Cognitive Behavioural Therapy


On the value of doing, being and becoming

An old occupational therapy tagline was “doing, being, becoming”. The meaning of this phrase is intended to point to the tight relationship between what we do, who we are, and how we develop and grow. As I read blogs discussing an increased emphasis on “real world” outcomes there is something missing from the narratives: that intangible quality that marks the difference between colouring in – and painting. Or filling in a form – and writing a poem. Going from room to room – and dancing. Something about expressing who we are and what we value.

Values are things we hold dear. They are principles, or “desired qualities of behaviour”, life directions (not destinations).

The things we do (our actions) are inevitably infused with our values because how we do things (sloppily, carefully, neatly, with gay abandon, enthusiastically) is an expression of what we think is important. To give you an example, I occasionally vacuum my house. Sometimes I’ll do it really thoroughly – because I love seeing a sparkling house. Sometimes I’ll do it with a flick and a promise – because it’s a beautiful day and I want to get out of the house. In both instances I’ve expressed something about what is important to me – I do enjoy seeing my home looking tidy and organised. I don’t have to have reasons for liking my home this way, I just do. When I do a quick flick through my home it’s not because I’m lazy or I don’t care, it’s because I value getting out of the house more than I value having a tidy and organised home on that day.

Values don’t have to be explained. We don’t have to have reasons for holding them. They’re something we choose to place as important.

Why be concerned about values? Well, they underpin our choices. They provide motivation towards some activities, and away from others.

There is a lot of emphasis at the moment on people with osteoarthritis “getting fit” and “doing exercise”. The current approach in New Zealand is to provide community-based programmes to people who have just been declined joint replacement surgery (because we can’t offer surgery to everyone who wants it). Uptake hasn’t been enormous, and to be honest I’m not surprised. People who haven’t been exercisers are not very likely to begin an exercise programme that is undoubtedly going to increase their pain in the short-term (because, duh, movement hurts!) even if the programme offers hope of improved pain and function in the future. Putting this into a “values” and “motivation” perspective, people usually value comfort over discomfort. They value short-term outcomes over long. If they’ve never exercised much, it’s clear that exercise isn’t something they value. To help them engage in an exercise programme, we need to work hard to identify values they hold dear so they’ll look to those to over-ride the value of comfort over discomfort.

An alternative might be to think of different ways of expressing values that will concurrently meet the goal of increased exercise. For example, I don’t enjoy exercise per se. In fact I’ve boasted that my body is an exercise-free zone! To tell the truth, that’s not exactly the case. I just don’t do “exercises”. Instead I dance. I get out of my chair for five minutes every 20 minutes and go do something involving my whole body. I garden. I play with the dog. I go out in the kayak. I walk miles when I’m fishing.

Some people would argue that “there’s no evidence base for this” – but I think we’ve forgotten that exercises are simply a planned and repetitive form of moving our bodies because we don’t do that nearly as much in modern times as we used to even in the early 1900’s, let alone in stone-age times. I don’t think hunter-gatherers “do exercises” except as training for something like war or hunting (to increase skill).

Living life with chronic pain must become a lifestyle. And it needs to be a lifestyle that has some life to it – not an endless series of “things we must do for health”, unless “health” is a particular value. If life is just about “things we do for health” doesn’t that constantly remind people of what they don’t have? That they’re not healthy? Making them patients instead of people? For most people, to be healthy is a means to an end: they want to connect with family, express who they are, contribute to their society, love and be loved. If the person in front of us isn’t into exercise, it’s OUR job to work out what they value and connect what we think is important to what they think is important, or we will simply fail.

Some simple steps to identify values – try these out in the clinic!

  1. When a person attends your clinic, they’re expressing a value, that they care about something. Asking the person “what do you hope from coming to see me” is a pretty common opening line. Try extending this by, after they’ve answered, asking “why is that important to you?” or “what would it mean you could do” or “how would that make a difference to you?”
  2. If a person says they don’t like something, try suggesting to them that they value the exact opposite. eg if they’ve said they really don’t like running, ask them why: “it’s boring” might be the answer. This answer suggests they like variety and excitement in their exercise routine. Then you can ask them what activities they see as exciting – maybe instead of running, they’d enjoy virtual boxing (bring out the Oculus Prime!), or a scavenger hunt, or geocaching.
  3. Use the 1 – 10 “readiness ruler” technique from Motivational Interviewing. Ask the person to draw a line and put 1 at one end, and 10 at the other. 1 = not at all important and 10 = incredibly important. Then ask them to put a cross on the line to indicate the importance they place on doing exercise/healthy living/pain management (whatever you’re asking them to do). Then (and this is important!) ask them why they put that mark so high. This is important – even if that mark is down on 2!! Ask them why they put it there and not lower. This will help elicit important values that you can then use to connect what you want them to do with what they value.
Brandywine Falls

Who can do Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Rehabilitation?

I have heard many discussions about scopes of practice: the main concern as far as I can see is of people who are trained to work mainly with the body perhaps stepping out of scope to work with thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. There are risks from stepping too far away from what you’re trained to do, I acknowledge this, though I think health professionals who see people are probably exerting greater influence over thoughts, beliefs and emotions than many of us acknowledge.  And given that’s the case, I think it’s only ethical to learn to craft that influence in ways that are positive rather than inadvertently doing harm because of ignorance.

When I read about a post-surgical rehabilitation approach for people who had spine surgery, I was immediately interested and not because of the surgery! This study compared “cognitive-behavioural based physical therapy” with an education programme six weeks after laminectomy for a lumbar degenerative condition. People were included in the study if they reported high fear of movement using the Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia. Assessments were completed before treatment, after treatment and at a 3 month follow-up, and included the Brief Pain Inventory, Oswestry Disability Index, SF-12, and three performance tests (5-chair stand, timed up and go, and 10 metre walk).

There was no discussion about the physical rehabilitation, but the CBT and education sessions were conducted by phone and participants also received a workbook to take home and follow. Sessions took 30 minutes, except the first session which was for one hour. The main components of the programme are reported as education on the mind-body connection, activity levels, graded activity plan (graded hierarchy) and weekly activity and walking goals. A cognitive or behavioural strategy was introduced in each session, with the therapist helping patients identify enjoyable activities, replace negative thinking with positive thoughts, find a balance between rest and activity, and manage setbacks by recognising high-risk situations and negative thoughts.

The education sessions included the usual contents delivered by a physiotherapist, and featured biomechanics, daily exercise, and ways to promote healing. Information on stress reduction, sleep hygiene, energy management, communicating with health providers and preventing future injury were also provided.

What did they find?

Firstly, only 68% of those eligible for the study agreed to take part, which in itself is interesting. A number of other factors influenced the total number of people entered into the programme – not being treated for a degenerative lumbar condition, not having high enough scores on the TSK were the main reasons. Dropout rates for both programmes were quite low – 7 – 5%, and both programmes had good follow-up outcomes (not too many people missed the follow-up).

