skill: that of learning to experience their own body and to trust their own judgement. This ultimately gives them more awareness of how their body functions, and the gift of being flexible in how they approach any movement task.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

Dealing with distress

From time to time anyone who works with people trying to help them make changes in their lives will encounter someone who is overwhelmed, distressed and generally not willing to (or able to) take even a tiny step forward. It’s hard for us as therapists because, after all, we want to help people – but hey! This person in front of us just isn’t up to it!

I think many of us who weren’t trained in psychology can find it really hard to know what to do, and like all humans, we deal with feeling helpless by hoping to avoid it.

Some of us will tell people what to do – this is the way most of us were trained, so it’s what we do when under threat. We might couch this advice in fancy words, but essentially we try to get the person to make a change on the basis of our expertise and superior position. After all, the person came to us for help, right?

Some of us will feel stuck ourselves. Perhaps we’ll give up, or blame the person we’re sitting in front of. They’re not motivated/willing/ready so we stop trying and back off.

In both of these situations, the person’s actual needs at the time can be inadvertently ignored. They’re distressed and we either ignore and advise, or back off – when perhaps what they’re really wanting is someone to be present with them and offer them time to work together on the next best step they can take.

Here’s one way I’ve used to help people who are stuck, distressed and not certain.

  1. Be fully present and let them express what’s going on. This means listening, perhaps asking “can you tell me more about that?” or “it’s tough but are you willing to talk me through what’s going on for you right now?” or “what’s your theory on why you are feeling what you’re feeling?”
  2. Listen with an open and enquiring mind and heart. That means absorbing what they’re saying without trying to respond to it. At the most, you can reflect what you hear, perhaps saying things like “I think I understand that you’re feeling [sad, afraid, overwhelmed], do I have this right?”, or “From what you’re saying, you’re not sure [what’s going on with your rehab] and this is incredibly hard”, “if I’ve heard what you’re saying… is that what you mean?”
  3. Breathe and be mindful of your own response before charging on with the session. It’s OK to tear up if someone is saying something that would make you feel sad. It’s OK to feel aghast that this terrible thing is happening. It’s OK to notice your own body tighten up, your breathing change, not to know what to say. Just notice this in yourself BEFORE you respond. If you do feel something, respond naturally – normalise the experience described by the person as being something anyone in their shoes would feel, and reflect your own response to it. You can say things like “Oh that sounds like such a tough situation” or “I feel a bit tearful myself when I listen to what you’ve been through”, or “I really don’t know how to respond to what you’ve said, I’m lost for words, it’s really hard”.  The purpose behind doing this is to acknowledge that we’re human too, and get affected by what we hear. To be transparent and real so that the person is aware of your own readiness to “show up” and be fully present alongside them.  If you need a moment to catch your breath after they’ve told you something emotionally charged, say so.
  4. When you do respond, summarise what you’ve heard and ask them if that’s what they intended to mean. In motivational interviewing terms this can be called “giving a bouquet” – collecting together a summary of what the person has said, then offering it back to them to check you’ve understood (and it also shows them you’ve been listening).
  5. Before doing anything else, ask them “where does this leave you?” or “what do you think you should do right now?” or “what’s the next step for you now?” People have ideas about what to do next, most times, and we work more effectively with those ideas than if we try to bolt on some piece of advice without recognising their thoughts.

A couple of nice tools to use at this point are the choice point  , and the matrix by Dr Kevin Polk.

The hardest part of responding this way is often our own response. Because we feel uncomfortable, and we’re aware of timeframes, expectations, and because we probably don’t enjoy people crying or being angry in our sessions, we often don’t want to take the few moments needed to be present with someone who is in the middle of it all. Being present is about being there and not trying to change the situation, or rush away from it, or fix the problem – it’s about being willing to bear witness and honour the vulnerability that person has shown us. What a privilege!

It can be emotionally tough after a day of seeing people who are feeling distressed. I think this is where using mindfulness as I’ve described above can be really worthwhile. Noticing what our body is doing when someone is distressed can help us notice the work we do (and help explain why some of us don’t want to talk to anyone at the end of a hard day!). The odd thing is, that when we honour someone by being present and not trying to change their situation at the time, we often find the person is ready to move on and engage in therapy far more quickly than if we’d tried to “make” it happen. At least, that’s my experience!

