acceptance

Getting persistent pain and disability confused


As I read blogs and tweets and posts on social media, and even peer reviewed papers in journals, I often read that what we’re trying to do in sub-acute pain management is to prevent chronic pain from developing (note, when I talk about pain that goes on beyond healing, more than three months, or has no useful function, I may use the term “chronic” or I may use the more recent term “persistent” – they mean the same thing, except persistent has perhaps less baggage…).

I want to take aim at that focus – to prevent pain from persisting – and think carefully about it. Let’s take a 56 year old woman with a painful knee, a knee that’s been diagnosed as having osteoarthritis (OA). Now, although we have surgical management for OA (a knee replacement – uni-compartment or even a total knee replacement), in most cases surgeons are not enthusiastic about doing a knee replacement on a younger person, particularly someone who is active (plays netball, golf, runs, gardens). So if a knee replacement is not a thing – yet – what do we do? Most of us will know about the value of remaining active and fit, losing weight and maintaining good range of movement (see here for the NICE guidelines, 2017). We know that these things will maintain function – but they won’t stop cartilage deterioration (much, if at all), and they won’t stop the pain. No matter what we do – even medications are not always especially helpful – pain is likely to persist. Does that mean we’ve failed? Reading some of these blogs, it certainly seems it does.

Let’s take back pain – most of us will know back pain occurs periodically throughout life, from the time we’re teens, through to old age. In some people a single bout of back pain happens and then they’re fully recovered and never bothered again, but for many of us, we’ll be troubled with repeated bouts throughout our lives. And still others will have one bout than just never ends (Axen & Leboeuf-Yde, 2013; Vasseljen, Woodhouse, Bjorngaard, & Leivseth, 2013).  This is despite our best efforts to prevent the onset of low back pain, and to treat it effectively – pretty much all our treatments provide a small amount of help but only exercise has been shown to prevent a new bout after the first one (Choi, Verbeek, Wai-San Tam & Jiang, 2010) – and even then the evidence was “moderate” and only at one year.

So… when we begin to examine claims that by treating musculoskeletal problems early we can prevent pain from becoming chronic or ongoing, I think we need to stop and pause before letting the blood rush to our head.

If we can’t prevent pain from hanging around, what can we do? What is the aim of all this treatment?

Well, let’s take a quick look at the Global Burden of Disease (Hoy, March, Brooks, Blyth, Woolf, Bain et al, 2014). In this piece of work, “Out of all 291 conditions studied in the Global Burden of Disease 2010 Study, LBP ranked highest in terms of disability (YLDs), and sixth in terms of overall burden (DALYs). The global point prevalence of LBP was 9.4% (95% CI 9.0 to 9.8). DALYs increased from 58.2 million (M) (95% CI 39.9M to 78.1M) in 1990 to 83.0M (95% CI 56.6M to 111.9M) in 2010. Prevalence and burden increased with age.” [emphasis mine].

What this means is that although low back pain is not a fatal disease, that may well be the problem – people don’t die from low back pain, they live with disability all the days of their life. And worse, the burden of low back pain is increasing. And this is despite all the work we (you, me, the entire health system) is putting in.

If we can’t “get rid of” low back pain (and it looks like we don’t yet have the tools to do so), what are we trying to do?

Given our poor outcomes for completely curing low back pain, we need to aim to reduce the impact of pain on people’s lives.

And not just low back pain, but things like tennis elbow, frozen shoulder, neck pain, abdominal pain, pelvic pain, headache, migraine, osteoarthritis…

For a moment, let’s think about the effect on a person going through treatment, being promised that “pain education” will reduce their pain, that exercises will get rid of their pain, that gadget A or B will get rid of their pain, that treatment Y or Z will get rid of their pain. What do you think it feels like to be completely adherent about everything you’re being asked to do, but still feeling a failure because that pain does not go? Think of the language used by some of our colleagues – “failed back syndrome”? Who failed, exactly?

Before I get harangued for breathing the word that, ooops, our treatments don’t work very well, let me address the issue of “pain education” and pain intensity. Don’t forget that the only way we can know how much it hurts someone is by asking them. And our usual tool is that 0 – 10 scale, where 0 = no pain and 10 = most extreme pain imagined. Have you ever tried doing that on yourself? Seriously – how do you rate your own pain? Some of that pain rating is about how much we’re prepared to (capable of) putting up with. Some of that rating is about how bothered (fed up, distressed, frustrated) we are about our pain. Some of it is about “OMG I don’t know what this is and how long it’s going to go on for”.

What this means is that when someone gives an explanation it can –

  • make the experience less frightening,
  • less distressing,
  • more understandable,
  • less bothersome

and as a result, when we’re then asked for our pain intensity rating on that darned scale, we reduce the score we give our pain. It does not necessarily mean the pain has reduced in intensity – a pain scale is a means of communicating something about our experience, thus it’s a pain-associated behaviour with the purpose of communicating something. So if a person isn’t ‘convinced’ by our pain education, you know they’ll keep their score pretty high.