Now here’s a thing: 91% of participants also received clinic-based physiotherapy during the treatment phase (roughly 8 visits), and right up until the three-month follow-up (about 6 – 7 visits). No real difference between the groups here.

What did differ was the long-term improvement in the cognitive behavioural group – in terms of back and leg pain, pain interference and disability. The education group still improved in their leg pain and disability, but back pain and pain interference stayed the same. Similarly, the CBT group continued to improve on measures of physical and mental health over time, while the education group’s physical scores improved but mental health scores stayed pretty much the same. The CBT group’s scores improved more than the education group on almost all the measures including the physical performance tests.

What does this mean?

Well, interestingly, the authors of this study suggest that they obtained large and clinically relevant changes because of the specific focus they had on decreasing barriers to functional activity and walking rather than focusing solely on resolving pain symptoms. I think this is very interesting indeed. Although this study used physiotherapists, the clinician was naive to using CBT and was trained specifically for this study. Participants received concurrent physiotherapy in a clinic – the CBT (and education sessions) were additional to what was delivered in the clinic setting. To me the results suggest that the occupational therapy focus on creating opportunities for people to do more within their own environment might be a potent tool in post-operative rehabilitation.

Once again, it also suggests that the professional discipline of the clinician delivering a CBT approach is far less important than the fact that the CBT approach is tailored to the concerns of the patient, and that the treatment targets factors within the real-world context.

Important points to note: these patients were selected on the basis of high levels of pain-related fear and avoidance. I don’t think the outcomes would be nearly as fabulous in a general or undifferentiated group. This approach, while relatively inexpensive to implement, is an added cost – though if we look at the effect on patient outcomes, I would argue that the financial cost is far outweighed by the positive human results.

Finally, I think this study also shows that addressing thoughts, beliefs and emotions is a part of what every health professional should be doing: it’s unethical not to learn to do this well.

Archer KR, Devin CJ, Vanston SW, Koyama T, Phillips S, George SZ, McGirt ML, Spengler DM, Aaronson OS, Cheng JS, Wegener ST, Cognitive-behavioral based physical therapy
for patients with chronic pain undergoing lumbar spine surgery: a randomized controlled trial, Journal of Pain (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2015.09.013.

Niagara Falls

You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something has been lost: Martha Graham

In an era in healthcare where administrators prize standardisation, algorithms and consistency, it’s no wonder that in chronic pain management there are concerted efforts to make a standard treatment recipe to suit everyone. After all, there are common things that people living with pain need: accurate information about pain, accurate information about tissues and how they contribute to pain, assurance that pain doesn’t mean ongoing damage, and being introduced to some safe movements that don’t threaten an already agitated nervous system. There’s even a call for clinicians to use a kind of curriculum to make sure all the important bits are covered based on the individual’s presentation. This is valuable stuff!

But, I think standardisation* is both an admirable and a futile effort. Admirable because we know there are so many clinicians and patients who don’t get told much  of this information. Admirable because it would be great to know that once given, this information should make a difference to the person living with pain. Admirable because it’s easier to remember a “standard” list of topics, or a standard management approach than to generate a fresh new one every time a person comes in to see you. But I think a standardised approach (used unthinkingly) might not be the most efficient way, it could almost be futile, and here’s why.

*(note: not the curriculum for pain education, but the notion of a standard list of topics that every person with pain should have covered)

I’m a nerd. That’s right, when I get on a topic I love, I can talk for hours! I have seen the eye rolls, and that subtle slump that tells me that I’ve gone on too long. I think there’s a very fine line between being enthusiastic and being too intense, particularly when it’s a topic I love but maybe the other person is less enthralled with. I know I’m not alone in this enthusiasm (thank goodness!) but I also know that I need to be aware of all those cues that tell me when someone has had enough and I’m boring them. If I want to do more than lecture, I need to go about my conversations in a different way.  I have to actually converse not harangue!

Conversations, especially where one person is knowledgeable about a subject and the other isn’t, are really guided discoveries. A guided discovery is where one person asks a question and the other person, who knows the answers, is able to answer. The questioner listens because he or she wants to find out. Various skills underpin conversations – mirroring body language, use of gaze (looking at the person, looking away), using metaphors and those little “listening cues” like “uhuh” or “mmmm” or “tell me more”. The thing about conversations is that although one person is finding out about the other, in fact most times both parties will learn something new.

We’d expect the person asking the questions to learn something new, but the person responding? How do they learn something new? There’s quite a large body of research that considers conversation to be one of the main ways humans develop meaning, and that these meanings are then reflected in the way we perceive events and act on them (Strong, 1999). In other words, as we converse with one another we develop a shared understanding of the subject under discussion – or at least it’s possible to do so.

This view is part of a social constructivist view of reality.  Strong’s paper states that people living with chronic pain experience suffering when “chronic pain sufferers and others are engaged in conversations that yield no differences in meanings for the participants” (Strong, 1999, p. 39). In other words, when one person is not heard, or the conversations they have with others don’t influence the beliefs or meanings they have, the conversations themselves contribute to suffering.

It’s not hard to see that if one partner in the conversation isn’t really listening; or if the questions being asked are only done to confirm a prior belief; or if the person answering doesn’t think the other is listening – well, neither person will change his or her understanding. And I think this is what we risk if we use a standardised way to provide information to people.

I can see that instead of being a conversation in which both parties learn, “educating” could become an opportunity for one person to lecture the other. Now I know this isn’t the intention of pain neurophysiology education. I know that it’s intended to be conducted within the framework of genuinely wanting to help the person living with pain view their pain as less threatening and less mysterious.

I said before that I think standardising a “pain education” for people living with pain might be futile. This is why: when each person has a unique understanding of their body, their pain and their life, and when they’ve had a unique pathway to getting to see a clinician, they’ve probably also had any number of unique conversations in which their understanding of their pain has been changed. They’ve taken a bit here, and a bit there. A piece of this and a dab of that. And then they’ve infused this with their own experiences and arrived at their own theory for why they have pain. Each one of those thoughts and beliefs and attitudes needs to be revisited in the light of new information. This is not something that will shift with just one “info dump”.

What I’ve learned from motivational interviewing and case formulation (thanks psychology!) is that until the person is ready to hear what we have to say, they’ll pick up on the parts of what we say that they want to hear. What this means is that we need to give them the respect they deserve for making their own theory for their pain, and we need to listen to what it is and how they’ve developed it. It makes sense to them. And we need to ask for permission to introduce a new idea. If we jump right on in there without being given permission I know how that will go down! In a few cases the person will be absolutely fine with it: they were ready to hear something new. But in many cases, we’ll be generating resistance because we’re challenging something the person has learned for him or herself.

