Exercise? Who me? Yoga or physiotherapy or education…

Exercise, while one of The Most Important self management approaches for persistent pain, is not an easy sell to someone who is experiencing pain. Especially not if that exercise looks like huffing and puffing, hauling on bits of metal in a gym, or wearing lycra. Not to mention the “sports drinks”…  Those things aside, exercising is a good thing. You heard it from me, and I have declared my body an exercise free zone! The thing is, what kind of exercise, for what purpose, and how to get introduced to it.

Personally I’m a fan of exercise that achieves something else other than “getting fit”. I like gardening, I love dancing, I enjoy cycling (especially to the store to get a GREAT coffee!). Walking the dog is fun. Swimming (especially snorkeling) is awesome! I like my exercise to do more than bring on the endorphins, especially as I don’t get much of that post-exertional analgesia that many people do – and believe me, they do (Ellinson, Stegner, Schwabacher, Koltyn & Cook, 2016). I like my exercise to look like the things I need or want to do, so that when I need to do ’em, I’m in fit state to get on and do ’em.

So what kind of exercise works best? One sage told me “the exercise the person does!” and there is some truth to that, so when I begin talking to someone about exercise, I’m looking for something they can do regularly, that fits into their lifestyle, that makes them feel good, and has some other benefit to them. That benefit might be the social thing – going to a box-fit class with a group of others all bent on getting their fix of play-fighting. It might be the solitary thing – long walks along the beach with the dog for company. It might be the music – in my case, it’s belly dance (and I dare anyone to do a 5 minute shimmy drill while keeping an isolated upper body, a loose shimmy and smile!).

I like the idea of having variety – who says we need to do the same kind of exercise every day? So it’s a wet day and I don’t fancy taking my bike out in the rain, I can turn to my dance practice, or do the dusting, or vacuum the floors. It’s a frosty day and I can go for a brisk walk and take photographs of gorgeous sparkly frosty droplets while Sheba-the-wonderdog huffs steam and sniffs at the local scents. If it’s a warm day, why not head to the pool for a lap or two? If it’s a busy day and I don’t have time, what about some “exercise snacks”? Five minutes of exercise every 25 minutes adds some pretty quickly, so it’s lunges and chair dips and wall presses and shimmy practice in between writing.

Over time we’re seeing more research looking particularly at yoga for persistent pain of all kinds. Yoga comes in many different forms, and in this case I’m guessing the more extreme forms of hot yoga and contortion is not being studied. Some of the studies are appearing in rather eminent journals, like this one from the Annals of Internal Medicine and authored by a very large team including Saper, Lemaster, Delitto and colleagues (2017).

This study is a “non-inferiority” study, looking to establish whether yoga or physiotherapy, or indeed education, can help people living with chronic low back pain. Now I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow analysis of the study, that’s for you to do. What I am going to do is look at what the yoga consisted of – and see why, perhaps, yoga is getting so much research interest. BTW, yoga was found to be non-inferior to physiotherapy, and both yoga and PT were more likely than education to have a clinically meaningful response, although neither yoga nor PT were superior to education.

This is the basic format of the yoga class: Each class began with relaxation and meditation exercises, yoga breathing, and yoga philosophy. It continued with yoga poses and
concluded with relaxation. Pose variations and aids (such as chair, strap, and blocks) accommodated various abilities. Thirty minutes of daily home practice, facilitated by a DVD, a manual, and take-home yoga supplies, was strongly encouraged.

Yoga appeals to many because it seems to begin where people are at – it’s not huffy-puffy, things don’t jiggle, and generally the classes begin and end with the ritual of breathing and meditation. I like the idea of yoga (and yes, I’ve done a class or two!), because it doesn’t involve a lot of gadgets, you can do it alone or in a group, and it feels good. What I don’t like about yoga is the need to get effective and consistent feedback about how well you’re performing the poses, especially in the beginning, which means it can be difficult to do on your own without a teacher.

For people who find exercising both difficult and painful, yoga is a good place to start. I think attending classes is crucial (or at least having an instructor and a mirror!). Learning to use the meditation and breathing is integral to the exercise – and it’s this that I think makes yoga an effective addition to the exercise toolkit. What I’m less sure of is whether it’s better than any other form of exercise – or, in my case, the many different types of movements that I use in my weekly routine. And there’s the rub. As an occupational therapist, exercise is something people choose to do as a form of occupation (valued and meaningful activity). I also enjoy a bunch of other movement-based occupations, and to me these are as valid as yoga or the PT exercises included in this study. What my approach lacks, however, is a researched basis for it.

But here’s the thing: to date the research supporting exercise for people with persistent pain shows modest effects. And those effects are completely lost if the person doesn’t do the exercise. So why not have a wide range of whole-body movement practices to draw on, allowing the person to pick and choose and get out and do something every day, even if it doesn’t fit with our modern notions of what exercise should be?



Ellingson, L. D., Stegner, A. J., Schwabacher, I. J., Koltyn, K. F., & Cook, D. B. (2016). Exercise Strengthens Central Nervous System Modulation of Pain in Fibromyalgia. Brain Sciences, 6(1), 8.

Saper, R. B., Lemaster, C., Delitto, A., & et al. (2017). Yoga, physical therapy, or education for chronic low back pain: A randomized noninferiority trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. doi:10.7326/M16-2579

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.