So, there are some people for whom we cannot reduce or get rid of their pain. It’s likely to persist. And it’s these people who can be viewed as “heartsink” patients, who hang around not getting better. Well, unless we begin looking at their experience and examine what they’re looking for (and believe me, it’s not pain reduction – it’s what pain reduction means they can do) we’re going to be stuck. And so will they. Let’s get it into our heads that pain reduction is not achievable for all, but reducing the impact of pain on life is something we can all help with. Let’s stop demonising the person who has to live with pain that doesn’t respond to all our ministrations and begin looking deeply at ourselves and why we avoid recognising that we can’t win ’em all. And let’s get on with the business of helping people do what’s important in their lives, irrespective of pain.

 

 

Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.berh.2013.10.004

Choi, B. K. L., Verbeek, J. H., Wai-San Tam, W., & Jiang, J. Y. (2010). Exercises for prevention of recurrences of low-back pain. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 67(11), 795-796. doi:10.1136/oem.2010.059873

Hoy, D., March, L., Brooks, P., Blyth, F., Woolf, A., Bain, C., . . . Buchbinder, R. (2014). The global burden of low back pain: Estimates from the global burden of disease 2010 study. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 73(6), 968-974. doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204428

Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.

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Back to basics about psychosocial factors and pain – iv


Part of the definition of pain is that it is “a sensory and emotional experience” – in other words, emotions of the negative kind are integral to the experience of pain. Is it any wonder that poets and authors have written so eloquently about the anguish of unrelieved pain? As I write this, I’ve been pondering the way “psychosocial” has been used when discussing pain, as if those factors aren’t experienced by “normal” people, as if the way we feel about pain and the way people who struggle with their pain feel are two entirely different things.

Chris Eccleston, someone I admire very much, writes about a “normal psychology of chronic pain” and makes some incredibly useful points: that pain is a normal feature of human life. Pain is an everyday occurrence (watch kids playing in a playground – every 20 minutes kids communicate about pain, Fearon et al, 1996). In New Zealand one in five people report experiencing pain lasting six months or longer. Pain really is all around us – and it’s normal and indeed part of the experience itself, to feel negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, and such when we’re sore.

So why have emotions been lumped in with “other factors” as part of the negative way psychosocial factors are interpreted today? I personally think it’s partly a hangover, in NZ at least, from the way our stoic forebears viewed “weakness”. There wouldn’t be many families in New Zealand who haven’t heard something like “man up”, or “big boys don’t cry”, or “pull yourself together” with great All Blacks who played on despite broken ribs or arms – who didn’t give in when they were injured being held up as examples we should emulate. At the same time pain isn’t given much space in our health professional training programmes – and when it is, it’s primarily viewed in a neuroanatomical way, as we’re taught about spino-thalamic tracts, and nociceptors, and not much else. In fact, I think the gate control theory is still being taught as the main theory in some programmes (despite it being revised and replaced with more sophisticated models).

So what is normal? I really like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as you’ve possibly noticed. Amongst one of the many reasons I like it so much is its view of suffering. Within ACT, being psychologically inflexible is the problem – that is, working hard to avoid or control experiences we don’t want, getting caught up in thoughts as if they’re Truth instead of our mind’s opinion of things, being attached to someone’s idea of who and what we are, living in the past or predicting the future, and failing as a result to take actions that line up with what our personal values are. When we get stuck thinking there’s only one way to deal with a situation, and when we forget about what’s important in our lives because we’re working so hard to avoid certain experiences – these aren’t seen as pathological, but instead are just part of the way our mind/language and experience tangle us up. The beauty is that there are ways out of being stuck but they’re counter-intuitive.

What do I mean? Well if we all have negative emotions about pain, why do only some of us struggle with that experience and get stuck? For some people it’s because they’re trying so hard not to feel pain that they spend time and energy doing things to control it and in the process stop doing things that matter. Think of the many appointments and the ups and downs of hope that it will all go away with this magic thing – then despair as it doesn’t work. Just the amount of time people spend waiting for and attending appointments can take time away from being with family, working, living…Now to me, this is not psychopathology. This is what normal minds do – try to fix a problem using strategies that have always worked in the past.

At the same time, given pain is a negative experience, doesn’t it make sense to monitor what went on last time you tried to lift that box, go to work, drive the car… AND doesn’t it make sense to anticipate what might go wrong if you try it again? This isn’t about being depressed, anxious or any other kind of pathology – this is just what we’ve learned to do, and our minds are trying incredibly hard to make it work again.

When I mentioned that a solution might be counter-intuitive, what I mean is recognising that trying to control or avoid an experience that comes with us wherever we go because it’s part of us, can trip us up. Instead, we might do better if we soften our attempts to control or avoid our experience of pain. Maybe spending time exploring pain and doing things alongside pain is possible – especially if the things we want to do are important to us. Don’t believe me? Think about marathon runners – they feel the pain (hit the wall) and still keep running! Why? Because it’s important to them to get to the end.

Now I’m not suggesting that ALL people will find this approach helpful, and I’m NOT denying that many people with persistent pain experience depression, anxiety, rotten sleep and generally feel demoralised. What I AM saying is that if we approach everyone with the misguided idea that psychosocial factors exist only in “those people”, we’re wrong. Any one of us will experience negative emotions if pain is present – and even more if pain persists. This is a normal response to a challenging and inherently aversive experience. Of course, if we’ve experienced depression, adverse life events, turmoil in our home and work life, and the stigma of not being believed, the potential to then become angry, depressed, and fed up is only greater. Let’s not make a negative experience worse by stigmatising people with the notion that “psychosocial factors” makes them any different from anyone else.