I think we also need to recognise that people pick and choose the bits of information that resonate for them. This means their understanding of pain is unique to them. We know that reviewing existing knowledge in light of new information is a really good way for students to develop a deep understanding of their subject matter – the same occurs for people learning about their pain. By gently guiding people through both their current understanding, and then through a combination of information and experience, they will draw their own conclusions about what this new material means. Our “education” needs to be a guided discovery together with the person so they can make sense of their experience in the light of new information.

Some resources for guided discovery: – teaching physical education

Socratic questioning – Padesky

Priory – guided therapy

Psi – Balancing thoughts

Strong, Tom. (1999). Macro- and micro-conversation in conspiring with chronic pain. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 18(3), 37-50.

blossom of snow

Deciding when to say when: pain cure? or pain managed?

I think the subject of this post is the singularly most important yet neglected topic in chronic pain research today. When is it time to say “All this looking at pain cure, or reducing your pain isn’t working, it’s time to accept that pain is going to part of your life.” It’s difficult for so many reasons whether you’re the person experiencing the pain, or the clinician trying to help. It’s also incredibly important for everyone including our community.

Cures for pain that persists are not easily found. One possibility is that the underlying disease or dysfunction has not yet been treated – pain in this case is the experience we have when there’s an unresolved threat to body tissues. Find the source of the problem, treat it, and voila! No pain.

Another possibility is that a new or groovy treatment has been developed – something extraordinary, or something that’s being applied to a different problem or something that’s emerging from the experimental phase to clinical practice.  This means clinicians need to have heard about it, maybe will have had to think hard about their clinical reasoning, have developed skills to apply it, and be ready to talk about it with the person they’re treating.

In the case of much chronic pain, pharmacological approaches simply do not work. Machado and colleagues (2009), in a large meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomised trials, found 76 eligible trials reporting on 34 treatments. Fifty percent of the treatments had statistically significant effects, but for most the effects were small or moderate … the analgesic effects of many treatments for non-specific low back pain are small”, while Machado, Maher and colleagues found that paracetamol was “ineffective” for reducing pain intensity or improving quality of life for people with low back pain, and although there was a statistically significant result for paracetamol on osteoarthritis pain (hip or knee), this was not clinically important (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin, et al_2015).  Clifford Woolf said “most existing analgesics for persistent pain are relatively ineffective… the number of patients who are needed to be treated to achieve 50% reduction in neuropathic pain in one patient is more than four – a high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians” (Woolf, 2010).

Woolf’s sentence ends with an important statement: A high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians. I have emphasised the final three words, because this might be the most difficult to process. It’s hard for clinicians to say “I can’t reduce your pain”, and “there isn’t a cure”. It’s incredibly hard. And it’s perhaps because it’s so hard that I’ve found very little published research looking at the way clinicians go about telling people their pain is likely to be ongoing. It’s like a taboo – let’s not talk about it, let’s pretend it doesn’t happen, after all it doesn’t happen often.  Really?

Amongst allied health (I can’t bear to use the word “non-medical”), and in particular, physiotherapists, there continues to be a push to address pain intensity and (ultimately) to cure pain.  Innovative treatments such as mirror therapy, graded motor imagery, therapeutic pain neuroscience (we used to call it psycho-education in the 1980’s when I first started working in this area), reducing the threat value of the experience have all come into their own over the past 15 years or so. Even long-standing pain problems apparently respond to these approaches – people cured! Who wouldn’t be keen to try them?

Most of these latter treatments are based on the idea that our neurology is plastic; that is, it can change as we change input and thoughts/beliefs about what’s going on.  Unfortunately, the systematic reviews of trials, and at least one “real world” trial of graded motor imagery haven’t shown effects as great as promised from the early research (eg Johnson, Hall, Barnett, Draper, Derbyshire et al, 2012). There are sure to be people who can point to amazing outcomes in the people they treat. I’m certain that it’s not just the “treatment” but an awful lot to do with the person delivering the treatment – and the treatment context – that might make a difference to outcomes.

But where this all leads me to is who makes the decision to stop chasing pain reduction and pain cure? When does it happen? What’s the process? And what if we treatment providers are actually prolonging disability out of the goodness of our hearts to find a cure?

Let me unpack this a little.

In my research, several important factors led to people deciding to begin flexibly persisting (and getting on with life as it is, not as it was, or might be).

  • The first was knowing the diagnosis and that it would not be completely cured but could be managed.
  • The second, that hurting didn’t mean harm (pain is just pain, not a sign of ongoing damage).
  • The third, that there was something important the person wanted or needed to do to be themselves.

There were other things as well, like having a clinician who would stand by the person even if the person didn’t “do as the Doctor ordered”, and developing their own personalised model or explanation for their pain as it fluctuated from day-to-day. BUT the single most important factor was knowing that the problem needed to be managed because there was no cure. Knowing this meant that energy used chasing a cure was redirected towards learning to live well and be the person they were, rather than a patient or being dominated by pain.

Unfortunately, I think that many clinicians confuse the idea of managing pain with that of resignation to a lesser life. Even the wonderful Lorimer Moseley and crew wrote recently that “CBT literature seemed to focus on this idea of ‘pain is now unavoidable so it is now time to learn how to cope with it.’ He goes on to argue that because a CBT approach focuses on thoughts and beliefs (much like Explain Pain does), it’s not incompatible with the idea that the plastic brain can learn to reduce the threat value even further to ultimately “helping them live well with less pain, or perhaps without any pain at all.”

Here’s my concern: Right now there are many people living with chronic pain who have lost their sense of hope. They’ve pursued pain cure after pain cure, and in doing so, they’ve lost normal routines and habits, lost their usual occupations (activities), stopped being around people, stopped working, and have suffered in the true sense of the word – they’ve lost their sense of self. While I applaud the efforts of researchers like Moseley and colleagues, and I think we must continue to seek treatments to reverse the neurobiological underpinnings of pain, at the same time I think we need to look at the psychological and social aspects of our attitudes and expectations towards experiencing pain. And we must think of the negative effects of our emotional response to seeing another person who is experiencing pain.

Is it so terrible to experience pain every day? Speaking as one who does – despite my knowledge of neuroplasticity – my pain doesn’t represent a threat. It’s just an experience. It’s there. I notice it, I can feel it. And the participants in my research similarly acknowledged pain as present – but it didn’t have the emotional primacy that pain can represent before it is explained. In fact, some of the participants said they’d learned important things because they’d had pain. A lot like having a mood disorder (that must be managed), or diabetes (that must be managed), or heart disease (that must be managed), or respiratory disease (that must be managed), perhaps it’s OK to have pain – that must be managed. Because until our research has advanced a LOT further than it has, there are an awful lot of people living with chronic pain, and who will continue to live with chronic pain. And even more sadly, there are an awful lot of people who don’t even get the opportunity to know that it’s possible to live well despite experiencing chronic pain because we (as part of society) still don’t accept that pain can be present without it being a threat.