A good clinician once told me “never be afraid of allowing someone to have a crisis, because after a crisis, shift happens”. I’ve found that to be true.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this post – I don’t have loads of references for it, but a couple that come to mind are:

Beach, Mary Catherine, Roter, Debra, Korthuis, P. Todd, Epstein, Ronald M., Sharp, Victoria, Ratanawongsa, Neda, . . . Saha, Somnath. (2013). A Multicenter Study of Physician Mindfulness and Health Care Quality. The Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5), 421-428. doi: 10.1370/afm.1507

Goubert, Liesbet, Craig, K., Vervoort, Tine, Morley, S., Sullivan, M., Williams, A., . . . Crombez, G. (2005). Facing others in pain: The effects of empathy. Pain, 118(3), 285-288. doi:

Flexibility: not just movement variability

For many therapists, learning the Right Way to treat a person experiencing pain means following rules. Observe this, identify that, follow the yellow brick road and end up with the right result. The problem is that people don’t always respond in the way the rules suggest meaning both clinician and patient can be confused about what to do next. While it’s normal to generate clinical heuristics, or rules of thumb, these can limit the way we approach helping someone.

I’ve been pondering this as I’m reading Villatte, Viullatte and Hayes Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. I posted last time I wrote about the problems that language can pose for us as we attend to the concepts and relationships those word generate for us rather than noticing what is actually happening right here and now. I was originally thinking of the people we work with and treat, but now I want to turn my attention to us – because we too can be imprisoned within rules that function well in one context – but hamper flexible responses in other contexts.

The rules we follow

Some of the rules we learn during our initial clinical training can be very helpful – for example, we learn that we need to attend to what people say and do; we learn to suppress our judgements about the person as “likeable” or “unlikable” (hopefully); we learn the importance of using correct terminology with one another. Other rules are far less helpful: in my case, learning that people “should” use a raised toilet seat after hip replacement (almost irrespective of the bathroom they have, the alternatives they’d already organised, or whether it actually reduced the risk of hip dislocation) meant that I tried to give the things out to people who didn’t actually need them. I quickly stopped doing that after I found too many of those toilet seats dumped on the roadside inorganic rubbish collection! And I became more sensitive to who, what, when and where. And I changed my thoughts once I read the research suggesting those “hip precautions” perhaps don’t hold up to scrutiny (for example: Schmidt-Braekling, Waldstein, Akalin, et al, 2015; Ververeli, Lebby, Tyler & Fouad, 2009).

We follow many other clinical rules – for example, we attend to certain features of a person’s presentation because we’ve been told it’s important. Depending on the model or theory we hold about the problem, we’ll attend to some things and not others.

Similarly in terms of our treatments – we’ve been told that some treatments are “good” and others not so. Some of us follow these rules very strictly – so patients are told to move in certain ways, to avoid certain movements, to do six repetitions of an exercise, to stop for a break every hour – and some of us have even been quite frustrated because the patients we’ve been advising tell us these rules aren’t working. We think “but they should”!

Explaining pain

A good example of this is the push to ensure every person experiencing pain gets an explanation for their pain. We’ve seen the evidence showing it’s a good thing, and we’ve even learned a set of phrases that we’ve been told “work”.

BUT is this a rule we should always follow?


In some instances giving pain education is unhelpful. Times I can think of are when a person is presenting with high pain intensity and in an acute situation – or when they’re stuck with an explanation they prefer and aren’t ready to consider another, or when they have other more important concerns.

Based on what I’ve been reading, perhaps we need to consider some alternative ways of looking at this “rule”.

Here’s the thing: for some people, at the right time, and when the person is being helped to discover for themselves, learning about pain neurobiology is a really good thing. But if we apply this as a rule, we risk becoming insensitive to other things the person might need AND to whether the education has had the intended effect. For some people, it’s not the right thing – the outcome for THAT person might be seen in increased resistance to your therapeutic approach, or arguing back, or them simply not returning because we “didn’t listen” or “told me it’s all in my head”. For others, this information might be useful but not as important as identifying that they’re really worried about their financial situation, or their family relationships, or their mood is getting them down, or they’re not sleeping…

Am I suggesting not to do pain education? Not at all. I’m suggesting that instead of developing a rule that “everyone must have pain education because it’s good” (or, for that matter, any other “must”), clinicians could try considering the context. Ask “is this important to the client right now?”, “what effect am I hoping for and am I measuring it?”, “how can I guide the person to draw their own conclusions instead of telling them?”

In other words, attending to those contextual cues might just help us think of a bunch of alternative ways to help this person achieve their goals. And if we then ask the person to collaborate on HOW to reach those goals, suggesting the plans are experiments that both of you can evaluate. This helps reduce our human tendency to latch onto an idea, and then create a rule that isn’t always helpful.


