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Pain and health anxiety – working with beliefs

Posted Apr 07 2010 12:00am

Over the past few posts I’ve been looking at pain and health anxiety, and how anxiety about body symptoms can be misinterpreted to represent something sinister when it may be a reflection of the level of physiological arousal in the individual. In fact, one definition of anxiety is ‘over-estimating the threat’ while ‘under-estimating the resources to cope with the threat’.

I really like Salkovskis statement ‘People suffer from anxiety because they think situations as more dangerous than they really are’, and ‘Treatment helps the person to consider alternative, less threatening explanations of their problem’. These explanations have to fit with past experiences of the person – and work when they’re tested out. The process of therapy is about two (or more) people working together to find out how the world really works. Now THAT is a great description of the way I hope I work with people!

Another way of looking at the ‘anxiety equation’ is to think of it this way:

Anxiety is proportional to the perception of danger, or…

perceived coping ability when it does +perceived rescue factors

After developing a formulation, or shared understanding of how the person views his or her symptoms, the next step is to validate the person’s experience. Remember that symptoms are what the person experiences, not what we can see (these are signs). The person probably has had health professionals or family members suggest that they are not experiencing their symptoms and yet the person IS actually experiencing them! So to deny that they’re having them is unproductive – it’s not that they are having symptoms that isn’t certain, it’s the meaning or conclusions that the person is drawing from their experience that we need to work through to establish their accuracy.

To decrease the belief in the inaccurate conclusion we need to remember: the more we ‘tell’ a person one thing, the more they are likely to argue their original belief, so this is not a process of ‘telling’, it’s a process of learning together…The best way to decrease belief in a highly threatening idea which cannot be disproved is to build up belief in an alternative explanation. The alternative explanation does not have to be completely incompatible with the threatening belief; initially, it probably helps if it is not. (Salkovskis)

This alternative explanation develops as you and the person work through alternative interpretations of the symptoms. Treatment also involves self-monitoring, re-attribution of originally misinterpreted symptoms, and a combination of discussion and ‘mini-experiments’ that work to help the person develop confidence in the alternative explanations.

Behavioural experiments are used to gather new information to feed into the discussion. “Don’t trust me, test it for yourself”

A useful technique is the pie chart. In this technique, you and the person write down the symptoms and the conclusions they’ve drawn:

“My tingling legs and that cramp mean my back is weak and the fluid is oozing out of the discs and into my spine”

The person is asked to rate how much they believe in this statement – 90% perhaps?

The person is then asked to write down all the other possible reasons for tingling and cramp that might be occurring in the same city today (or supermarket, mall, neighbourhood), starting with ‘fluid oozing out of the discs and into my spine”.  Things like, sitting in one position too long, cutting off the circulation a bit, maybe being unfit and doing more than usual, a tumour, multiple sclerosis, stroke  etc

When the list is complete, draw a pie chart circle.  Divide the pie chart up into pieces, with each piece representing a different possible cause starting at the bottom of the list, so that the first reason given (the catastrophic belief) is the last ’slice’ of the pie.

Then ask the person to re-rate their belief in their original statement – usually by now it’s dropped! 

Points to note:

  • We’re not trying to convince the person, we’re asking him or her to look at the situation differently by drawing on his or her own experiences. 
  • We’re definitely not suggesting his or her symptoms are imaginary – this is unhelpful! 
  • We’re also not suggesting further investigations – as I mentioned in an earlier post, this can suggest either that you agree, it could be something sinister, or it can be evidence that ‘nothing has shown up – yet’.

Many people with anxiety about their health (or pain) develop quite strong ‘checking’ behaviours, along with seeking reassurance.  The problem with checking is that if any of the symptoms are associated with anxiety, the act of checking is likely to increase the probability that anxiety will also increase.  Checking can also mean usually normal or benign symptoms can be found – and misinterpreted!

Some strategies that can help with checking:

I hope these strategies provoke some discussion.  They’re not meant to dismiss the person’s experiences, but they are meant to help the person decide, on the basis of guided discovery, whether the cost of misinterpreting body symptoms is worth it.  For much more information, any of the papers by Professor Paul Salkovskis, Professor Heather Hadjistavropoulos will be useful reading.

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