 

Eccleston, C. (2011). A normal psychology of chronic pain. Psychologist, 24(6), 422-425.

Fearon, I., McGrath, P.J., Achat, H. (1996). ‘Booboos’: The study of everyday pain among young children. Pain, 68, 55-62.

Vowles, K. E., Witkiewitz, K., Levell, J., Sowden, G., & Ashworth, J. (2017). Are reductions in pain intensity and pain-related distress necessary? An analysis of within-treatment change trajectories in relation to improved functioning following interdisciplinary acceptance and commitment therapy for adults with chronic pain. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 85(2), 87.

Being mindful about mindfulness


I’m generally a supporter of mindfulness practice. It’s been a great discipline for me as I deal with everyday life and everything. I don’t admit to being incredibly disciplined about “making time for meditation” every day – that is, I don’t sit down and do the whole thing at a set time each day – but I do dip in and out of mindfulness throughout my day. While I’m brushing my teeth, slurping on a coffee, driving, sitting in the sun, looking at the leaves on the trees, cuddling my Sheba-dog I’ll bring myself to the present moment and take a couple of minutes to be fully present. Oddly enough I don’t do this nearly as often when I’m cold (like this morning when it’s about 8 degrees in my office!), or when I’m eating parsnip (ewwwww!), or waiting to see a dentist. Or perhaps that’s not odd at all, because I wonder if we have a skewed view on mindfulness and what it’s about.

My reason for writing this post comes from reading Anhever, Haller, Barth, Lauche, Dobos & Cramer (2017) recent review of mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain. In it, they found “MBSR was associated with short-term improvements in pain intensity (4 RCTs; mean difference [MD], −0.96 point on a numerical rating scale [95% CI, −1.64 to −0.34 point]; standardized mean difference [SMD], −0.48 point [CI, −0.82 to −0.14 point]) and physical functioning (2 RCTs; MD, 2.50 [CI, 0.90 to 4.10 point]; SMD, 0.25 [CI, 0.09 to 0.41 point]) that were not sustained in the long term.” There were only seven RCTs included in the study, with a total of only 864 participants, and many of the studies had no active control groups, so my interpretation is that there are flaws in many of the studies examining MBSR, and that it’s difficult to draw any conclusions, let alone strong conclusions.

Where do we go wrong with mindfulness? The first point about the studies included in Anhever and colleagues paper is that there is a difference between mindfulness in general and mindfulness based stress reduction – and although the difference may be minimal, it’s nevertheless worth understanding. MBSR is a full programme that includes mindfulness as one element (Kabat-Zinn, 1982). Mindfulness is a key component, yes, but the programmes include other elements.  The second point is that perhaps we’re assuming mindfulness to be something that it isn’t –  I suspect, from reading numerous articles in both the popular media and research papers, that mindfulness is being applied as another form of relaxation.

Relaxation training was introduced as part of a behavioural approach to managing stress. In pain management it’s been part of programmes since the 1970’s, particularly using forms of progressive muscle relaxation (See Dawn & Seers, 1998). The intention is to provide an experience that is incompatible with tension, and to develop the capability to down-regulate the body and mind to mitigate the stress response that is so often part of persistent pain.

Relaxation training can take many forms, and breath control is a common component. I use it often for myself, and when working with clients – I’m aiming to show people that although they may not be able to control heart rate or blood pressure, they can control breath and muscle tension. It’s useful especially as part of sleep management.

The thing with relaxation training is it’s entire purpose is to help downregulate an upregulated nervous system. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is not.

What is mindfulness about if it’s not about relaxation? Well, mindfulness has been defined in many different ways, but the one I especially like is by Kabat-Zinn (1990) “a process of bringing a certain quality of attention to moment-by-moment experience”.  This definition can be further unpacked by examining its components: “Mindfulness begins by bringing awareness to current experience—observing and attending to the changing field of thoughts, feelings, and sensations from moment to moment—by regulating the focus of attention.” (italics are mine) –  this quote is from Bishop, Lau, Shapiro and colleagues (2004) and is from a paper looking at defining mindfulness in an operational way (so we can be aware of what it means in practice, or as we teach others). These authors go on to say that this process leads to a feeling of being very alert to what is occurring in the here and now. I like to remind people that it’s about being here rather than remembering or anticipating what might.

So at least one part of mindfulness is learning how to attend to what YOU want to attend to, rather than being dragged back to memories, or forward to predictions, or to experiences or moments that you don’t want to notice at that moment.  The definition also points to noticing and experiencing what is happening, rather than thoughts or ruminations about what you’re experiencing. For people living with persistent pain, I think this is an invaluable tool for dealing with the interruptive effects of pain on attention.

A second aspect of mindfulness is an attitude – one of curiosity. When being mindful, you’re not trying to produce any particular state, instead you’re being curious about what you are experiencing, whether it’s something you’d ordinarily want to experience – or not. This approach to experience is really similar to what we’re aiming for in persistent pain management – acknowledging and being willing to experience what is, rather than attempting to avoid that experience, or quickly change it to something more palatable.

