4 years ago I came down to Bath to speak at the CRPS UK conference and so I was delighted to be asked to return and talk today. To take listeners beyond the theory, I asked Georgie and Jo to join me as a triple act, to illustrate and to enliven what I was saying by describing their lived experiences. Chatting to people afterwards, it appears that this gave an insight into the potential that everyone has for changing in a positive and constructive way; a way that is meaningful for them.
The talk was entitled ‘Understand pain to change pain’, the message being that by understanding your pain, you think and act in such a way that you can go about overcoming your pain.
Establishing how we think about our pain is a key start point — how do you think about your pain? Why do you think it hurts? Why do you have persisting symptoms? These are some of the questions that need answering in order to move forward. Pain is a protective response to a perceived threat, and it is the person who does the ‘perceiving’ as well as embodying the experience of pain. We are the producer and the experiencer of our pain that is felt in the body, in a location that is deemed needy of protection in that moment. For reasons to be fully understood, our bodies can become very, very good at this response, and create many habits of thought and action that influence the likelihood of pain. Remember though, pain is a response to a perceived threat, so changing one’s perception begins to change the pain experience; reduce the threat, reduce the pain. Some may wonder why then, do they still feel pain despite having eradicated fear of the pain and other conscious threats? This is because there are many, many subconscious cues in the environment, in what we think and do, that can be perceived as being threatening. Whilst we cannot account for each and every variable, and how these change in combination with other variables, we can alter the perceived threat of the most obvious ones: movements, places, people, thoughts.
It is the person who feels pain, not the body part. I may experience pain in my knee but it is not my knee that is in pain, I am. This may sound strange initially, but think about it for a minute. Who is thirsty? You or your mouth? Who is hungry? You or your stomach? Who is in pain? Your or your knee? Therefore, who needs treatment, training, coaching etc? You do, the person who feels pain and lives the pain. Any treatment programme must address the whole person and their lived life — this is them and their life in which the pain is embedded. It also has to make sense, engaging the person so that they continue to create the conditions for change.
To overcome pain we must firstly understand pain, much like a farmer would plough his field before sowing seeds–a vital start point. Having a working knowledge of your pain allows you to engage with your programme, focus on your vision of how you want your life to be and how you are going to get there whilst dealing with distractions. Distractions usually come in the form of negative thoughts, which deflate, demotivate and actually intensify pain responses by increasing the threat value. Understanding pain also helps to reduce and eradicate fear that also impacts on how you experience your pain. Fearful thoughts and avoidance both contribute to on-going pain and hence are necessarily addressed.
There are many strategies, techniques and exercises that can be used, but for these to work, our thinking needs to be straight and based on a working knowledge. This is useable knowledge that can be considered at any given moment to ensure that the inner dialogue is based on truth and not on fearful opinion–think about what you tell yourself every day; what do you convince yourself? The Pain Coach Programme over-arches the specific strategies employed. The Pain Coach delivers the knowledge and skills to the person so that they become their own coach at any give moment, deciding on the best and healthiest course of action; towards the vision. A blend of the latest thinking in pain science with strengths-based coaching gives the person everything that they need to overcome their pain. What does overcoming pain mean? It means that you live your life in a meaningful way according to you, and that there are always opportunities to grow and develop.
I ran through some of the strategies that I use within the Pain Coach Programme including UBER-M, which is one that I give to people so that they may choose the wise and healthy option, taking them towards their goals; this as opposed to being distracted by negative (embodied) thoughts and unhealthy actions.
- U–understand: a working knowledge of my problem; what do I know? what do I do now? This is about clarity, not fear
- B–breathe: mindful practice and breathing to cultivate awareness of the bodily aspects of the pain experience and how thoughts manifest in the body, and then what you can do to change these habits
- E–exercise: specific sensorimotor training and general activity
- R–re-charge: we need enough energy to engage with life!
- M–movement: to nourish the tissues and the body maps in the brain to have a sense of normal
Normal = no threat; no threat = no pain
Pain is all about perceived threat. Reduce the threat consciously by understanding and knowing what to do (that’s the easy bit!), and then go about reducing the perceived threat that occurs via habits and subconscious processing. This includes environmental cues, contextual cues and habits of thought; the so-called ‘autopilot’. Persisting pain is characterised by many habits, automatically learned responses and attentional biases. These must be addressed by constructing a programme that works with the person, not just their painful body part –> it is the person who is in pain, not their foot, arm, back etc. My back, to use an example, cannot feel pain. I feel pain. I experience pain, and I experience my pain in my back. There is an enormous difference in the underlying thinking and hence the approach. The whole person approach is vital for pain and any other condition having said that! If healthcare at large adopted this way of thinking, we would be far more successful with persisting conditions; this to the point where the suffering lessens and lessens. Reducing the impact results in a meaningful life, and this is achievable for all by developing understanding and then choosing wise actions.
My emphasis throughout the talk was on understanding pain to change pain. How can just understanding pain change pain, you may ask? Put simply, by understanding pain you are changing the way that you think about it, the meaning that you give to it and what you then do about it. If you do not understand your pain, like any problem, you cannot solve it, and the erroneous thoughts that one has can lead down a route of perpetuating fear, avoidance, beliefs that pain will not change. This route is one of on-going suffering. Understanding pain creates the way forward to overcoming pain; overcoming pain being the return to a meaningful life as defined by the person. When you know what you are dealing with and how to deal with it in any given moment, then you are creating the conditions for healthy change. This is the essence of Pain Coach, creating those conditions as often as possible, becoming aware of certain habits, learned behaviours and associations, compassionately correcting and moving onward with a selection of strategies. This is about getting back to life by living that life. Keeping that in the forefront of your thoughts, and letting go of distractions leads you towards your success. Let us be positive with good reason, because we are always changing, and with positive strategies.
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