Sometimes I wonder at our (clinicians and researchers) blind spot. We just don’t seem to be ready to accept persisting pain as something that can be lived with. Is it time to look at our own discomfort with allowing pain to be part of life?


Bowering, K. J., O’Connell, N. E., Tabor, A., Catley, M. J., Leake, H. B., Moseley, G. L., & Stanton, T. R. (2013). The effects of graded motor imagery and its components on chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Pain, 14(1), 3-13.

Cossins, L., Okell, R. W., Cameron, H., Simpson, B., Poole, H. M., & Goebel, A. (2013). Treatment of complex regional pain syndrome in adults: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials published from June 2000 to February 2012. European Journal of Pain, 17(2), 158-173.

Johnson, S., Hall, J., Barnett, S., Draper, M., Derbyshire, G., Haynes, L., . . . Goebel, A. (2012). Using graded motor imagery for complex regional pain syndrome in clinical practice: failure to improve pain. European Journal of Pain, 16(4), 550-561.

Machado, LAC, Kamper, SJ, Herbert, RD, Maher, CG, & McAuley, JH. (2009). Analgesic effects of treatments for non-specific low back pain: a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomized trials. Rheumatology, 48(5), 520-527.

Machado, Gustavo C, Maher, Chris G, Ferreira, Paulo H, Pinheiro, Marina B, Lin, Chung-Wei Christine, Day, Richard O, . . . Ferreira, Manuela L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials (Vol. 350).

Woolf, Clifford J. (2010). Overcoming obstacles to developing new analgesics. Nature Medical, 16(11), 1241-1247. doi: doi:10.1038/nm.2230


More than something to blame when the treatment doesn’t work

A friend of mine told me that during her physiotherapy training when they discussed “psychosocial” factors it was usually in the context of explaining why a treatment didn’t work.  This still happens. Even well-informed and scientifically savvy people can unintentionally “blame” those pesky psychosocial factors for getting in the way of complete recovery. What do I mean? Well, let’s think about it: when we’ve done the “explaining” or “educating” – and the person still doesn’t understand and/or their pain doesn’t reduce, what’s our explanation?

We know that pain is an experience, not a separate thing to be treated, but the experience an individual has when his or her brain determines there is a threat to the body (and that threat is more important than other competing goals). We also know there are numerous mechanisms underpinning this experience, many of which are biological. But what we are always left with is the fact that we cannot know anything about this other person’s world except through (1) their behaviour and (2) our interpretation of their behaviour.

I’ve emphasised this because recently I’ve heard one registration board suggesting that a profession should not talk about pain, nor consider psychosocial factors because their domain of influence is bodily tissues.

I’ve also emphasised this because in our efforts to become all sciencey and sound (at least) like we know what we’re talking about, I think we may have forgotten that the only reason we know someone is sore is because they are doing something that we interpret as a signal that they’re sore. And that this occurs within a social setting that has emerged from a combination of historical practices and assumptions, and we are part of that social setting.

The biological substrates for our experience of pain have received the lion’s share of research attention and funds. What has received rather less is understanding some of the social aspects – what individuals learn throughout their life, including the assumptions we develop about what is “normal” and what is not. Unique family and cultural factors influence each individual’s experience – what does this person pay attention to? What does this person ignore? When this person recognises something as “not normal” what is the usual way of dealing with it? Who does this person first see for treatment?

More than this, what about the research looking at treatment provider’s decoding and response to the social communication of the person seeking treatment? We know, for example, that healthcare providers who view video vignettes of people displaying pain behaviour with no medical evidence but with psychosocial factors rate those individuals as experiencing less pain and interference, they have less sympathy, expect medication effectiveness to be less, and those individuals were more likely to be rated as potentially trying to deceive the treatment providers (De Ruddere, Goubert, Stevens, Deveugele, Craig & Crombez, 2014). These responses appear to use both automatic (unintentional, reflexive) and controlled (intentional, purposive) neuroregulatory systems. Observers (ie health professionals) also incorporate automatic (unintentional, reflexive) and controlled (intentional, reflective) reactions. We seem more likely to demonstrate instant ‘‘visceral’’ emotional reactions to unintentional, reflexive expression, while controlled expression characterised by purposive (deliberate) behaviour appears more likely to suggest to health professionals (or observers) that we should think a little about the purpose behind that individual’s pain expression (Craig, Versloot, Goubert, Vervoort & Crombez, 2010). The point is: this occurs even when we know about it, and even if the individual is experiencing pain, and even though the individual is only trying to get the treatment provider’s attention!

Pain behaviour as independent from the individual’s experience of pain is one of the key features of the behavioural model of pain. Pain behaviours were what Fordyce and Loeser and Turk and the very great original thinkers about chronic pain management first thought could and should be dealt with. The reason? Because despite all the surgical and pharmacological treatments available in the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s,  many people were still left experiencing pain and were also highly disabled by it. By helping people reduce their pain behaviour (eg stop guarding that body part, start moving more quickly and fluidly, be more relaxed, groan less) they noticed that people were also reporting that their pain bothered them less.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (or a cognitive behavioural approach, to be more accurate) incorporated more “education”, or helping people understand the mechanisms involved in their experience of pain, helping them understand the difference between hurting vs doing damage. A CBT approach meant people were acknowledged as being able to think differently about their pain, reduce their distress and begin to do more. A CBT approach combined education with behavioural experiments and encouraged people to get on with life.

Much more recently we have physiotherapists deciding that giving people pain neurobiology education (sounds almost exactly like the CBT education/explanation to me) is really good and reduces the threat value of the experience. And combined with graded reactivation, exposure to doing things that have been avoided, using methods to reduce distress and by avoiding flare-ups of pain, people are helped.

Two or three important points for me:

  1. Health professionals need to be aware of their own psychosocial responses/background/biases when they observe another person who is indicating they are sore.
  2. If we are two people interacting, all the messy psychosocial factors are immediately present – whether we attend to them, or not.
  3. Given how important those factors are in both our response to another person and their response to treatment (eg placebo, expectancy) it is critical that we integrate effective communication skills into every clinical interaction.

And probably another important point:

In the enthusiasm for pain neurobiology education and the potential for the person to no longer experience pain, we need to remember that reducing disability is arguably more relevant than reducing pain. Despite the impressive results reported by clinicians and some researchers there are many many people who continue to live with chronic pain. As clinicians we may even inadvertently delay recovery if our focus is inappropriately on pain reduction. I say this because there is SUCH clear evidence that pain intensity is less of a factor in ongoing disability than unhelpful beliefs and avoidance (Froud, Patterson, Eldridge, Seale, Pincus, Rajendran et al, 2014; Shaw, Campbell, Nelson, Main & Linton, 2013; Wilkens, Scheel, Grundnes, Hellum & Storheim, 2013).