Scopes, roles, boundaries, contributions: who does what in a brave new healthcare world?

I have been meaning to write a post like this for some time now, but prompted to today by two things: one is an ongoing debate about non-psychologists using “CBT” with people who are experiencing pain, and the other is a conversation with Chai Chuah, Director General of the Ministry of Health in New Zealand. Let me set the scene:

We know there are a lot of people in our communities who have relatively simple pain problems – a temporarily painful knee after walking up hills for the first time in ages, a painful back that “just happened” overnight, a rotator cuff problem that makes it difficult to get dressed or hang out washing. We know that there are some pretty simple things that will help in these situations: some reassurance that the awful thing the person is worried about isn’t likely to happen (no, you won’t end up in a wheelchair because of your back pain, and no it’s not cancer); some pain relief to help with sleeping more soundly and so we can keep doing things; and gradually returning to normal occupations including work even if the pain hasn’t completely gone.

We also know that approximately 8% of people with low back pain will ultimately end up contributing to the most enormous spend in healthcare that we know about – their pain continues, their distress increases, their disability is profound.

BUT before we put all our attention on to this small group of people, I think it’s worthwhile remembering that people in this group are also more likely to have other health conditions, they’re more likely to smoke, to be overweight, to have mental health problems; they also probably come from lower socioeconomic groups, groups including people from minority ethnicities, people who find it much harder to get work, to remain in education and perhaps even people who typically use healthcare more often than the people who get back on their feet more quickly. Data for these statements comes from the 2006 Health and Disability Survey in New Zealand and numerous studies by epidemiologists around the world  –  back pain is only one of a number of problems people in this group have to deal with. I’m also not saying everyone who gets back pain that lingers has all of these additional concerns – but there is a greater prevalence.

What does this mean?

Well, for a while I’ve been saying that people working in this area of health (musculoskeletal pain) seem to be developed a set of common skills. That is, there is more in common between me and Jason Silvernail, Mike Stewart, Paul Lagerman, Alison Sim, Lars Avemarie, Rajam Roose and many others around the world from many different health professions, than there is between me and a good chunk of people from my own profession of occupational therapy. And I don’t think I’m alone in noticing this. (ps please don’t be offended if I’ve left your name out – you KNOW I’m including you too!)

What’s common amongst us? The ability to see and work with complex, ambiguous, messy and multifactorial situations. Recognising that along with all of our individual professional skills, we also need to have

  • effective communication skills,
  • patient/person-centredness,
  • critical thinking,
  • generating a framework to work from,
  • identifying and solving the unique goals and situations the people we work with have,
  • ability to step beyond “this is my role” and into “what can be done to reduce this person’s distress and disability?”
  • And possibly the most important skill is being able to tolerate not knowing without freaking out.

That ongoing cycle of assess -> hypothesise -> test -> review -> reassess -> hypothesise -> test -> reassess ->  review

This is important because when people come to see us with a complex problem (and increasingly this seems to happen), the simple models break down. The tissue-based, the germ-based, the simple single-factor approaches do not fully explain what’s going on, and don’t provide adequate solutions.

What this means is we, ALL health professionals, will need to think about where our skills lie. Are we people who enjoy pumping through a big number of relatively simple problems? If so, that’s great! Your contribution is clear-cut, you know what you need to do, and you refine and practice your skill-set until you’re expert. I think this is awesome. Or, are we people who relish complex, who look at situations and see that it’s messy and complicated but don’t get put off? In this group we probably use skills for researching and planning, operationalising or getting things started, and we’re often the people who network furiously. We do this not because we’re social butterflies (me being the ultimate introvert), but because we know WE CAN’T DO THIS WORK ALONE!

What about clinical skills and scopes and boundaries?

You know, I am not entirely sure that anyone except the health professional him or herself cares who does what they do to help someone get better. It’s not whether a nurse or a speech language therapist or a podiatrist or a medical practitioner, it’s whether the person (or people) treats each person as unique, listens carefully, is honest and straightforward about what can and can’t be done, and knows when his or her skills are not sufficient so calls in the rest of a team for help. There is a time for working beyond your scope, and a time for calling in an expert – but to recognise when an expert is needed requires knowing enough about the problem to know that an expert might be helpful.

What this means in healthcare, I think, is adopting a framework that works across diagnosis and into the idea that people actively process what happens to them, they make their minds up about what’s needed, and they can learn to do things differently. I’d call this self-management, but I could equally call it a cognitive behavioural approach, or behaviour change, or motivational approaches or even patient-centred or person-centred care. The idea that people understand more than we often give credit, that they make sense from what happens to and around them, and that this knowledge influences what they do comes from a cognitive behavioural model of people, and fits beautifully within a biopsychosocial framework.

So, when I advocate getting skilled at cognitive behavioural skills, I could equally use the term “person-centred” or “self-management” – whatever the label, the contributions from each professional involved will ultimately influence the health experience and actions of the person we’re seeing.

Isn’t it time to be excited about opportunities to develop and to extend our skills? And if this doesn’t excite you, isn’t it great that there are a group of people who will respond to the simple and straightforward – but let’s not confuse the two situations.