Now this aspect of mindfulness is often brought to bear on new and pleasant experiences – sometimes people are asked to mindfully eat a raisin, or mindfully examine a ballpoint pen (one of my favourites). But it’s also just as valid to bring this attitude to bear on less than pleasant experiences like my cold fingers and legs (it’s cold in my office this morning). Or to pain and where it is – and where it isn’t.

So I wonder if part of our approach to using mindfulness in pain management is incorrect. If we’re intending people to come away from mindfulness feeling relaxed and calm, perhaps we’re doing it wrong. If we think people should feel better after mindfulness, again, perhaps we’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, yes, these are the effects we’ll have. Other times, not so much. What we will always develop, over time, however, is better ability to focus attention where we want it to go, and more openness to being present to what is rather than struggling against it. And I think those are incredibly valuable tools in life, not just persistent pain management. And perhaps, just perhaps, if we began viewing our use of mindfulness in these ways, the outcomes from RCTs of mindfulness might show more of what it can do.

 

Anheyer, D., Haller, H., Barth, J., Lauche, R., Dobos, G., & Cramer, H. (2017). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 1-9. doi:10.7326/M16-1997

Dawn, Carroll, and Kate Seers. “Relaxation for the relief of chronic pain: a systematic review.” Journal of advanced nursing 27.3 (1998): 476-487.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York:Dell.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General hospital psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0163-8343(82)90026-3

Mulling over the pain management vs pain reduction divide


I’ve worked in persistent pain management for most of my career. This means I am biased towards pain management. At times this creates tension when I begin talking to clinicians who work in acute or subacute musculoskeletal pain, because they wonder whether what I talk about is relevant to them. After all, why would someone need to know about ongoing management when hopefully their pain will completely go?

I have sympathy for this position – for many people, a bout of tendonosis, or a strained muscle or even radicular pain can ebb away, leaving the person feeling as good as new. While it might take a few months for these pain problems to settle, in many instances there’s not too much need for long-term changes in how the person lives their life.

On the other hand, there are many, many people who either don’t have simple musculoskeletal problems (ie they’re complicated by other health conditions, or they have concurrent issues that make dealing with pain a bit of a challenge), or they have conditions that simply do not resolve. Good examples of these include osteoarthritis (hip, knee, shoulder, thumbs, fingers) and grumbly old lower back pain, or peripheral neuropathy (diabetic or otherwise). In these cases the potential for pain to carry on is very present, and I sometimes wonder how well we are set up to help them.

Let’s take the case of osteoarthritis. Because our overall population is aging, and because of, perhaps, obesity and inactivity, osteoarthritis of the knee is becoming a problem. People can develop OA knee early in their life after sustaining trauma to the knee (those rugby tackles, falling off motorcycles, falling off horses, running injuries), or later in life as they age – so OA knee is a problem of middle to later age. People living with knee OA describe being concerned about pain, especially pain that goes on after they’ve stopped activities; they’re worried about walking, bending and maintaining independence – and are kinda pessimistic about the future thinking that  “in 10 years their health would be worse and their arthritis would be a major problem” (Burks, 2002).

To someone living with osteoarthritis, especially knee osteoarthritis, it can seem that there is only one solution: get a knee replacement. People are told that knee replacements are a good thing, but also warned that knee replacements shouldn’t be done “too soon”, leaving them feeling a bit stranded (Demierre, Castelao & Piot-Ziegler, 2011). Conversations about osteoarthritis are not prioritised in healthcare consultations – in part because people with knee osteoarthritis believe that knee pain is “just part of normal aging”, that there’s little to be done about it, and medications are thought to be unpleasant and not especially helpful (Jinks, Ong & Richardson, 2007).

I wonder how many healthcare professionals feel the same as the participants in the studies I’ve cited above. Do we think that knee OA is just something to “live with” because the problem is just part of old age, there’s an eventual solution, and meanwhile there’s not a lot we can do about it?

When I think about our approach to managing the pain of osteoarthritis, I also wonder about our approach to other pains that don’t settle the way we think they should. Is part of our reluctance to talk about pain that persists because we don’t feel we know enough to help? Or that we feel we’ve failed? Or that it’s just part of life and people should just get on with it? Is it about our feelings of powerlessness?

In the flush of enthusiasm for explaining the mechanisms of pain neurobiology, have we become somewhat insensitive to what it feels like to be on the receiving end when the “education” doesn’t reduce pain? And what do we do when our efforts to reduce pain fail to produce the kind of results we hope for? And the critical point, when do we begin talking about adapting to living well alongside pain?

What does a conversation about learning to adapt to pain look like – or do we just quietly let the person stop coming to see us once we establish their pain isn’t subsiding? I rather fancy it might be the latter.