To conclude, it seems to me that it’s high time for health professionals to take a hard look at what they consider to be “their” domain of concern. Not only must we avoid “blaming” psychosocial factors for poor outcomes from treatments we provide, we also must begin to recognise our own biases as we work with people living with pain. One of these biases is the temptation to believe that we are not influenced by our own psychosocial factors. Another is to recognise that delicate moment when it’s time to take our attention away from reducing pain and towards reducing disability. We need to elevate the status of effective communication – not just “can I make myself understood” and “can I establish rapport”, but that much more nuanced scope of implementing reflective listening, truly hearing our clients, and responding in a way that upholds client choice and self efficacy. I think this belongs to all health professions, not simply those tasked with dealing with “psychosocial” factors.


Craig, K.D. (2015). Social communication model of pain. Pain, 156(7), 1198-1199.

Craig, K.D., Versloot, J., Goubert, L., Vervoort, T., & Crombez, G. (2010). Perceiving pain in others: Automatic and controlled mechanisms. The Journal of Pain, 11(2), 101-108. doi:

De Ruddere, L., Goubert, L., Stevens, M.A.L., Deveugele, M., Craig, K.D., & Crombez, G. (2014). Health care professionals’ reactions to patient pain: Impact of knowledge about medical evidence and psychosocial influences. The Journal of Pain, 15(3), 262-270. doi:

Froud, R., Patterson, S., Eldridge, S., Seale, C., Pincus, T., Rajendran, D., . . . Underwood, M. (2014). A systematic review and meta-synthesis of the impact of low back pain on people’s lives. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 50.

Shaw, W.S., Campbell, P., Nelson, C.C., Main, C.J., & Linton, S.J. (2013). Effects of workplace, family and cultural influences on low back pain: What opportunities exist to address social factors in general consultations? Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 637-648.

Wilkens, P., Scheel, I.B., Grundnes, O., Hellum, C., & Storheim, K. (2013). Prognostic factors of prolonged disability in patients with chronic low back pain and lumbar degeneration in primary care: A cohort study. Spine, 38(1), 65-74.

BFT poster

My North American Tour!! #Bronnie2015

It’s fast coming up – my wonderful North American tour!! Thanks to some amazing friends who have organised the details, I’m going to be in North America from the end of May to mid-June at the following places:

11 June – one day workshop on graded exposure!
13/14 June
What am I doing?
This is a two-day workshop on integrating biopsychosocial factors into clinical assessment, clinical reasoning and treatment planning. It’s about taking pain management from the clinic into the real world. It’s a time to learn more about the practical aspects of integrating these messy concepts – without breaching your scope of practice!
By the end of the two days you’ll have some tools you can use on Monday, gained confidence and had fun.
Come and join me and the fabulous team who have done all the arranging for these workshops!
symmetry and perfection

One gap to fill in pain management

There have been some great gains in pain neuroscience over the past few years – we know more about mirror neurones, cortical smudging, “placebo” and how cognitive behavioural therapy changes the brain. It’s sexy. There are also some rather unsexy areas of pain management, and one of these is about how people learn about their chronic pain.

It takes most people several years to get a definitive diagnosis for even well-known inflammatory problems like ankylosing spondylitis (Salvadorini, Bandinelli, Delle Sedie, Riente et al, 2012) – nine years is a long time to have mysterious pain that no-one seems to have a handle on. We also know that people with pain want some very specific things from their consultations: a definite diagnosis, acknowledgment of pain, acknowledgement of expert knowledge from the person with pain, to be seen as an individual rather than a diagnosis (Haugli, Strand & Finset, 2004).

My research looked at the ways to cope used by people who live well despite their pain. The first part of living well involves making sense of what is going on.

When a person first experiences pain, mostly it’s thought of as a typical acute pain problem. When the pain doesn’t settle down, or if it feels different from other experiences of pain, people will begin searching for information. Eventually, and this can take a long time (years), there’s a match between “what I feel”, “what I’ve learned” and “a label”. The label represents a lot to people living with pain. It means validation (I’m not going crazy, I’m not imagining it, I’m not being weak), it means the problem is understandable, and it means someone knows what is going on.

At the same time as getting external validation for the problem, people are trying to work out what their pain does on a day-to-day basis. Where do I hurt? What does it feel like? What’s normal? Over the past few years as apps for our devices have been developed, these are useful tools people can use to track their pain from day-to-day.  I’ve seen incredibly detailed diaries where people have written down their pain intensity, and what they’ve done for months and months in an attempt to get symptom understanding.

And then there’s the need to predict the effect of chronic pain on what needs to be done in life. And this is a gap I think we need to fill.

When people are busy learning about their pain, and at least until they have diagnostic clarity, life seems to get put on hold. It’s a recognised feature of this phase of having pain, life can become “a viscous long-lasting now”, with temporal disorganisation (Hellstrom & Carlsson, 1996; Hellstrom, 2001).  In other words, people’s sense of the future and moving towards this gets disorganised because the world that used to be predictable has become chaotic.  They’ve lost the ability to dream about what might be there for the future, because now dominates everything.

This occurs because humans make plans based on a sense of self, of who we are, what we do, our contributions and roles. When chronic pain is present, people’s sense of self (the collection of knowledge about what-it-feels-like-to-be-me) is disturbed because all the everyday things they need to do are more difficult. Pain intrudes.

I’ve looked for any systematic tools to give people so they can learn how to predict the effect of their pain on daily activities (occupations, to use the language of occupational science and occupational therapy).  I haven’t found anything yet.

The whole idea that someone might want to, or need to, develop this kind of “somatic awareness” is counterintuitive. I mean, most programmes ask people to complete questionnaires that are used by clinicians to identify their problems and what therapy should target. Much of therapy is intended to extend what people can do, to help them go beyond their existing beliefs and limitations. We do this by engaging people in physical activities such as a circuit gym or a set of exercises that gradually gets increased over time.

BUT How does knowledge drawn from a set of exercises, or a circuit gym, transfer to the daily life patterns of a 34 year old builder? Or a 28 year old bank clerk? Or a teacher? Or a retired merchant navalman?

“Somatic awareness” as a clinical need in people with chronic pain is not a new idea. Strong and Large (1995), and Large and Strong (1997) identified that people who were not seeking treatment for their low back pain used “somatic awareness” to titrate their activity levels, and this formed a large part of their coping approach. Crowe, Whitehead, Gagan, Baxter, Pankhurst and Valledor (2010) also found that people “listen to their body” so they can adjust what they expect from themselves. Fisher, Emerson, Firpo, Ptak, Wonn and Bartolacci (2007) identified that by understanding the variability of pain, people could modify their occupational engagement, as did Persson, Andersson & Eklund (2011).   There are many more.