Pain Acceptance rather than Catastrophising influences work goal pursuit & achievement

We all know that having pain can act as a disincentive to doing things. What’s less clear is how, when a person is in chronic pain, life can continue. After all, life doesn’t stop just because pain is a daily companion. I’ve been interested in how people maintain living well despite their pain, because I think if we can work this out, some of the ongoing distress and despair experienced by people living with pain might be alleviated (while we wait for cures to appear).

The problem with studying daily life is that it’s complicated. What happened yesterday can influence what we do today. How well we sleep can make a difference to pain and fatigue. Over time, these changes influences can blur and for people living with pain it begins to be difficult to work out which came first: the pain, or the life disruption. Sophisticated mathematical procedures can now be used to model the effects of variations in individual’s experiences on factors that are important to an overall group. For example, if we track pain, fatigue and goals in a group of people, we can see that each person’s responses vary around their own personal “normal”. If we then add some additional factors, let’s say pain acceptance, or catastrophising, and look to see firstly how each individual’s “normal” varies with their own acceptance or catastrophising, then look at how overall grouped norms vary with these factors while controlling for the violation of usual assumptions in this kind of statistical analysis (like independence of each sample, for example), we can begin to examine the ways that pain, or goal pursuit vary depending on acceptance or catastrophising across time.

In the study I’m looking at today, this kind of multilevel modelling was used to examine the variability between pain intensity and positive and negative feelings and pain interference with goal pursuit and progress, as well as looking to see whether pain acceptance or catastrophising mediated the same outcomes.

variationsThe researchers found that pain intensity interfered with goal progress, but it didn’t do this directly. Instead, it did this via the individual’s perception of how much pain interfered with goal pursuit. In other words, when a person thinks that pain gets in the way of them doing things, this happens when they experience higher pain intensity that makes them feel that it’s hard to keep going with goals. Even if people feel OK in themselves, pain intensity makes it feel like it’s much harder to keep going.

But, what’s really interesting about this study is that pain acceptance exerts an independent influence on the strength of this relationship, far more than pain catastrophising (or thinking the worst). What this means is that even if pain intensity gets in the way of wanting to do things, people who accept their pain as part of themselves are more able to keep going.

The authors of this study point out that “not all individuals experience pain’s interference with goal pursuit to the same extent because interference is likely to depend on pain attitudes” (Mun, Karoly & Okun, 2015), and accepting pain seems to be one of the important factors that allow people to keep going. Catastrophising, as measured in this study, didn’t feature as a moderator, which is quite unusual, and the authors suggest that perhaps their using “trait” catastrophising instead of “state” catastrophising might have fuzzed this relationship, and that both forms of catastrophising should be measured in future.

An important point when interpreting this study: acceptance does not mean “OMG I’m just going to ignore my pain” or “OMG I’m just going to distract myself”. Instead, acceptance means reducing unhelpful brooding on pain, or trying to control pain (which just doesn’t really work, does it). Acceptance also means “I’m going to get on with what makes me feel like me” even if my pain goes up because I do. The authors suggest that acceptance might reduce pain’s disruptive influence on cognitive processes, meaning there’s more brain space to focus on moving towards important goals.

In addition to the cool finding that acceptance influences how much pain interferes with moving towards important goals, this study also found that being positive, or feeling good also reduced pain interference. Now this is really cool because I’ve been arguing that having fun is one of the first things that people living with chronic pain lose. And it’s rarely, if ever, included in pain management or rehabilitation approaches. Maybe it’s time to recognise that people doing important and fun things that they value might actually be a motivating approach that could instill confidence and “stickability” when developing rehabilitation programmes.

Mun CJ, Karoly P, & Okun MA (2015). Effects of daily pain intensity, positive affect, and individual differences in pain acceptance on work goal interference and progress. Pain, 156 (11), 2276-85 PMID: 26469319

Some people are ready to change and others are not – James Gordon

The full quote is actually:

“It’s not that some people have willpower and some don’t… It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.”
― James Gordon

Oh how true is that. And any health professional will tell you that there’s just no point pushing for change when the person isn’t ready for it. So often we encounter people who are unhappy with their lot in life, struggling with this and that, and yet they just don’t make changes that seemingly sit right in front of their faces. It’s SO frustrating!

Or, in my case, it used to be so frustrating – because a few years ago I discovered an approach that revolutionised my practice and made me take another look at my expectations and beliefs about motivation. More about that shortly.

This post arose out of the recent publication of a paper by Sarah Hardcastle and colleagues from the Health Psychology and Behavioural Medicine Research Group at Curtin University in Perth. “Motivating the unmotivated: How can health behavior be changed in those unwilling to change?”

This paper outlines several theoretical approaches that have given health professionals some powerful tools to use when working with people who could change but haven’t.  In order to help people in this space, the authors argue that we really need to understand why it is they don’t have “motivation”. So, what is motivation? Simply put, it’s the desire to do things. And for many of us, we think of it as a “thing” that you either have, or you haven’t. But motivation is a tricky thing – ever been disinclined to go visit someone who’s invited you to dinner, dragged yourself there and then had a fantastic time? Or had one of those ideas that flash through your mind, get all excited about it … but never get around to it? Motivation is a fluid thing and doesn’t always equate to action!

Amotivation, or lacking in motivation, is quite specific to a particular action or set of actions. It may be because a person doesn’t think he or she will be successful if they try. Why bother if you know you’re going to fail? This is about having low self-efficacy, or low confidence and thinking it’s not possible to obtain skills or capabilities to be successful.