Schmidt-Braekling, T., Waldstein, W., Akalin, E. et al. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg (2015) 135: 271. doi:10.1007/s00402-014-2146-x

Ververeli P, Lebby E, Tyler C, Fouad C. Evaluation of Reducing Postoperative Hip Precautions in Total Hip Replacement: A Randomized Prospective Study. ORTHOPEDICS. 1; 32: doi: 10.3928/01477447-20091020-09 [link]

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

Being flexible – and how language can make you inflexible

One of the reasons humans seem to dominate our natural world is our flexibility. We don’t have the best eyesight, hearing, strength, speed, stamina or indeed any single attribute that means we’re King (or Queen) of the Jungle, but what we do have is the ability to adapt our environment to maximise the benefits to ourselves. Being flexible means we can find many different ways to achieve a certain goal. It means we don’t get stuck using the same solution when that solution doesn’t work. We try lots of different ways to achieve what we want.

Or are we?

There are plenty of times when I’ve had to firmly remind myself “the definition of insanity is to try doing the same thing again and again, hoping for a different result” I have no idea where that quote came from, but it seems applicable!


Thankfully, humans don’t have to experience adverse events directly to learn from them. We can learn from what other people tell us. Sometimes what others tell us is helpful – “watch out, walking on a sprain is gonna hurt!” Other times, when what someone tells us is true – but not applicable in our context – we can learn something that isn’t helpful. “Watch out, walking on anything painful is bad”. We can over-generalise or develop an arbitrary rule that is inflexible.

Now this happens all the time. We learn to avoid things that could potentially harm us on the basis of words – parents, teachers, friends, officials all tell us not to do things that could harm us so we avoid dangers without actually having to face them. When we learn this, the function or relationship between events and the way we relate to them gets influenced by what we’re told rather than the actual event itself. So, for example, we learn that when someone tells us off for doing something dumb, we re-experience what it feels like to be ashamed. We don’t want to experience shame, so we avoid situations that look like (function in the same way as) whatever it was we might have done to be told off.

Experiential avoidance and symbolic generalisations

Because we use language to depict these situations and because language can bring back all those associations between the event, object, emotions and experiences, we quickly learn to generalise these relationships – in RFT (relational frame theory) terms, we develop symbolic generalisations. What this means is that even though the actual object, event, emotion etc is not present, just describing something like those things can elicit the same response. And when we don’t like that experience we use every means possible to avoid experiencing it – so we avoid, try to forget, try not to think about it, keep busy, avoid talking about it, pretend it’s not there.

Through avoiding, we develop a whole lot of new associations – “doing this to avoid that” begins to relate “this” to whatever we’re avoiding. So, for example, keeping busy to avoid feeling sad can become a trigger for sad feelings. Sitting stiffly and avoiding bending can become a trigger for worrying about the potential for pain if we do bend.  So, doing things that help us avoid a  negative association can build into a whole set of behaviours that initially help us avoid but ultimately elicit the very things we were hoping not to experience. We become inflexible as the rules we use develop into constraints across a larger range of stimuli/experiences than we originally intended.

Deliberately trying to avoid an experience is tricky, there can be a whole lot of unintended consequences – and no more so than when the negative experience we’re trying to avoid is pain.

Rule-governed behaviour

The thing is, once we develop a rule we begin to follow the rules rather than trying it out ourselves. We place less emphasis on our own experience. Let’s use an example from pain. A person feels uncomfortable bending over while carrying a laundry basket. A kind therapist suggests that bending over isn’t safe, so the person should use “safe handling” techniques. While the therapist is present, the person uses the so-called safe techniques but all the while thinks “if I bend over incorrectly, it must be unsafe because these are “safe handling” techniques”. The person develops a rule. Now when the person begins to move something she uses the “safe handling” techniques but finds it really difficult at times because she has to lift children into the back of the car so they can get into the car seat. She feels worried that she’s not using the “safe handling” techniques rather than feeling what actually happens when she lifts the child.  She instead avoids lifting the child into the car and asks for help. Another person comes along, scoops the child up, plonks him into the car seat and the job’s done.

Rules are helpful, they save us time and harm. They’ve accelerated our rate of learning. BUT they come at the expense of flexibility. There are times when it’s useful not to use “safe handling” techniques – ever tried crawling under your house with a bag of tools? Or get a screaming toddler into the back seat of a two-door car?