I think an obstacle to developing this aspect of self-management might be our fear that by asking people to notice what is going on in their bodies, we are reinforcing “pain behaviour”. I’m not sure that this is in fact what happens, but it’s an area for future research. The behavioural paradigm still has a strong influence on how we think about attention and pain. And we’ve all probably seen those people who fixate on pain fluctuations to the point of obsession, and usually because they’re keen to do whatever it takes to reduce the pain.

Somatic awareness, making sense, symptom understanding and occupational existing are tools used by people who are naive to pain management. Maybe in our efforts to help those who have a great deal of trouble with their pain, we’ve forgotten to build on the strengths used by those who cope well.


Allegretti, Andrew, Borkan, Jeffrey, Reis, Shmuel, & Griffiths, Frances. (2010). Paired interviews of shared experiences around chronic low back pain: Classic mismatch between patients and their doctors. Family Practice, 27(6), 676-683. doi:

Crowe, M., Whitehead, L., Gagan, M. J., Baxter, G. D., Pankhurst, A., & Valledor, V. (2010). Listening to the body and talking to myself – the impact of chronic lower back pain: a qualitative study. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 47(5), 586-592. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2009.09.012

Fisher, G. S., Emerson, L., Firpo, C., Ptak, J., Wonn, J., & Bartolacci, G. (2007). Chronic pain and occupation: an exploration of the lived experience. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61(3), 290-302.

Haugli, Liv, Strand, Elin, & Finset, Arnstein. (2004). How do patients with rheumatic disease experience their relationship with their doctors? A qualitative study of experiences of stress and support in the doctor-patient relationship. Patient Education and Counseling, 52(2), 169-174. doi:

Hellstrom, Christina. (2001). Affecting the future: Chronic pain and perceived agency in a clinical setting. Time & Society, 10(1), 77-92. doi:

Hellstrom, Christina, & Carlsson, Sven G. (1996). The long-lasting now: Disorganization in subjective time in long-standing pain. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 37(4), 416-423. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.1996.tb00673.x

Large, Robert, & Strong, Jenny. (1997). The personal constructs of coping with chronic low back pain: is coping a necessary evil? Pain, 73(2), 245-252. doi:

Persson, Dennis, Andersson, Ingemar, & Eklund, Mona. (2011). Defying aches and revaluating daily doing: occupational perspectives on adjusting to chronic pain. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 18(3), 188-197. doi:

Salvadorini, G., Bandinelli, F., Delle Sedie, A., Riente, L., Candelieri, A., Generini, S., . . . Matucci-Cerinic, M. (2012). Ankylosing spondylitis: how diagnostic and therapeutic delay have changed over the last six decades. Clinical & Experimental Rheumatology, 30(4), 561-565.

Strong, J., & Large, R. (1995). Coping with Chronic Low Back Pain: An Idiographic Exploration Through Focus Groups. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 25(4), 371-387. doi: 10.2190/H4P9-U5NB-2KJU-4TBN

don't wait too long

Stepping out of the glue: How to generate goals

Chronic pain has been called one of the “most powerful and insidious disruptors” of routine, habit and wellbeing (Karoly, Okun, Enders & Tennen, 2014).  When a person experiences pain, a whole range of mechanisms come into play and work together to use thinking and processing space, and especially those areas we use when we’re developing and achieving goals.  When people are first trying to make sense of their situation, they can find it hard to think about future goals and plans, and instead focus on trying to solve the problem of pain – many people call this time like being in limbo (McGowan, Luker, Creed & Chew-Graham, 2007).

It’s not surprising, then, that when clinicians begin to work with someone who has had pain for a very long time, it can be very difficult for them to think of a “goal”. After all, not everyone sets goals anyway (I heard somewhere that it’s about 3% of people – but I can’t find the research to support it). But in pain management, funders often ask clinicians to work with the client to “set goals” for therapy from the first day as a way to ensure a client-centred programme, increase motivation, and monitor outcomes. This can be a problem in a couple of ways: first of all, if the person doesn’t have goals because they’ve been in “limbo land” for a long time, and feel pretty demoralised or their goal relates to “getting rid of the pain”; secondly, if the person has vague ideas that are difficult to set into the typical “SMART” formula (incidentally, I really don’t like that acronym!); thirdly, if the person doesn’t have strong ideas about what they want from therapy, the clinician can set the goals for them, and perhaps not those the client is really all that interested in; and finally, it’s hard to set goals without having spent some time listening to and collaborating with the client.

Pain can be experienced as a major obstacle to motivation for setting goals. Negative mood associated with pain can reduce motivation to think ahead, to dream. Morning pain in particular can make it more difficult to want to do things, unless those activities are important, there are relatively structured ways to pursue them, and they don’t need much planning.  This can influence whether a person gets out of bed to go to work, or the gym, or take the kids to school. In a daily diary study, Karoly, Okun, Mooris, Enders and Tennen (2014) found that people with relatively high overall pain over a two-week period, but not necessarily just in the morning, and who have chosen to stay working, often also carry out their “lifestyle” goals in the afternoon. They suggest this could be because goals that are further out in time, and the positive feelings associated with achieving work goals keep them motivated. But they also found that even then, on the days people had more than their usual pain in the morning, they were less inclined to do as much.

The implication of this finding by Karoly and colleagues is that people who experience a “high pain” morning might need some reminders of the pleasure they get when they achieve goals – perhaps to pay attending to people and places that support their goal achievement. Helping people develop goal planning skills might also be useful – do the thinking when you’re feeling a bit more positive and can see beyond “now”, then when pain is higher, the cognitive demanding work is already done and the reminders help to generate positive emotions to encourage doing them.

OK, so we know some ways of helping people keep motivated, but what do we do to help people set them in the first place?

People are motivated by both push and pull factors. We want to move towards things we experience as good, and away from things we don’t enjoy. When pain is present, not only does it become hard to think straight, it doesn’t feel like it will ever change. So we need to help people dream a little. One way I do this is ask “What would you be doing if pain wasn’t such a problem for you?” Note that I’m not saying pain isn’t there – but that it’s less of a problem. Sometimes I’ll use a plastic magic wand and hand it to the person, asking them to dream a little. Other times I’ll add in “What gives you joy and pleasure? What makes you lose your sense of time and place? What gives you a sense of satisfaction when it’s done?”

These questions begin to identify activities in which a person might experience “flow” – Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi.

Another way is to ask the person what they need to, or want to do, perhaps using the occupational therapy broad groups of “productivity/work”, “leisure/fun”, and “self care” as prompts.

I’ve also found that by asking “what’s important in your life” can be a good way to generate personal goals. Importance indicates that the person places value on it. Values are important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by people about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values underpin ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), because instead of setting goals, which can be achieved, values are like a compass – things we do (actions) allow us to move closer towards important values, and we never completely achieve them. They’re directional and aspirational, and allow us to do difficult things that have short-term negative consequences, just so we can move towards a better long-term consequence (van Huet, Innes & Stancliffe, 2013).