Amotivation can also occur if a person thinks it’s going to take more out of them than the rewards from doing it. The costs outweigh the benefits. And it can occur when the effort needed to overcome barriers or to push through feels too much, or the change just doesn’t seem worth it because it’s not that big a deal.

Here’s where I come back to my revolution a few years ago – I found that by using motivational interviewing, I was able to shift the responsibility for making a decision to change back to the person (instead of trying to “make it” happen), but at the same time, recognising the reasons for the person staying where they were. To me, it boils down to respecting that people don’t do dumb stuff for fun. There’s usually very good reasons for them having made a decision, either to make a change, or NOT to make a change. What they’re currently doing works, at least to a certain extent.

Using motivational interviewing, the first and most important thing to learn is to respect the person and take the time to understand the good things they recognise about their current situation. Because there are always some good things about being stuck – it’s easier, for one, than making a change. It’s familiar. It’s worked once or twice. People know what to expect. Change always means disruption somewhere, and that’s not comfortable or easy.

If we look at the reasons I outlined for NOT making a change, and work through them, I think (and so do the authors of this paper!) that there are some things we can do to make change less difficult, and in so doing, build momentum for change.

  1. Lack of self-efficacy – if someone doesn’t think he or she will succeed, why would they even begin? Personally I think this is a big part of “lack of motivation for returning to work” which is something I’ve seen written in way too many clinical reports. If someone doesn’t think they’ll be successful, how could we make the change less challenging? Increase support? Make the steps smaller? Look at other things the person has been successful in? Find out how they’ve made changes successfully in the past and use that?
  2. Not valued highly – or, something else is more valued than this right now. Respecting that there is a time and place for things to be done, and that other things in life can over-ride making changes is both authentic and human. It means that this change isn’t yet important enough – so, how do you build importance? To me, importance is about values and what a person wants in his or her life. There are often discrepancies between what we want and what we’re doing, and sometimes this is because it’s too difficult or messy to think about it. I think part of our job as health professionals of any discipline is to help people consider things that are tough. To reflect on the short and long-term outcomes of carrying on in status quo, and the same if we made a successful change. Things we do because they’re more comfortable in the short-term can be incompatible with what we really want long-term. It’s part of my job to help people think about this. NOT, I hasten to add, to “make” them decide in any particular direction. That’s not my job, I’m there to help people think about how their actions today might affect the future, and let them make their own decisions. At the same time, I can choose to reflect the reality of the long-term effects of today’s actions. That’s being responsible as a health professional.
  3. Feeling the end result isn’t worth it, or that there are too many things in the way – again, to me this feels a lot like addressing self-efficacy. If there are things in the way, or it feels too hard, then part of my job is to help the person find a way that is within their capabilities, and to grab a vision of what it might feel like to have successfully achieved that end result. Asking the person to “look forward” to a few months, years down the track – what would it look like if they made a change that worked? How would this affect what’s important to you? If you decided not to make a change, what would things be like? Would that be what you want?
  4. Habits making it hard to think about changing – It’s easy to over-indulge on chocolate when there’s one of those “treat boxes” in the workplace. It’s easy to go home and stay at home rather than go for a run if you don’t have running shoes and a change of clothes in your car. Environmental triggers where it’s easier NOT to do a healthy thing make it difficult for someone who’s just not even thought about making a change. Employers, healthcare facilities and both local and central government can make it harder for people to do unhealthy things simply by structuring when and where people can access them. So the carpark a little further from the workplace can make it easier to get more exercise each day, banning smoking from healthcare facility grounds makes it harder to get a smoke break, having healthy options in the “treat box” can make it easier to choose something healthy. This set of changes can feel a bit “nanny state”, but they’re effective and useful when it’s those simple little changes that make the difference between living well, or not.

Motivating for health behaviour change starts with building confidence and importance. Maintaining behaviour change involves a lot more – but that’s for another post. In the meantime, I think Atoine de Saint-Exupery had it right when he said:

“Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Hardcastle, S.J., Hancox, J., Hattar, A., Maxwell-Smith, C., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., & Hagger, M.S. (2015). Motivating the unmotivated: How can health behavior be changed in those unwilling to change? Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 835. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00835

What does using a biopsychosocial framework mean in practice?

A good friend of mine told me that during her training (as a physiotherapist), psychosocial factors were “what you blame when your treatment doesn’t work”. It’s something I’ve heard more than once. I’ve also been asked many times “…but are you sure you’re not doing something outside your scope of practice?” when I talk about using cognitive behavioural principles and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and other psychological strategies. And some of you might have seen earlier posts of mine where I ask “How social is your biopsychosocial model?”

Today’s medical students are trained in using a biopsychosocial framework in their undergraduate years. They leave medical school, begin their hospital and advanced training, and I guess I wouldn’t be alone in asking “what happened to the psychosocial?” when we see them working.

So today’s post is a bit of a reflection and a musing on what I think using a BPS approach might mean in pain practice.

