Pain interrupts!

If you have chronic pain of any type, you’ll know what I mean when I say that half my brain seems to have gone to sleep, especially on days when my pain is intense! There’s a reason for that, and it’s nothing to do with my age.

When we have chronic pain, at least some of our brain is scanning the “threat value” of the information the brain’s getting from the body. With pain being an output of the brain, this means something in the information being received, or something in the way it’s being interpreted by our nervous system, is attempting to alert us to DANGER! Now in the case of chronic pain, we know that it’s NOT dangerous, it’s just a nuisance, but nevertheless, our brains are partially employed checking out the potential problem, and consequently using some of the brain’s capacity.

At the same time, pain interrupts us and distracts us from what we’re doing. This typically occurs when the pain is unusual, intense, different in some way, intermittent, or when our coping resources are a bit drained. So, essentially we’re having to multi-task ALL the time. And multi-tasking, contrary to popular belief, is NOT a good thing if we’re concerned about accuracy, speed and fatigue.

Each time we go “off task” to attend to our pain, we risk not returning to the original thing we were doing.

Here’s why:

  • When we become aware of pain, our brain is busy deciding whether it’s important enough to interrupt what we’re currently doing. If the pain is unusual, as I described above, it’s more likely our brains will decide that it needs attending to right now.
  • If we’re interrupted unexpectedly, especially if we need to take a break for a while, we’re more likely not to go back to what we were doing. We forget because the “go back to that job” isn’t coded into our memory.
  • This is especially when the task we were doing wasn’t all that enjoyable, or was routine, or didn’t really mean a lot to us at the time.

One of the popular recommendations for managing energy and reducing the risk of flare-ups, is to using activity pacing. This means breaking the task down into smaller periods of activity, and taking a break or doing something else, before going back to the original activity.

The problem, as I’m sure you can quickly see, is that this interrupts what we were doing!

So, given that there are some good reasons for using activity pacing, what can you do to get back to your original task?


  1. Plan your breaks. Breaks that are expected are easier to remember, and it’s easier to return to what you were doing.
  2. Use a cue to remind yourself to go back to the task once you’ve had your break. This might be a post-it note, a timetable, leaving the tools out, or setting an alarm on your cellphone. Cues help you to remember what you were doing.
  3. Use mindfulness to deal with your pain when you’re in the middle of a task and you don’t want to stop right now. This means the pain loses some of it’s interruptive power.
  4. Use your pacing regularly so it becomes a habit. When interruptions are more frequent and regular, you can become used to them and can return to your original task more easily.
  5. Keep your breaks relatively short. The longer you’re away from your original task, the more difficult it is to return to it.
  6. Plan your breaks as “natural pauses” within an activity. What this means is, if you’re going about doing the laundry, plan a break for after you’ve gathered up the clothes. Then plan another break after you’ve sorted your clothes. Then plan another break for after you’ve got the clothes out of the washing machine. Of course, if you don’t need breaks as frequently as this, you can plan them less frequently – but tying your breaks into partly completed activities is more successful than interrupting what you’re doing to take a break.
  7. You can use Pomodoro Technique – this means setting yourself activity “chunks” throughout the day. Mine are roughly 20 – 25 minutes long. Then plan a 5 minute break after each chunk. After the fourth chunk, plan a longer break. This works well if you use the first Pomodoro of the day to plan what you’ll do within each of the “chunks”. You can use apps to keep you on track, and it’s very easy. I wrote my entire PhD thesis using this technique – doing all sorts of short brain refreshing breaks during each 5 minute break. I practiced my dance shimmies, cleaned the benches, walked to the letterbox and back, made a cup of coffee, did a mindfulness breathing and so on – and by the end of the day I was still feeling refreshed and OK. Best of all, my body hadn’t seized up!

I also like using a “plan do, did do” diary. On one side of the page I plan all the things I want to do at certain times of the day. At the end of the day I record what I actually did. I then try to understand what got in the way of doing what I intended – and plan better the next day!

For more information on interruptions and pain, you might like to read



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