Why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Chronic Pain

Why cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain?

You may be wondering why a psychological therapy such as cognitive behavioral and systemic therapy could help you overcome your chronic pain.

The first of the two components, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) was developed initially for the treatment of depression, and the techniques this therapy uses have been found to be extremely effective for a wide range of problems, including compulsive gambling and drug and alcohol addiction.

So what is CBT and how does it work?

In the 1950s and 1960s a set of techniques was developed, collectively termed ‘behavior therapy’. These techniques shared two basic features. First, they aimed to remove symptoms (such as anxiety) by dealing with those symptoms themselves, rather than their deep-seated underlying historical causes (traditionally the focus of psychoanalysis, the approach developed by Sigmund Freud and his followers). Second, they were techniques loosely related to what laboratory psychologists were finding out about the mechanisms of learning, which could potentially be put to the test, or had already been proven to be of practical value to sufferers. The area where these techniques proved to be of most value was in the treatment of anxiety disorders, especially specific phobias (such as fear of animals or heights) and agoraphobia, both notoriously difficult to treat using conventional psychotherapies.

After an initial flush of enthusiasm, discontent with behavior therapy grew. There were a number of reasons for this, an important one of which was the fact that behavior therapy did not deal with the internal thoughts which were so obviously central to the distress that patients were experiencing. In particular, behavior therapy proved inadequate when it came to the treatment of depression. In the late 1960s and early 1970s a treatment was developed for depression called ‘cognitive therapy’. The pioneer in this enterprise was an American psychiatrist, Professor Aaron T. Beck, who developed a theory of depression which emphasized the importance of people’s depressed styles of thinking. He also specified a new form of therapy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Beck’s work has changed the nature of psychotherapy, not just for depression but for a range of psychological problems.

The techniques introduced by Beck have been merged with the techniques developed earlier by the behavior therapists to produce a therapeutic approach which has come to be known as ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’. This therapy has been subjected to the strictest scientific testing and it has been found to be a highly successful treatment for a significant proportion of cases of depression. It has now become clear that specific patterns of thinking identified by Beck are associated with a wide range of psychological problems and that the treatments which deal with these styles of thinking are highly effective. So, effective cognitive behavioral treatments have been developed for anxiety disorders, like panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias and social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorders, and hypochondriasis (health anxiety), as well as for other conditions such as compulsive gambling, alcohol and drug addiction, and eating disorders like bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Indeed, cognitive behavioral techniques have a wide application beyond the narrow categories of psychological disorders: they have been applied effectively, for example, to helping people with low self-esteem, those with marital difficulties or weight problems, those who wish to give up smoking, and, as in this book, those living with chronic pain.

The starting-point for CBT is that the way we think, feel and behave are all intimately linked, and changing the way we think about ourselves, our experiences and the world around us changes the way we feel and what we are able to do. So, by helping a depressed person identify and challenge their automatic depressive thoughts, a route out of the cycle of depressive thoughts and feelings can be found. Similarly, habitual responses are driven by a nexus of thoughts, feelings and behavior; and CBT, as you will discover from the articles here, by providing a means for the behavior to he brought under cognitive control, enables these responses to be undermined and a different kind of life to be possible.

Although effective CBT treatments have been developed for a wide range of problems, they are not widely available, and when people try to help themselves they often make matters worse. In recent years the community of cognitive behavioral therapists has responded to this situation. What they have done is to take the principles and techniques of specific cognitive behavioral therapies for particular problems and present them in self-help manuals. These manuals specify a systematic programme of treatment which the individual sufferer is advised to work through to overcome their difficulties. In this way, cognitive behavioral therapeutic techniques of proven value are being made available on the widest possible basis.

Self-help articles and manuals are never going to replace therapists. Many people will need individual treatment from a qualified therapist. It is also the case that, despite the widespread success of cognitive behavioral therapy, some people will not respond to it and will need one of the other treatments available. Nevertheless, although research on the use of these self-help articles and manuals is at an early stage, the work done to date indicates that for a great many people such a manual will prove sufficient for them to overcome their problems without professional help. Many people suffer silently and secretly for years. Sometimes appropriate help is not forthcoming despite their efforts to find it. Sometimes they feel too ashamed or guilty to reveal their problems to anyone. For many of these people the cognitive behavioral self-help article will provide a lifeline to recovery and a better future.