How can you use this in therapy?

Well, if a person really values family, and being a good Dad, anything that Dad does to enable him to be a better Dad will be motivational. So you can ask “What could you do today that would take you one step closer to being a great Dad?” And use whatever that might be as the foundation for a goal. Then you can go on and use all the other great goal-setting strategies like specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that doing that thing will be easy – far from it! But it will make achieving it more relevant, powerful and motivating. Working with the challenges is why you are a therapist.


Karoly, Paul, Okun, Morris A., Enders, Craig, & Tennen, Howard. (2014). Effects of Pain Intensity on Goal Schemas and Goal Pursuit: A Daily Diary Study. Health Psychology, 33(9), 968-976.

McGowan, Linda, Luker, Karen, Creed, Francis, & Chew-Graham, Carolyn A. (2007). ‘How do you explain a pain that can’t be seen?’: The narratives of women with chronic pelvic pain and their disengagement with the diagnostic cycle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12(2), 261-274.

van Huet, Helen, Innes, Ev, & Stancliffe, Roger. (2013). Occupational therapists perspectives of factors influencing chronic pain management. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 60(1), 56-65.

is this my best side

e-Therapy: online CBT programmes for people with chronic pain

There are many problems with helping people access timely and appropriate chronic pain management programmes. In the US, comprehensive multi or inter-disciplinary programmes have been decreasingly funded compared with single discipline approaches. In New Zealand, the chance of being accepted into a Pain Management Centre in some cities is 1:10 if you’re not covered by ACC. Finding, resourcing and keeping clinicians in this specialist area is challenging.

So…many people have looked for alternative ways to deliver this vital and effective management approach, and with increasing use of the interwebs and smartphone apps for health information, it’s not surprising there have been some attempts to develop online pain management programmes, usually following a broadly cognitive behavioural approach.

How well do they work?

Good question. And one that needs to be answered before rushing out to set them up.  The first caveat, though, needs to be a reminder that when we look at comparing online programmes with face-to-face, we may not be comparing apples with apples. Here are the differences I’ve identified:

  • Group process in face-to-face approaches is different from online versions. This is because so much of our communication relies on visual feedback, and even with video/web cams we’re not getting the rich information we rely on in face-to-face discussions.
  • Many online programmes don’t use group approaches at all. Treatment can be carried out individually, and even in face-to-face approaches, treatments can be conducted with individual people rather than in groups. I personally think this is only more useful than group approaches for the small number of people who find it hard to be in a group: distractible, angry, dominant people, and those who don’t speak the language or can’t hear what’s going on. There’s a lot to be said for being able to watch other people and learn vicariously from them. But online programmes typically don’t have the capacity for group discussions in real time, except perhaps for moderated chat rooms.
  • Behaviour change is less likely with online approaches. The group process directly influences what people do, and without that face-to-face contact, it’s much easier for people to talk the talk while not walking the walk. Even if the behaviour change only occurs during the face-to-face sessions, that’s more than nothing at all!

Just as face-to-face cognitive behaviourally-based pain management programmes differ in content, form and duration, so do online versions. This makes comparing the approaches challenging. We also need to remember that most of the research showing that pain management programmes are effective do so when comparing the programme against a waiting list, or a non-treatment or placebo control. When the comparison is between a pain management programme and another active treatment, the results are less stunning. We should also remember that the outcomes being measured are important: is it pain reduction (not so likely, but possible)? Is it increased function (likely)? Reduced distress (probable)? Increased confidence (generally yes, at least for a while)?

To the studies:

I’m going to draw from three recent studies published by the same group, all three studies vary slightly in their scope, and were conducted in Sweden. Participants were recruited from the University-based Pain Centre, and had received a medical examination but no multidisciplinary treatment.  Participants were screened over the phone, and randomly allocated to one of two groups. In the first study, the two groups were the control group which was an online discussion group, with the second group an online ACT-based programme consisting of seven sections (Buhrman, Skoglund, Husell, Bergstrom, Gordh, Hursti et al, 2013).

The second study was an online “refresher” programme for people who had previously attended the Uppsala University chronic pain programme. Participants were invited if they had completed their programme 1 – 5 years before, had been recently screened medically, and were interviewed/screened to ensure their eligibility.  Participants were also randomised into two groups: the control group as above, and the treatment group which had eight sessions incorporating action planning, exercise, applied relaxation, cognitive restructuring, mindfulness and sleep and stress (Buhrman, Fredriksson, Edstrom, Shafiei, Tarnquvist, Ljotsson et al, 2013).

The final study by this group has yet to be published, and is a similar programme to that in the second one, and again the research design was as above. Participants in this study were those with depression and anxiety, and treatment was tailored to directly address these problems, drawing from the content above, but tailored to meet the individual needs as assessed in the screening interview (Buhrman, Syk, Burvall, Hartig, Gordh, & Andersson, in press).

What happened?

For all three programmes, outcomes showed improvement in the areas we want to see (reduced distress, anxiety, depression, increased activity engagement and willingness). This was maintained for six – twelve months. All well and good, the programmes are useful.

The questions that arise for me are whether some of the steps required for a research project might influence programme usefulness – and even participation. The authors of the in press article acknowledge this, finding that they did not provide telephone support for this last group, and therefore had more drop-outs. But of course this could happen if participants don’t think they’re getting any new information, so we’re not sure if this is important. But there is information suggesting that personal phone contact, the interview process and follow-ups by clinicians form an important part of helping people maintain interest and engagement in a programme. Could this be a potential barrier to “real world” success for internet-based programmes?

Other issues have been identified in other studies of self-management, such as the need for GP’s to actively endorse these programmes, giving authoritative sanction for them so people participating are encouraged to use them. Where this isn’t carried out the programmes don’t seem to have as much uptake.

There’s also the “I’m in a research study” effect. Simply by being in a research project people can be more enthusiastic about participating, and completing all those questionnaires. There’s the emailed reminders, the “specialness” of having your opinion valued, the enthusiasm of the researchers themselves.

What do I conclude?

By comparison with pain-related apps for smart phones (Lalloo, Jibb, Rivera, Agarwal & Stinson, in press), internet-based cognitive behaviourally-based programmes for chronic pain are broad in scope, usually based on some theoretical position, and some have been scientifically studied. In fact, Lalloo and colleagues point out that many apps don’t have health professional input, and haven’t been tested for effectiveness. While apps may offer some support for self-management, they are probably not your best choice for e-therapy.

CBT-based programmes, on the other hand, seem to have some effectiveness at least on some parameters, and within the constraints of a research format.

I’d like to see a programme developed for people in the community without requiring medical assessment, and based on a model of how people move from “Limbo Land” where pain doesn’t make any sense, through to “Living well with chronic pain” where a range of ways of getting on with life are used in a flexible and persistent way. I’d love to see this kind of programme operating without obstacles to getting involved like being screened, or medically assessed, and where participants can choose the elements that interest them. People with pain might just choose what they’re ready for more effectively than if a professional gets in on the act – what do you think?