BPS is, I think, less of a “model” than a way of thinking. Thinking that is based on a systems approach – every factor affects and is affected by every other factor. In fact, Engel, the originator of this way of viewing human health, was strongly influenced by general systems theory which was developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a biologist who lived between 1901 – 1972. General systems theory was a model describing processes thought to be common in many different fields of knowledge. General systems theory is based on these five beliefs:

(1)  There is a general tendency towards integration in the various sciences, natural and social.

(2)  Such integration seems to be centred in a general theory of systems.

(3)  Such theory may be an important means of aiming at exact theory in the nonphysical fields of science.

(4)  Developing unifying principles running ‘vertically’ through the universe of the individual sciences, this theory brings us nearer to the goal of the unity of science.

(5)  This can lead to a much-needed integration in scientific education.

Engel then applied this to a model of the influences on human health. At the time he wrote his seminal article (Engel, 1977), psychiatrists were being challenged by reductionism on the one hand, particularly around approaches to mental health – the distinction between “diseases” where biological causal factors are influential, such as neurological disorders, and “problems of living” such as alcoholism, where the relevance of biology was, at the time, hotly debated; and concern that psychiatrists might lose ground to nonmedical practitioners such as psychologists. It’s an argument that continues today: should, for example, nonspecific low back pain be the domain of medical practitioners or should physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and others pick up primary responsibility for its management? (For a very interesting discussion of socio-political debates about this, read Wilson, N., Pope, C., Roberts, L., & Crouch, R. (2014). Governing healthcare: Finding meaning in a clinical practice guideline for the management of non-specific low back pain. Social Science & Medicine, 102(0), 138-145. doi:

Back to the story. The broad BPS “model” can’t be tested, and to some, was never intended to be a “scientific” model but rather a discussion tool. A way of shaping a dialogue between the person seeking help, and the clinician wanting to understand what was influencing how and why this person was presenting in this way at this time. I like to think of it as a way to remember that the person seeing you is a person-in-context.

We can argue the toss about exactly which factors belong in which “bit” of a biopsychosocial approach, but broadly speaking, we want to understand biological influences on health. Some of these are genetic (a bit hard to investigate for most of us), some of these are environmental (rickets? Vit D deficiency?), some are other organisms (M. leprae and M. lepromatosis? – Leprosy to you and me). Some are associated with what people do – tripping, jumping off things; while some are associated with what people don’t do – manage diabetes, exercise. The bio part is far more readily assessed and addressed than the other messy bits and pieces, so I won’t deal with that any further.

The psychosocial, on the other hand, is messy. It’s muddled and hard to measure and changes over time and geography and culture.

To me, it means remembering that when two people get together, it’s not just about the words we use, it’s about what we both bring to the setting in terms of experience, habits, expectations, vulnerabilities. It’s about where we meet. It’s about the purpose of meeting. It’s about recognising that everything we say and do is imbued with meaning – but it’s also about not necessarily knowing what we know, or what we don’t know.

So if I’m practicing in a biopsychosocial framework, I’m going to have to know a great deal about myself and my assumptions, my attitudes, habits, how others see me, and even what I don’t know. And the same applies to my knowledge about the person I’m seeing – only because I’m usually the “treatment provider”, I need to shape my conversation so that it’s OK for that person to tell me about this stuff, and this means knowing a bit about how people tick. I especially need to know how to hear what the person coming to me is saying – and not saying.

I see much that is called “psychological” as being about how we communicate and what we know about helping people change behaviour. I’m not “doing psychology” when I teach my child how to tie shoelaces, yet I’m using psychological techniques – modeling, reinforcement, verbal instructions and so on. Likewise when I’m helping someone feel OK about driving their car when they have back pain, I’m using psychological techniques such as verbal instruction, grading the difficulty, encouraging, supporting and so on. To suggest we can’t use psychological techniques to enable normal function is unthinkable.

Using CBT or ACT or motivation interviewing simply means refining my interpersonal skills so that I can optimise the chances that the person feels heard, can understand what I’m on about, and begins to feel OK about taking steps towards the life they want and being themselves. It’s about learning ways of explaining things, learning how to show that I’m listening, learning about the right level of support and challenge that will enhance the chances of success. Most people who live with chronic pain probably don’t need to see a psychologist – they need someone to help them make sense of pain, to show they’re there as they find their way through, and celebrate when they’re doing what’s important in their lives. I think all health professionals should be doing this.

Engel, G.L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129-136. doi:

Developing a shared plan

Last week I introduced you to one way I use to develop a shared understanding of the many factors influencing how and why a person seeks help for their pain.  The person and I work together to understand his or her perspective. I use a range of open-ended questions and reflective listening to guide our discovery of how his/her pain affects life and emotions.

Some points to note:

  • I don’t try to give explanations at this point – explanations will influence what the person says to me, and may inadvertently shape or change what he or she says without necessarily changing his or her beliefs.
  • I’m not trying to make any diagnoses either. A diagnosis is just a short-hand way of lumping a bunch of symptoms together. Great for research, and great for when we have a clear treatment, but a diagnosis tells us nothing about how the problem is affecting this person at this time. And in pain we’re always looking at the person and his or her experience, because even if we successfully get rid of the pain, the person will have learned something through the experience and this will influence the person in the future.
  • I’m informed by what we know about pain from research, so I’m constantly probing and looking for the relationships between factors we know will affect the person. Note that I’m not looking for tissue-level influences, but rather I’m investigating at a “person” level. This means I’m looking at psychological and sociological processes. I’m not ignoring those tissue-level factors, but I’m placing those off to one side for the moment. There are a couple of reasons for this: the first is that I’m probably not going to directly influence tissue-level factors. I don’t lay hands on people. I don’t give drugs. The second is that the person isn’t likely to be aware of those factors. They know much of their own experience (not all – but we’ll come to that), and experience and perception are the most potent drivers of what a person believes and therefore does.
  • I try wherever possible to flesh out my interview with additional information. This might be from questionnaires, or observing, or clinical notes from other people. And yes, I incorporate this information with the full knowledge of the person – in fact, they’re part of the process of integrating this information.