Here’s a couple of thoughts about how we might broach the subject of learning to live with persistent pain rather than focusing exclusively on reducing pain:

  • “What would you be doing if pain was less of a problem?” My old standby because in talking about this I can begin to see underlying values and valued activities that I can help the person look at starting, albeit maybe doing them differently.
  • “What do you think are the chances of this pain completely going away?” Some might say this is about expectancy and I’m setting up a “nocebic” effect, but I argue that understanding the person’s own perspective is helpful. And sometimes, when a person has persistent pain and a diagnosis like osteoarthritis, their appraisal is less about catastrophising and more about holding a realistic view about their own body. It’s not about the appraisal – it’s about what we do about this. And we can use this perspective to built confidence and increase the importance of learning coping strategies.
  • “If I could show you some ways to deal with pain fluctuations, would you be interested in learning more?” All episodes of pain that persists will have times when pain is more intense than others – flare-ups are a normal part of recovering from, and living with persistent pain. Everyone needs to know some ways of going with, being flexible about or coping with flare-ups. I teach people not to focus exclusively on reducing pain during these flare-up periods. This is because even during rehabilitation we don’t want to use pain as a guide (it can be a cruel task-master). We know that rehabilitation can increase (temporarily) pain while the body habituates to new movement patterns, the brain gets used to new input, and the homunculus gets redefined. It’s great to be able to teach strategies that increase the sense of safety, security and down-regulation that can be lost in the initial onslaught of pain.

To summarise, not all pain problems settle. We can help everyone to be more resilient if we begin talking about ways of coping with flare-ups even during subacute pain, particularly if we avoid an excessive focus on trying to avoid them. Instead, we can begin to help people feel confident that flare-ups always settle down, and that they can manage them effectively by using effective self management.

 

Burks, K. (2002). Health concerns of men with osteoarthritis of the knee. Orthopaedic Nursing, 21(4), 28-34.

Cohen, E., & Lee, Y. C. (2015). A mechanism-based approach to the management of osteoarthritis pain. Current Osteoporosis Reports, 13(6), 399-406.

Demierre, M., Castelao, E., & Piot-Ziegler, C. (2011). The long and painful path towards arthroplasty: A qualitative study. J Health Psychol, 16(4), 549-560. doi:10.1177/1359105310385365

Jinks, C., Ong, B. N., & Richardson, J. (2007). A mixed methods study to investigate needs assessment for knee pain and disability: Population and individual perspectives. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 8, 59.

What is pain for?


We’re told we need pain – without the experience, we risk harming our bodies and living short lives. With pain, and for most people, we learn to not go there, don’t do that, don’t do that AGAIN, and look at that person – don’t do what they’re doing! Thirst, hunger, fear, delicious tastes and smells, the feelings of belonging, of safety and security, of calm and comfort: all of these are experiences we learn about as we develop greater control over our bodies.

Pain is an experience we learn to associate with actual or possible threat to “self”. Let’s take a moment to think about what “self-hood” means.

If I ask you “who are you?” you’ll tell me your name, probably your occupation, maybe where you live and who you live with. Baumeister (1997) suggests our sense of self is about “the direct feeling each person has of privileged access to his or her own thoughts and feelings and sensations.” He goes on to say “it begins with the awareness of one’s own body and is augmented by the sense of being able to make choices and initiate action.” We learn about who we are through interacting with the environment, but also as we interact with other people and begin to sort through our roles, contributions and relationships.

Of course, our sense of self changes over time and is reciprocally influenced by choices we make as well as opportunities (and threats) around us, both environmental and social.

We work really hard to avoid threats to our sense of self. For example, I’ll bet we’ve all seen that person who steadfastly refuses to stop colouring his hair, wearing the same clothing styles as he did in his 20’s, holding on to the same habits as he did at the same age even when he’s now in his 50’s, has a paunch, and still looks for partners 20 years younger than he is…  He still believes he’s that young stud despite the evidence in the mirror. And of course the same applies to women perhaps more so!

So what happens when our mind/body is threatened? How do we know it? And what do we do about it?

In this instance I’m not talking about social threats, though there’s interesting research suggesting that being socially excluded has similar neurobiological effects as being physically threatened (or experiencing pain – though this may reflect the distress we experience when we’re hurt and when we’re socially excluded – see Iannetti, Salomons, Moayedi, Mouraux & Davis, 2013; Eisenberger, 2015). I’m instead talking about threats to our physical body. Those threats may be violence from another person, physical trauma to the body, or the threat of physical harm to the body. When we experience these kinds of threats, and once an aspect of mind/body has disentangled the threat evaluation from whatever other goals we’re currently engaged in, we experience pain. Tabor, Keogh and Eccelston (Pain, in press) define pain in terms of action: an experience which, as part of a protective strategy, attempts to defend one’s self in the presence of inferred threat.

So pain is there to help us maintain an intact sense of self in the presence of threat – threat that we’ve inferred from our context (or drawn a conclusion from incomplete data). It’s part of a system that works to maintain “us” in the face of multiple threats that we encounter.

Tabor, Keogh and Eccleston also argue that pain is an experience designed to intrude on awareness to show that “boundaries have been reached and action must be taken”. Pain is one way our mind/body can give us an indication of boundary – just how much, or how little, we can do. For example, I experience pain when I bend my thumb down to reach my wrist – it’s one way I can learn how far I can bend without disrupting something! The purpose of that pain is to help “me” defend against doing really dumb things, like stretching my thumb out of joint!

Interestingly, when we feel overwhelmed by our pain, when we can’t defend against it (because it feels too intense, has meanings that threaten our deepest sense of self) we tend to withdraw from responding to everything else – our conversations stop, we don’t notice other people or events, we pull into ourselves and ultimately, we can lose consciousness (think of the accounts of early surgery without anaesthesia – the surgeons were kinda grateful when the patient lapsed into unconsciousness because at last they weren’t writhing to get away – see Joanna Bourke’s book “The Story of Pain” for some harrowing stories!).