Rules also begin to influence the associations we make between events – before the kind therapist advised the person that she should use “safe handling” techniques, the person never thought about how she got the children into the back seat of the car. Now she does. And every time she lifts something off the ground she also thinks about her back. And when she carries her groceries. And bends over to make the bed. And maybe even as she reaches overhead to get something from a cupboard. Or lifts the ironing board and opens it out.

How stuck is that? And how often have we as clinicians inadvertently generated rules that teach our clients to avoid a movement or experience?

Next week: pliance and tracking and what these mean…

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

Getting stuck with language

In my last post I talked about the ways in which humans learn to relate abstract concepts and experiences together (symbolic relations). I pointed out that we learn to take another person’s point of view as part of developing empathy, and that by interacting with our world we become aware of our place (here) and someone or something else’s place (there). We also learn “me” and “you” (not me), along with near and far, now and then and myriad other abstract concepts that our language can allow us to understand. I suggested that the flexibility of symbolic relations and the relational framing we develop as a result of this skill can be both a help and a hindrance.

Yes, we can remember that a pot can be used to cook, but we also can’t unlearn that relationship. And in being unable to unlearn a relationship we can find it difficult to consider alternative relationships between that pot and whatever else we could do with it. The pot will always be recognised as “something to cook with” although it might also become associated with a receptacle for water, a paperweight, a hat, and even a weapon – but when we’re first asked “what do you use a pot for?” we’ll almost always come up with “cooking”.

In relational frame theory, we develop the ability to empathise or adopt the view of another person based on perspective taking and contextual cues. Contextual cues help us learn the concepts of “I” and “you”  by moving from “here” to “there” to take the place of the other person. If a pen is here, and paper is there, when I go to the paper, it becomes “here” and the pen is “there”. In technical terms this is called deictic framing and this is how kids learn that some concepts only make sense from a given point of view – and here and there are two of those concepts.

How does this relate to pain?

Well, to enjoy being with others, you need to have sufficient deictic framing skills to “stand in another person’s moccasins”, to empathise with their feelings and to be willing to feel those feelings (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 32). The thing is, we don’t always want to feel what another person is feeling, especially if we’re angry with them, or they’re feeling sad or some other negative emotional state. We learn to put our ability to empathise on hold to avoid experiencing those feelings. We do this with our own emotions and experiences we’d rather not have. And it’s an adaptive thing – we don’t want to be completely immersed in another person’s experience all the time because it’s difficult to know what our own feelings are vs those of another. We also don’t want to experience all the negative things around us – we learn from them, true, but we don’t really want to feel them all the time. So we develop a skill called “experiential avoidance”. That is, we learn not avoid experiences we’d rather not have.

Experiential avoidance is a cool skill, it’s definitely helpful – it is a process that we use to avoid personal injury, unpleasant people, or situations we don’t feel comfortable in. BUT there’s a catch. Because we relate concepts to one another, we associate words with experiences and memories as well. This is also useful – we can recall the lovely feeling of summer even in the middle of a grey old winter! But at the same time, our most potent learning is often associated with unpleasant experiences, and so for me the sound of a rumbling truck can bring back all the memories of my house being jolted and struck by an earthquake. And because that experience is associated with feeling out of control, helpless, worried and unsettled, those emotions come back along with the memory of the earthquakes. All brought about by hearing a truck rumbling past! And talking about the earthquakes, for some people, is enough to bring back all those same memories.

No wonder, then, for some of the people we work with, just seeing someone walking by is enough to generate the memories, emotions and concerns they experience when they try to walk on a painful foot.

Because of our tendency to avoid experiences that don’t feel good, we naturally try to avoid coming into contact with those stimuli that evoke those negative feelings etc. For some people this can mean avoiding watching images on TV – I remember avoiding watching the tsunami in Japan that happened just after the quakes here in Christchurch. To me the emotions were too raw, I felt too overwhelmed by my own situation to feel I could empathise with those people in Japan.  In some of our clients, just talking about their own painful body can be overwhelming, bringing back unpleasant emotions, memories and thoughts. And indeed for some people, just seeing others doing the things they believe will hurt if they did them is enough to provoke both a negative emotional response AND an flare-up of their pain.

So. Experiential avoidance can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed…but it also stops us experiencing what is happening right now. And I think you can see how it can stop us learning, and it can limit the range of things we’re happy to do – not because there’s any threat right here and now, but because we remember what has happened, and we make predictions of what might happen in the future. The things that might happen – might not happen too! And the things that have happened have already occurred… but our brains are good at joining the dots and being a bit over-protective.