What do I end up with?

A spaghetti junction! A diagram that looks a lot like this:

formulationThis diagram is a pretty simple one, when you think of all the factors that could be involved – and in this case, I’ve made it much clearer than my usual scribble!

At this point I have a series of hypotheses to explain why Gerald is in this state. Together with Gerald, we’ve established that there could be some fear of pain, and in particular, fear that Gerald won’t be able to cope if his pain goes up and doesn’t settle. Gerald has also identified that he can feel helpless at these times, because he doesn’t know what else to do to manage his pain. He believes he’s getting unfit, and that’s adding to his feelings of frustration. He doesn’t want to go out with his mates because he’s irritable. He tries not to let his wife know how he’s feeling to protect her, but this adds to him feeling isolated. He doesn’t want to go back to work, not because he’s not motivated, but because he’s afraid he’ll let them down and this will add to his guilt. He doesn’t think his case manager understands this.

I could ask Gerald to list his main concerns and use these as a guide for my treatment outcomes, but I’ve recently started using a different approach. I’ll ask Gerald what he would be doing differently if his pain wasn’t such a problem to him.

Bronnie: Let’s imagine for a minute, what would you be doing differently if your pain wasn’t such a problem?

Gerald: Well, I’d be back at work, for one thing.

Bronnie: OK, and would you think you’d be back at work full time, or ease your way back in?

Gerald: Well, I think it would be sensible to ease myself back in because it’s been a while and I’m out of shape. Better to know I can do it than have a go and fail.

Bronnie: Great idea. What else would you be doing differently if your pain wasn’t such a problem?

Gerald: I’d take my wife out for dinner, it’s been hard on her while I’m so laid up and grumpy.

Bronnie: What’s your main concern about going out to dinner with your wife right now?

Gerald: I can’t sit long enough to enjoy a meal out. It all seems so hard, to get into a car, and drive to a restaurant, and sit there for three courses. I’m just too sore to do it.

Bronnie: So going to a restaurant and sitting to get there and while you’re there is going to increase your pain?

Gerald: Yeah. Is it worth it? What if it doesn’t settle? I can’t sleep and then the next day I’m shattered. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Bronnie: OK. Is there anything else you’d be doing if your pain wasn’t such a problem for you?

Gerald: I’d be going out and seeing my mates, going fishing and 4 wheel driving. I miss that. There’s no way I could do that right now.

Bronnie: What’s your main concern about going fishing, and seeing your mates at the moment?

Gerald: I’d be ready to go home before they’d even started. They’d get fed up with me slowing them down. And casting is really hard on my neck.

Bronnie: So to sum up then, it seems like there are some things you’d love to be doing, but reasons you think it would be better not to be doing them right now. If we go through them, you’d love to go back to work, but you’d like to do it gradually so you can get in shape again, and so you know you’ll succeed. You’d love to take your wife out for dinner, but the whole dinner thing feels too hard, and you’re worried that your pain will get out of hand and you won’t be able to sleep. And you’d really love to get back out with your mates again, and go fishing, but right now you think your mates would get fed up with you because you’d want to leave too early, and you wouldn’t be able to cast without setting your pain off. Does that sound about right?

Gerald: Yeah.

Bronnie: I think there are some things we could begin to work on so you feel more confident you can handle it when your pain levels go up and down. And I think we could work on some physical things that could help you feel a bit fitter, more able to do things for longer. And finally, I think it would be great if we could help you and your wife connect a bit more, perhaps not yet at a sit-down restaurant, but perhaps there are other ways this could happen. What are your thoughts? Is there anything you’d especially like to look at?

What I’ve tried to do here is identify the underlying reasons Gerald isn’t doing things. While pain appears to be the problem, it’s not the pain it self but the fear of possible effects of pain that haven’t even happened yet that are really stopping him from doing things. And this is adding to the misery of having neck pain.

By giving Gerald the chance to tell me his dreams, we’re going beyond “I need to get rid of my pain” and into the reasons for living in the first place. People don’t just live to get rid of pain, they live to have lives full of meaning, let’s not ever forget that.

Who are you? The effect of pain on self

My client, let’s call him Al, is a plumber. Or was a plumber. He sees himself as a hard-working, reliable guy who takes pride in doing a job once, doing it well, and not stopping until the job is finished. He’s worked for most of his adult life in his own plumbing business, something he’s very proud of. He’s supported his partner while she’s been at home caring for their two now adolescent boys. In his spare time he goes fishing, loves the outdoors and likes to wander the hills whenever he can.