When we lose consciousness, our sense of self disappears. We lose contact with the “what it is to be me”.

Our sense of self also disappears when we experience pain we can’t escape and we can’t make sense of. Throughout the time while people are trying to label their pain, establish the meaning of their symptoms, and while people are searching for a solution to their pain, people’s experience of both time and “who I am” is threatened (Hellstrom, 2001).

To me, this is one of the primary problems associated with pain – and one we’ve almost completely ignored in our healthcare treatments. All our treatments are aimed at helping “get rid of the pain” – but what isn’t so often incorporated in these efforts is a way of engaging and rebuilding a resilient sense of self. So while the pain may ebb away, the “self” remains feeling vulnerable and threatened, especially if there’s any hint of pain returning.

What can we do better? Perhaps talk about what vision a person has of themselves as a “self”. Help them work towards becoming the “self” they believe they are – or at least helping them express the underlying values that their “self” has previously been expressing. That way perhaps people can find flexible ways to express that “self” – which will make them more capable of living well under any circumstances.

 

Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Identity, self-concept, and self-esteem: The self lost and found. Hogan, Robert [Ed], 681-710.

Bourke, J. (2014). The story of pain: From prayer to painkillers: Oxford University Press.

Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Social pain and the brain: Controversies, questions, and where to go from here. Annual review of psychology, 66, 601-629.

Hellstrom, C. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870440108405493

Iannetti, G. D., Salomons, T. V., Moayedi, M., Mouraux, A., & Davis, K. D. (2013). Beyond metaphor: Contrasting mechanisms of social and physical pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(8), 371-378.

Tabor, A., Keogh, E. and Eccleston, C. (2016) Embodied pain— negotiating the boundaries of possible action. Pain. ISSN 0304- 3959 (In Press)

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.

 

When do we need to say we’ve done enough?


This post is food for thought for both clinicians and people living with pain. It has come about because of a conversation on Facebook where some clinicians felt that people with pain are only being offered the option to “learn to live with pain” when their pain intensity could either be reduced or go completely.  And this conversation is one repeated countless times around the world when those living with persistent pain seek help for their disability and distress.

I’m going to declare my hand right now: I think a the problem in chronic pain management isn’t that people get offered “pain management” or “learning to live with pain” or “accepting pain” too often – I think it’s not happening often enough, nor soon enough. But let me unpack this a little more…

We know that in New Zealand at least one person in every six lives with chronic pain that has gone on for more than six months (Dominick, Blyth & Nicholas, 2011). We also know the seven day prevalence of low back pain in New Zealand is 35% (men) and 48% (women) (Petrie, Faasse, Crichton & Grey, 2014).

Treatments for painful conditions abound. From the simple over-the-counter approach (medication, anti-inflammatory creams, hot packs, cold packs) to hands-on therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic, physiotherapy), to exercise therapies (Pilates, core strengthening, gym programmes, spin classes, walking, exercise in water), and finally to the multitude of invasive therapies (injections, neurotomies, decompression surgery, fusion). There is no shortage of treatments that aim to get rid of pain, fix the problem and get life back to normal. And for the most part these treatments provide modest improvement in both pain intensity and functional gains. For low back pain it seems there is no single wonderful treatment that works for everyone – hence the proliferation of treatments! (cos if there was a single treatment that worked, we’d all be offering it – like we do with a broken bone or appendicitis).

Here’s a question: if pain “management” (ie helping people learn to live with their pain) was the main offering to people living with pain, wouldn’t there be a heap of places to get this kind of treatment? At least in New Zealand there are relatively few pain management centres although there are many, many places to go for pain reduction.

I’ve tried to find studies looking at how people are told they have persistent pain that won’t be cured. Strangely, I have had incredible difficulty finding such studies. They may be there in the research literature – but they’re fairly uncommon and hard to find. And given how poorly low back pain guidelines are followed despite being promulgated since at least 1997, even if there were studies examining the best way to convey this news, I’d be surprised if anything was routinely incorporated into clinical practice.

So, in my opinion there are many more clinicians offering to help reduce pain than there are those offering to help people “learn how to live with pain”.

I was asked recently “when you do decide to stop pursuing pain reduction?” I think I said “it’s ultimately the decision of the person living with pain” – but it’s complicated by the way we as a culture perceive this option. I think most people would be horrified to think “I’m going to have a lifetime of living like this” when our beliefs about pain are influenced by and attitude that “pain = suffering”, “pain is unnatural”, “pain is a sign of something badly wrong”, “pain is something to get rid of”. I know when I was told “I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do for your pain” I was terribly upset thinking I had a lifetime of feeling awful to look forward to! I was 22 and had low back pain that would not go away after 18 months. I’m now 52 and I still have pain – but I can tell you that I have done almost everything I’ve wanted to including SCUBA diving, tramping, fishing, dancing, working full time (overtime), and parenting.

When do we begin to think about living with pain rather than curing it? I think we need to take a hard look at what this sentence means.