What this means for us as clinicians (and for us as people, too), is that we might need to be gentle but firm, and help people be present here and now. And gradually show people how to be OK with experiencing things that remind us of unpleasant events in the pursuit of something far more useful – flexible responses in a world that is always changing.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

Words are never enough – but does that stop us?

Pain may be said to follow pleasure as its shadow; but the misfortune is that in this particular case, the substance belongs to the shadow, the emptiness to its cause. CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1Q84

But pain … seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?  LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD, Barrayer

Language is not just words, but what those words symbolise. We use movements of lips, tongue and throat to produce symbols we relate to other things. We then use the relationships we learn through symbols to frame or structure our experiences – language is a “form of cooperation that builds on the social nature of humans groups and enhances a culture of eusociality in which humans thrive” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016. p. 28). What this means is that humans learn to connect concepts together through language which represents concepts only because of a shared social understanding – and in sharing this understanding we feel connected.

Why am I talking about language? Well, relational frame theory is a theory of human behaviour that helps us understand how language can exert an influence on us through the way we understand symbolic relations.We learn symbolic relationships by interacting with our world – children learn concepts of  “I – you” (that you and I are different, but that I can take your perspective by imagining I was in your place); “here-there” (that here is where I am, but there is another place – and I can move to that place); “now – then” (what is happening now will become then soon) by handling objects, ultimately understanding that the concepts only make sense within the context of “here”, or “I”, or “now”.   To be empathic, we need to learn to take the perspective of another, see and feel things from another person’s point of view, and be willing to experience those feelings (Villatte, Villattee & Hayes, p.32).

To be empathic to another’s pain, we need to take the perspective of another, to be willing to experience “what it might feel like” from the other person’s shoes.

Why are symbolic relations important?

In Christchurch, as many people know, over the past five years we have been through over 10,000 earthquakes of more than 3 on the Richter Scale. The thought of having an earthquake, to someone raised in NZ, is a distinct possibility. We have small ones all the time. Then in September 2010 we had the first big earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night (early morning), when all was dark, and it was violent! Later that day we had many aftershocks, and I can remember my heart pounding and feeling anxious in the aftermath. What has happened since, though, is that I’ve learned to associate the word “earthquake” with a whole lot of concepts – a rumbling noise from a truck driving past, the deep rumble of earthworks, EQC (our national insurer), road cones, detours, heritage buildings being knocked down, having no water or power. I keep a look out for exits, I brace at the rumble of a truck, one of the topics of conversation is “how is your house” and I remember the fatigue of constant aftershocks in the middle of the night.

Learning the associations (symbolic relations) between the experience at the time of an earthquake and all these other things such as words, movements, actions and emotions means that as a person living in Christchurch, the word “earthquake” and the sight of road cones and the rumble of a truck have all gained additional meaning or salience to me.

Simply by remembering a particular day (for us it was September 22, 2011), or by looking at a road cone, or diggers operating in a trench in a road, I have emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses. This is the power of a symbol, once learned.

And once learned, that association will never be unlearned – I will always remember that trucks rumbling by sound a lot like the start of an earthquake, and I will probably always have a quick little bracing response that I may not even notice (but hitch me up to biofeedback and I’ll be skin conductance will be increased).

What does this have to do with pain?

In the same way that I learned about earthquakes being associated with a whole bunch of things that hadn’t been connected before September 2010, from the time we are born we develop associations between our experiences of pain and other things including language.

For the most part we learn that pain is associated with something not so good happening to our body. We learn that it’s something we don’t really want to experience, and so we try to avoid it (mainly). We learn words that are associated with that experience – “ouch!”, “hurt”, “painful”, “ache”. We also develop emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses to this experience. We learn that certain movements bring pain on, while others alleviate it; we learn that some people respond with sympathy to our words or movements while others don’t respond.

The thing about symbolic relations is that “the simplest act of remembering by using names and symbols … means that anytime, anywhere, we can remember past painful or difficult events based on a few cues…the past can become present through symbolic relations” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 33). While nonhuman animals can become fearful in situations that are similar to those they’ve felt threatened in, humans can experience the same emotions and responses even when a word is spoken – like earthquake for me brings on a heightened awareness of how vulnerable I am when the ground shakes.

What this learned association means is that for all humans, there are many cues that will elicit the same response as the actual event. And given the ubiquity of pain and the words we use to describe pain – and the associations we develop since we’ve been children – it’s no wonder that changing some of the more unhelpful associations and responses we have to the experience is a challenge.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about relational frame theory and how this theory can help us understand why words can be used to help – and harm – and how to implement useful verbal strategies in sessions to help our clients see their pain from a different frame.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061