Al isn’t very happy. He’s been told that his back pain, which he’s had for six months now, is not likely to go away. He’s been having treatments from physiotherapy, had a return to work programme developed by an occupational therapist, tried medications and injections but nothing has taken his pain away. He’s slowly stopped seeing his mates, isn’t sleeping well, hasn’t been out fishing in months, and he’s even had trouble keeping from shouting at his boys.

Al doesn’t sound all that different from many of the men I’ve seen in pain management. Some people call him “unmotivated” because he’s stopped thinking about goals for the future, and does his exercises in a half-hearted sort of way. He doesn’t always attend his appointments. It’s hard to know whether he’s actually doing his home exercise programme. A far cry from the “hard-working, reliable” man who runs his own business.

What’s going on? We could say he’s depressed, and maybe he is. But more importantly, why is he depressed? He doesn’t describe his pain as anything more than a 5/10 where 10 is the most extreme pain he can imagine. He’s still getting an income from his worker’s compensation, he’s still in a loving relationship and in their own home. But he’s not a happy man.

We’ve all met an Al, I’m sure. Superficially he looks fine, but a throwaway comment nails it: “I’m just not myself any more, I want things to be normal”.


All of us have an idea of who we are. A self-concept is a set of representations about who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We all have several self-concepts – the “actual” self, the “ideal” self (who we would like to be), the “ought” self (the person others think we should be), the “feared” self (the person we really don’t want to be) and so on (Higgins, 1999; Markus & Nurius, 1986). Our sense of self is based on a collection of memories, a pattern of behaviours that we’ve developed and continue to develop as we aim to be the person we want to be.  Our sense of self guides our choices and the way we do things.

What happens when we can’t do things the way we think we “should”, or the way our sense of self would guide us to? Let’s think about this for a minute.

Al is used to getting up early in the morning, usually about 6.00, so he can get out to the site he’s working on that day and begin work by about 7.30. He prides himself on being at work, ready to go, before his apprentice gets there. He’s always organised, got his gear ready and in the truck with a cup of tea all sorted so he can plan his day.

Since he developed his back pain, Al’s had trouble getting out of bed before 8.00. He’s always tired. He’s not sleeping. He’s the last one in the house to get up, and he can’t even get to the work site until 9.00 because his body is sore and he can’t seem to wake up. He’s getting picked up by his apprentice who keeps giving him grief over not having his gear ready in time. He’s not the man he used to be, in fact, he’s become the man he swore he’d never be, a compensation bludger. He doesn’t like who he’s become. He feels lazy and useless.

Achieving self-coherence by re-occupying self

One of the neglected aspects of pain management is how to help someone deal with the changes to his or her sense of self. Life becomes chaotic when assumptions we make about the world no longer apply. The main concern of someone who is learning to deal with chronic pain is how to make life and self make sense again, to regain some coherence.  When they successfully solve this problem, it’s like all the various aspects of “self” have been reassembled. This is usually a new “self”, one that incorporates pain and the things that need to be done to accommodate pain while still expressing important aspects of “who” he or she is.

The process of learning to live comfortably with a new self is, I believe, a process of re-occupying self. Making a new self that feels recognisably “me”, doing the things that make “me” feel like myself, including some of “my” usual standards and attitudes and interests.

Yet what do we so often do when we doing pain management? We tell people like Al to “relax” and “pace” (Al learned as a child that you don’t stop until the job is done). We tell him he needs to move in certain ways (as a plumber? under buildings, in roof cavities, hauling gear out of the truck, carrying it over building sites). We suggest he needs to not do some things (work for the whole day without a break), but ask him to do other things (carry out a set of exercises three times a day). We say he needs to be back at work, but he doesn’t feel he’s pulling his weight.

What can we do?

I think we need to take some time to understand Al and what’s important to him. Not just the occupations (activities) but also the way he does them, and why he does them. How do they contribute to his sense of self? And then we need to work with him to give himself “permission” to do things differently – for a while. It’s like putting on a temporary “self”, a “rehabilitation” self. We can revisit this “rehabilitation” self as time goes on, and help him identify important values and occupations so he can begin to feel more like himself. Perhaps help him develop a new self that lets go of the old “normal” but includes some of the most important values expressed differently. I call this flexibly persisting – as Antony Robbins says, “staying committed to your decisions, but staying flexible in your approach”.

BTW – if you’d like to help me share this concept, you can! The idea of re-occupying self emerged from my PhD studies, and I want to present this at the Pain Science in Motion Colloquium in Brussels at the end of March. If you’d like to help me raise the airfare to get there (and back!), go to Give a Little and my page “Live well with pain”. Every little bit counts! I’ve had some wonderful people help me get almost half the money I need – will you help me get the rest? Thank you!!


Beekman, Claire E., Axtell, Lois, Noland, Kathy S., & West, Jaime Y. (1985). Self-concept: An outcome of a program for spinal pain. Pain, 22(1), 59-66. doi:

Charmaz, K. (2002). The self as habit: The reconstruction of self in chronic illness. Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 22(Suppl1), 31S-41S. doi:

Hellstrom, Christina. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi:

Higgins, E. Tory. (1999). Self-discrepency: A theory relating self and affect The self in social psychology (pp. 150-181). New York, NY: Psychology Press; US.

