All injuries have a degree of trauma, but some more than others. The moment of injury is just that, a moment. Part of the experience is an urge to do something in a way of protecting the self both in thought (what shall I do here?) and action taken. The thoughts and actions, unified into a lived experience of action-perception, are based on prior knowledge and situations as we try to make some sense of what is happening now. As humans, we have a tendency to flavour the present moment with thoughts of the past or future, neither existing beyond the thought itself. The problem lies in the fact that the thought is embodied, resulting to a greater or lesser degree from the current body state, which we then fully experience with sensations in the body, feelings and emotions; embodied. For example, purposefully thinking about a prior happy occasion usually fills you with the same feelings of joy and pleasure as if you were there again. The same is true for thoughts of an unhappy situation in the past. However, this body state is continually updating and hence we are in a position to steer our change in a desired direction by thinking-acting in a way that aligns with our values and vision of how we want to be. We purposely put ourselves into situations to get better.
Understanding the state of the individual before the trauma and at the time of the trauma provides important insight into the subsequent unfolding of events. A person experiencing persistent pain continues to suffer despite the tissues (body) healing, which they do to the best of the body’s ability, because the systems designed to protect us continue to be vigilant to potential dangers. These potential dangers soon become normal day to day situations, now regarded as posing a threat to the individual’s survival, hence the pain to motivate defensive thoughts and behaviours. The longer these habits persist, the more suffering. But, this is not set in stone and indeed the practice of new, healthy habits steers a new course. We are designed to change and we can decide on the direction, using new habits to get there. Not always a smooth route, it is the one that takes you towards a meaningful life as you overcome the challenges with new understanding of pain and the best course of action. Maintaining this course also relies upon recognising distractions (unhelpful thoughts that affect mood and motivation — old habits) and re-orientating to the desired route.
Healing is not simply about the muscles, bones and other tissues repairing. It is about the person resuming their sense of self — ‘I feel like me’. This is a process of understanding, adapting, gaining insight into the causes of suffering, the practice of new habits and gradually engaging once more in normal activities including socialising. I think about this as getting back to living, by getting back to living instead of waiting for pain to subside before re-engaging. The re-engaging itself has a role in getting better and pain easing. This comprehensive approach, or whole-person approach, is key to success.
A pure focus on tissues means that the person living the experience is neither acknowledge nor addressed. There is the pain, the injury (the two are not well related) and the person’s appraisal of both, which if not validated and considered, means that a huge source of suffering is neglected. This does not mean in-depth psychological assessment, instead recognising that there is an individual with a story that needs guidance towards getting better. We are more than an injured leg or back. Insightful and compassionate clinicians will work in an egoless way as they focus on the person getting better by helping them to understand how they create the conditions for their health — environment, surrounding and influential people, their programme. We often use the phrase ‘I want to go back to how I was’, but of course this is impossible as we cannot go back in time. What we can do is adapt and focus on getting fit and healthy, and in so doing the body, the self, predicts less and less need to protect and hence the pain changes as we get better.
On first seeing a person who has experienced a trauma and on-going suffering from their persistent pain, we must consider prior health, pain experiences and beliefs about how we overcome problems. It is common to have had or to have other sensitivities, sometimes for many years, which exemplify a pre-existing state (or pain vulnerability) that has been primed by painful episodes over the years. This means that a new injury or situation deemed in need of protection will arouse a more vigorous and potentially prolonged set of protective responses, vigilant and fear-based behaviours. Knowing this from the outset means that the new issue can be addressed fully. Examples of common prior conditions include irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, jaw problems, persistent aches and pains (e.g. back pain), pelvic pain or period pain. These sensitivities can have arisen as part of an overall protect state following early traumas in life that have triggered the protect state, which has continued to emerge in many circumstances including normal ones. We learn to avoid and look out for trouble and can see it in the face of day to day activities, resulting in persisting pain and anxiety. However, with change occurring every new moment, we are able to transform this suffering by seeing things for what they are as opposed to being lost in thoughts about the past or future that arouse unpleasant sensations and emotions (in the body — we are embodied).
In discussing emotions and thoughts, this does not mean that we only focus on these dimensions. As stated earlier, we must focus on the person and their unified experience that is constructed by their brain, mind, person, body etc. On shifting a thought purposefully, inferring something different, we immediately feel differently about that situation. ‘How are you choosing to think about this?’, you could ask yourself. ‘Is there another way I can look at this?’. Recall the experience of where you feel emotions. It can only be in the body as thoughts are embodied. They are not ‘out there somewhere’, they are here, in me. My body state determines my thinking as much as my thinking determines my body state. Sit up for a while and notice how your thinking and feeling changes. You can gain insight into how someone is feeling by observing their posturing and manner. Imagine going into a business meeting to find the person you are about to discuss a deal with, sprawled across his chair with his feet up on the table. He has not said anything yet you gain insight into his approach, character and manner. Will you do business with him? Further, force a smile by gripping a pencil longways between your teeth, look in the mirror and notice how your feelings and emotional state change.
We are complex, predicting what needs to be experienced in any given context based on what we know. There are a huge number of variables that we cannot account for as we are only aware of a very thin slice of what is going on in any given moment — what we are conscious of, making many assumptions from prior learning. In terms of persistent pain, the intensity, the impacting nature of the experience usually far outweighs any signs of ‘damage’ or injury. Often there is evidence of natural degeneration that slowly evolves, quietly informing body systems which predict the meaning of the information, eventually reaching a point of conscious protection when it hurts. This is a slow burner with a point in time when pain is noted.
In trauma, there is an obvious incident, which is embossed upon the person at that moment in time. The reverberating effects from there on depend upon that person: what they have experienced before, how their body systems predict the causes of the sensory barrage, urges manifesting as behaviours and actions taken, thoughts about the situation (meaning, attribution of causes etc.), emotions that emerge and the onward unfolding of these experiences unified as the story. Naturally the time frames vary according to the conscious awareness of the person, wherein a head injury would impact on memory of the event. In an emergency situation, clearly there are priorities for the medical team to protect the person and maximise the chances of survival and sets the scene for recovery and healing.
From the earliest possible time point, the right messages about what has happened and what needs to be addressed should be purported. The person needs to understand their pain and problems so that they can focus on the right action to get better. This is day to day, moment to moment as the advice and education are taken, internalised and become second nature as new healthy habits are practiced. The notion of the Pain Coach emerged from this thinking, blended with a strengths-based approach. Strengths-based coaching focuses upon developing a person’s existing strengths and managing their weaknesses. On the basis that we are seeking to focus and perform to the best of our ability, the strengths coaching method offers an effective modus operandi stretching across recovery from injury to sports and business performance. Strengths are many, and can include perseverance, attention to detail and compassion. People often realise that they use these strengths in other areas of their life but not in relation to getting well again.
Experiencing trauma in life presents the person with a challenge in many different ways. It also presents a challenge to those around them including family and friends as we are not in isolation to others or the environment in which we reside. There may be a region of the body that has been injured or affected, however, it is always the person who has to deal with the situation and recover. This is a key point that can often be missed, particularly when the injury is complex and multiple parties are involved in the treatment planning. Whilst we discuss the incident, the injuries, the symptoms and the impact upon that person’s life, they are living that life and only they know what that experience is like. This is the reason why deep listening is so important from the outset. It is the person who heals and recovers. It is the person who gets better, and hence it is the person we must know and treat as much, if not more, than the condition because each of us will experience our life events in our own unique way.
The Pain Coach Programme to overcome persistent and complex pain | t. 07518 445493