Buhrman, Monica, Skoglund, Astrid, Husell, Josefin, Bergström, Kristina, Gordh, Torsten, Hursti, Timo, . . . Andersson, Gerhard. (2013). Guided internet-delivered acceptance and commitment therapy for chronic pain patients: A randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51(6), 307-315. doi:

Buhrman, M., Fredriksson, A., Edström, G., Shafiei, D., Tärnqvist, C., Ljótsson, B., . . . Andersson, G. (2013). Guided Internet-delivered cognitive behavioural therapy for chronic pain patients who have residual symptoms after rehabilitation treatment: Randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Pain, 17(5), 753-765. doi: 10.1002/j.1532-2149.2012.00244.x

Buhrman, Monica PhD, Syk, Martin, Burvall, Olle, Hartig, Terry, Gordh, Torsten, & Andersson, Gerhard. Individualized Guided Internet-delivered Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Chronic Pain Patients with Comorbid Depression and Anxiety: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Clinical Journal of Pain. in press

Lalloo, Chitra, Jibb, Lindsay A. , Rivera, Jordan , Agarwal, Arnav , & Stinson, Jennifer N. . “There’s a Pain App for That”: Review of Patient-Targeted Smartphone Applications for Pain Management. Clinical Journal of Pain. in press

Cold Georgina

Routines, habits, boredom & variety: Life skills for living with chronic pain?

I’ve just had a wonderful week on holiday. I escaped the internet, social media, telephones, power, flushing toilets, running water… and it was awesome! There’s something good about taking a break from my usual world to do things completely differently. Now that I’m back I’m reflecting on routines and habits, and how they form an important part of my life.

Routines are sets of behaviours (occupations if you know occupational science) that regularly occur in a certain sequence. Habits are behaviours or occupations we do without needing to directly think about them – maybe because we’ve done them so often they’ve become semi-automatic. Both routines and habits are useful because they reduce the demand on our attention and therefore draw less on our cognitive resources.

This can be a good thing – who would want to have to think about every single thing we have to do to get up and off to work each day?

One of the things people working in chronic pain management often discuss with those they see is how to manage activity levels so that important things can get done without leaving the person feeling exhausted, flaring up their pain, or omitting to do things they value. Activity pacing is one of the main strategies discussed, and although the evidence base for this strategy is skinny, it’s a very common approach. BUT, and it’s a big BUT, it requires people to plan and organise both what they want to do, and how and when they do them.

Many people would think this is pretty self-explanatory. Who doesn’t sort out a To Do list and prioritise what needs doing in a day or week?

Ermmm – actually, there are plenty of people who don’t do this regularly. That’s why one of the most common tools in business is time management! Remember the Day Runner Diary? The Four Quadrants (Steven Covey) Approach? The ABC of prioritising? All tools used to organise what does and doesn’t need to be done.

While these tools are readily used in business, it’s rather less often that we think about helping people organise their lives outside of the workplace. I guess this is because most of us think this just happens naturally – intuitively, if you will. Intuition, though, can be defined as “over-learned habits” that we have learned so well we’ve forgotten we ever needed to learn them in the beginning.

The field of habits and routines is part of self-regulation. Self-regulation includes these components, but also incorporates the ways we raise our energy, calm ourselves down, maintain time awareness, set our sleep/wake cycle, and manage emotions.  Self-regulation theory has been proposed as a model for helping people with some forms of chronic pain cope more effectively with their pain and fatigue (Sauer, Burris,  & Carlson, 2010). There’s some neurobiological evidence to show that some forms of chronic pain, notably fibromyalgia, have greater connectivity and baseline activity between regions of the brain involved in self-regulation including the really important parts involved in executive functioning. This means things like switching attention from one thing to another, or responding to threat appropriately (then settling down afterwards) are more difficult.

And some people are born with, or perhaps develop, less effective self-regulatory neural processes – these are perhaps the people who seem to forget deadlines, arrive late, don’t take medications at the right time, perhaps don’t have regular meals, maybe run out of ingredients (or clean clothes!), and generally find it more difficult to get their life together.

Self-regulation treatments are often concerned with ways to down-regulate breathing, heart rate, and to manage attention. Habits and routines, on the other hand, are larger chunks of behaviour that might not be addressed. Maybe this is why some people forget to do their CBT thought records and don’t do the exercises they’re meant to do. As clinicians, we can think these “forgettories” are a sign of noncompliance, lack of motivation, or not really understanding the importance of the things we ask them to do. I suggest that maybe, for some people, it’s more about failing to have some of the foundational skills needed to get organised into a routine so that there’s enough brain space for people to add new tasks into their day.

What to do about this?

I think we can draw from three main sources of literature here. The first is self-regulation theory where people like Nes, Roach, & Segerstrom (2009), Sauer, Burris & Carlson (2010) are looking at some really useful models. By helping people develop mindfulness, relaxation skills, and awareness of internal physiological states, greater ability to self-regulate is developed. But this only addresses the internal states – what about the bigger chunks?

The next source of literature is probably that from mTBI, or post-concussion rehabilitation. One of the features of post-concussion syndrome is difficulty switching attention, becoming fatigued, recognising when and how to stop or slow down. There are plenty of fun games (yes, even Lumosity!) that can be used to help people develop greater cognitive flexibility, memory, and to improve concentration, attention and so on.

But this still doesn’t address the bigger chunks of activity we need to do. So here’s where I think occupational science and occupational therapy might be really useful: all the tools of time management, cognitive props like using a cellphone alarm to remind you to take medications, daily planners, post-it notes, identifying values and using these to prioritise tasks, having a diary, writing lists – all of these can help, provided they’re tailored to the individual’s needs and lifestyle.

So, before you think that habits and routine are boring, and that planning removes variety – or that the person you’re working with who just doesn’t do those exercises is really Just. Not. That. Motivated. Maybe it’s to do with not being all that great at habits and routines or self-regulation, and maybe you can help them get better at these foundation skills.


Clark, F. (2000). The concepts of habit and routine: a preliminary theoretical synthesis. Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(Sup 1), 123S-137S.

Nes, Lise Solberg, Roach, Abbey R., & Segerstrom, Suzanne C. (2009). Executive functions, self-regulation, and chronic pain: A review. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 173-183. doi:

Sauer, Shannon E., Burris, Jessica L., & Carlson, Charles R. (2010). New directions in the management of chronic pain: Self-regulation theory as a model for integrative clinical psychology practice. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(6), 805-814. doi:

Whiteford, G. (2007). Artistry of the everyday: connection, continuity and the context. Journal of Occupational Science, 14(2), 77-81.

Wiese, Dunn W. (2000). Habit: What’s the brain got to do with it? Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(Sup 1), 6S-20S.