Markus, Hazel, & Nurius, Paula. (1986). Possible Selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969. doi:

Goals? I loathe them: What to do instead

I dislike that acronym “SMART” goals. I can never decide whether it’s meant to mean “Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound” or “specific, manageable, active, realistic and timed” And if it’s either of those, what’s the difference between achievable and realistic? Or is it meant to be “relevant”?

In previous posts I’ve established good reasons to have a focus for therapy. Unless the focus is something valued by the client, it’s either unlikely to get done or it’s not their goal and they’re going along with it to keep you happy. Goals, targets or focus are useful, and the logic goes that unless you have them you won’t know where you’re going or when you’ve got there.

I’m not going to argue against the idea of having a focus to therapy. I just think there are risks in having goals, like some sort of checklist that says “If you achieve this, you’re all good”.

Seriously, that doesn’t work in real life. That’s the same kind of logic that says “if I just buy enough things I’ll be happy”, “if I just earn a bit more I’ll be happy”. While there’s a bottom line below which it’s hard to think beyond survival, above that line, having stuff, and even doing things as an end in themselves doesn’t fulfill for long.

What gives forward momentum, enrichment, fulfillment and can’t be ticked off like some shopping list is recognising that life is actually a whole series of actions and events that, when we think back on them, make up a good life. The richer events and experiences and actions feel good and fulfilling. The empty routine and humdrum things feel deadly dull and empty.

When I think about the purpose of therapy my focus is helping people to live the kind of life they value, doing the things they believe are important. Given I don’t want to be a long-term feature in a client’s life (for all I love them, I’d rather they were doing it themselves), my focus is on helping them work out what makes a rich, fulfilled life they can look back on and feel satisfied. My job is to help them develop skills and strategies to carry out the actions needed to live a life aligned with what they value.

Let me unpack this a little.

Many people I see place value on being a good parent, a loving partner, a reliable employee. When I see them, their pain has interfered with doing the things they believe demonstrate “being a good parent” or “being reliable”. Pain has moved in to their lives, and come and sat on their laps right in front of their face so that all they can see is pain.  If I ask someone in this state to “set goals” they laugh, rather sarcastically sometimes, and say they don’t have goals, they can’t think of anything and what’s the point anyway. Perhaps not in those words, but the meaning is clear.

Instead, I ask them “what would you be doing if your pain was less of a problem for you?” Sometimes I’ll even hand over a plastic fairy wand I have, and suggest they dream a little. It’s then that the passion takes over – they’ll say “I’d be out working, having fun with my friends, caring for my family” – and the list goes on! If I stopped there, though, I’d be holding a tantalising dream just out of reach, which is cruel, so I don’t. Instead I ask why these things are important.

That’s how I find out that “family is everything”, “I just love creating”, “I need my friends”.

Then I switch tack for a moment and ask them “How well is what you’re doing to deal with your pain right now working to help you be the kind of person for whom family is everything? How well is what you’re doing with you pain helping you create?”

The reason for this tactic is to help generate what Acceptance and Commitment therapists (ACT) call “creative hopelessness“. Because motivation to change comes from inside – that it’s important enough, and the person is confident that change can happen.

I then suggest two things: 

  1. Is keeping pain happy more important than family ?(and yes, I know I’m personalising and objectifying pain here, and yes it’s an experience not a thing, but it works OK!)
  2. What would happen if you made a little room for pain to be there while you’re doing things that contribute to you being the kind of parent you want to be?

What I mean by this last statement is that pain can interfere with doing that things that help you feel you’re being a good parent. And that can lead to either completely abandoning those activities, or doing them while clutching resentfully to “the pain that interferes”. What if you attended to the value or importance of being the kind of person who is a good parent instead of focusing on the irritation, frustration and anger of having to bring pain along for the ride?

  • For many people, the things they believe contribute to “being a good parent” far exceed what they can currently achieve. So they give up and get demoralised. They both have their pain AND they don’t manage the very things they most value.

Now it’s here that I could begin to “set goals” and suggest we work towards them using all the traditional elements of goal setting. And that probably has excellent value. But here’s the catch: often we hold very strong internal rules about how these things should be done so that unless we can do them exactly the way we think they should be done, we’re not satisfied. And for many people this fails to recognise that as time goes on, life too goes on, and we change the way we do things to accommodate new habits or capabilities. So I try to begin a process of developing flexibility – and using the values a person identifies as a compass rather than a checklist.

What would happen if we thought a little about the range of things people might do to convey “being a good parent”? Maybe it would mean going to the children’s sports games and being a spectator. Maybe it would mean making lunches, helping to do homework. Maybe it would include listening while a kid tells you about his or her day. Many of these things can be done with pain present. Many might require altering how they’re done to accommodate having pain present but provided that they express the underlying value of being a good parent, can be fulfilling.

What’s important is less about the what a person does, and a whole lot more about why and how they do it.  When “being a good parent” becomes the direction we live (because we can never tick the box that says “being a good parent” is complete), then we focus on why and how we do it. Attention goes away from “but pain stops me”, and towards discovering all the ways “being a good parent” can be lived.

Often it’s through doing this that people seek new coping strategies so they can extend what they do. People may “set goals” or future actions they want to take but instead of feeling frustrated and dissatisfied, they begin to to take actions that bring them closer and closer to living the life they want to live. And that, my friends, is what I think “goal setting” is about.

This festive season is a good time to consider what’s important in your life. What actions are you taking to live a value-filled life?

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.