Firstly it means living. Life continues whether we’re feeling like we’re moving forward, or we’re putting things on hold to pursue a particular goal. Life doesn’t actually stop – but the things we want to experience, the things we want to do change over time. Our focus at the age of 22 is quite different from our focus at age 52 – and I hope it will change again at age 82! We don’t get to hit the replay button and live life all over again. We get one shot at it. This could feel quite awful if we’re contemplating a life where looking for pain relief is our primary goal – especially when that process involves an endless round of hope then despair as treatments are tried – and then don’t quite work out. Even the process of looking for treatments is slow, fraught with anxiety, and it eats up time in a week. For me, taking time out from living to pursue a treatment that may work means a process of weighing up the costs against the benefits. The costs include time, energy, emotional investment in the result, and the discomfort of the treatment itself. The benefits? Well, that depends.

The second part of that sentence is “with”. Living with pain. To me this means establishing my willingness to experience something I don’t enjoy – and believe me, I’m not a fan of pain! If all I have to look forward to is pain, pain, pain I’m not keen on doing it. BUT I am keen on living and bringing pain along with me (because frankly, my pain is coming along for the ride anyway). Living with pain to me means making room to experience pain fluctuations while doing things that bring value and meaning to my life. It means I ache – but I have a beautiful garden. I have sore legs – but I’ve been dancing. I have an aching back and neck and arms – but my house is clean. Here’s the thing: even if I didn’t work in my garden, dance or clean my house I’d STILL be sore! And I’d be bored, feel like I hadn’t achieved anything, and would have had to ask other people to help because many of those things still need doing.

The thing is, pain ≠ suffering.

When do we make a decision to stop pursuing pain reduction? Well, if I’m honest I’m still on the lookout for something that will help reduce my pain. And I think anyone who does live with persistent pain would agree that we don’t really want to have this experience, just like people who have cancer don’t want it, or diabetes or stroke or any of the myriad other chronic conditions humans are prone to getting, especially as we age. When asked, I’m sure most people with chronic pain would say “Yes” to pain reduction as a goal. BUT, and this is important, living life as fully and richly as we can is just as important.  I would bet that anyone with any of those chronic conditions would also just love to have them cured too.

But pain is a funny thing, there are myths and unhelpful beliefs coming from clinicians and our cultural norms about pain being a bad thing that must go. Compared with the beliefs and attitudes about other chronic conditions, this is unhelpful. We don’t find health professionals constantly pursuing treatments to “get rid of” diabetes, the focus is on management. And we accept that people who have cancer may choose to no longer accept treatment – and we support them by providing good hospice care. How often do people with chronic pain get (a) support to make a decision to live with their pain and (b) support to learn to do this well without feeling like second class citizens who have failed. We even have a group of clinicians calling people who haven’t responded to their treatments “failed back syndrome” as if the person’s back has failed rather than the treatment failing.

What makes me decide to pursue a new treatment that promises to reduce my pain? Well, it has to fit into my life. It can’t interfere with what’s important to me in terms of time, energy or discomfort. The odds need to be pretty good for me to even look at it – I want to see more than a single research paper showing its effectiveness. I would have to trust the clinician, and they’d have to respect me and my lifestyle and priorities. I’d want to make sure that clinician was going to stick with me and help me decide whether it’s worth doing. I’d want to see that the treatment would help me achieve my goals and priorities – otherwise I’m not really interested.

Is this because I’m weird (say yes!)? Or that I have less intense pain than other people? (nope, because you can’t compare my pain with anyone else’s, and because pain intensity ratings are strongly influenced by distress, mood, anxiety, how much pain interferes with life, attention, culture yada yada yada (Linton & Shaw, 2011). I think it’s because right now I’m too busy living, I get more joy and satisfaction from doing things that make me feel like myself. But remember I’ve been doing this since I was 22. And it’s a process. And I’m weird. I am a pain geek.

The thing is, unless clinicians promote living well with pain as an equally valid option to trying to get rid of it, people will continue to think that it’s impossible to have a really good life unless their pain is gone. And that, to me, is a tragedy, because we only have one life to live.

 

Dominick, C., Blyth, F., & Nicholas, M. (2011). Patterns of chronic pain in the New Zealand population. New Zealand Medical Journal, 124(1337), 63-76.

Linton, S. J., & Shaw, W. S. (2011). Impact of psychological factors in the experience of pain. Physical Therapy, 91(5), 700-711. doi:10.2522/ptj.20100330

Petrie KJ, Faasse K, Crichton F, Grey A. How Common Are Symptoms? Evidence from a New Zealand National Telephone Survey. BMJ Open. 2014;4(6). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005374.

“I know my pain doesn’t mean I’m damaging myself – but I still have pain”


In the excitement of helping people understand more about pain neuroscience, which I truly do support, I think it’s useful to reflect a little on the history of this approach, and how it can influence the experience people have of their pain.

If we go right back to the origins of pain self management, in the groovy 1960’s and 1970’s – the first truly significant work in chronic pain self management came from Wilbert Fordyce (Fordyce, Fowler & Delateur, 1968). Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist working in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. He noticed that when people were given positive reinforcement (attention, and social interaction) for “well” behaviour, and ignored or given neutral responses to reports of pain, their “up-time” or activity levels increased. Interestingly for occupational therapists, in the paper I’ve cited, occupation was used as an integral part of the programme and occupational therapy was a part of the programme (somewhat different from most clinics nowadays!)  Thus the operant conditioning model of pain behaviour and disability was first developed.

As practice progressed, clinicians began discussing the gate control theory of pain to help people understand how incredibly powerful descending pain modulation could be. Included in those discussions was the distinction between “hurt” and “harm” – that simply because something hurt, did not mean it was a sign of harm in the tissues.

As the 1980’s wore on, interdisciplinary pain management programmes became popular, with much of the work involving helping people reappraise their pain as “noise in the system”, and encouraging participants to develop strategies to increase activity levels and at the same time employ approaches to “close the gate” and thus reduce pain intensity.  I started working in pain management in the mid-1980’s when not only did I develop a patter to explain gate control, chronic pain, the relationship between the brain and what was going on in the tissues, I also started using the case formulation approach I still use today.

The key effects of this approach were pretty profound: people said to me they had never realised their pain wasn’t a fixed thing. The commonplace examples I used to explain why the relationship between their pain and what was going on in the tissues was complicated and uncertain made sense – everyone had heard of phantom pain, everyone knew of people who played rugby and didn’t feel the pain until after the game, everyone had heard of hypnosis for pain, and people also recognised that when they felt bad, so their pain felt worse but when they were busy and happy doing things, their pain was less of a problem.

I’ve attached one of the original examples of “explaining pain” to this post.simple-explanation-of-biopsychosocial-model-of-chronic-pain

Now the interesting thing is that during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, there was still a lot of talk about ways to abolish chronic pain. Loads of nerve cutting and burning, lots of surgical fusing and metalwork, heaps of pharmacological strategies were all the rage. People felt sure there was a way to stop all this chronic pain from appearing – and the answer was to begin early, before pain behaviour was established, before people got the wrong idea that their pain was intractable.  As a result the “yellow flags” or psychosocial risk factors for chronicity were developed by Kendall, Linton & Main (at least in NZ). This created a great flurry of ideas about how to “get people moving”, and “assess and manage yellow flags” which have subsequently flourished and become a veritable rainbow of flags.

Sadly, I haven’t seen any significant reduction in the rates of chronic pain, or rates of disability associated with chronic pain – although there do seem to be fewer people having five or six or more surgeries for their lower back pain. Instead, there’s a far greater emphasis on “explaining pain” from the beginning – a good thing, you’d think! But hold on… a recent conversation on Facebook suggests that the purpose of explaining pain may have been misconstrued, perhaps even over-interpreted…

When we begin to untangle some of the elements involved in our experience of pain, we can see that at least part of the “yuk factor” of pain lies in our appraisal or judgement of what the pain signifies. Let me give you an example – say you were walking down a dark alley and someone approached you with a loaded syringe. They stab you with the needle! What do you do? Well – probably you’d run for the nearest Emergency Department, and my bet is that you’d be well aware of the sting of the needle as it went in. Now think about the last time you got your flu jab – same stimulus, but your response is likely to be quite different. You’ll notice the sting of the needle, but it will quickly fade, and you’ll generally be calm and matter-of-fact about it. Your appraisal of the sting is quite different from what I guess you’d be thinking if you’d been stuck by a needle in a dark alleyway.

When people are asked to rate their pain intensity, at least some of the “score” given on a visual analogue scale can be attributed to the “distress” portion of the pain experience. The part that we can attribute to “what this experience signifies to me”. And this is the part that an explanation about pain can influence – and thus pain intensity ratings can and do drop once a helpful explanation is given. BUT it does not change the biological elements, nor the “attention grabbing” aspects of pain (well, maybe the latter can be a little bit changed because if we don’t think of the experience as representing a threat, we can more readily put it aside and focus on other more important things).

Why is this important? Well, in the enthusiasm to explain pain to everyone, I think sometimes the application can be a bit blunt. Sometimes it becomes an info-dump, without really taking the time to listen to what the person is most concerned about. It may not be that they think their pain represents harm – instead it may be that they’re not sleeping well, or that they’re finding it hard to concentrate at work, that they’re worried about the effect of pain on their ability to drive safely. Because quite apart from the “yuckiness” of pain, pain intensity also has an effect on cortical processing space. And an explanation of the mechanics doesn’t take away the poor sleep, the worries about work, or make it easy to drive home. And there are times when the person remains unconvinced by an explanation – or has “head knowledge” but it makes no difference to what they’re doing. From our own experience in life, we know there’s a big difference between reading about something – and actually doing it. Experiential learning trumps “head knowledge”

Do I think it’s important to explain pain neurobiology? Most of the time, yes. But we need to do this with care, compassion and sensitivity.  We need to think about why we’re doing it. And we need to recognise that for some people, explanation doesn’t change their pain intensity, it just changes their judgement about the meaning of their pain – and if their concerns are about the effect of pain on their life, then an explanation may not be the most useful thing. And most of all, we need to remember that reducing pain intensity is not really the most important outcome: doing more is probably more important.

 

Fordyce, Wilbert E., Fowler, Roy S., & Delateur, Barbara. (1968). An Application of Behavior Modification Technique to a Problem of Chronic Pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(1), 105-107. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(68)90048-X

Okifuji, Akiko, & Turk, Dennis C. (2015). Behavioral and Cognitive–Behavioral Approaches to Treating Patients with Chronic Pain: Thinking Outside the Pill Box. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 33(3), 218-238. doi: 10.1007/s10942-015-0215-x

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: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2005.10.025

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!

Rules

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