Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say 'My heart is broken.’
—C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain (1940)
Even though we live in one of the richest and most developed countries in history, we’re a society in chronic discomfort. We are aching all the time - back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, hormonal imbalance, thyroid issues, irritable bowel, migraines, skin conditions - the list goes on. There’s insomnia, anxiety, depression, stress … we go to doctors, therapists, take pills, searching for explanations and cures, but frequently can’t put our finger on any one thing. And the pain persists.
The link between diet and mental and physical health is becoming more widely understood and I believe will greatly enhance our approach to these kinds of issues. But I think there’s something else at play here as well: We are avoiding our emotions.
We are avoiding our emotions and they’re getting trapped in our bodies and are being expressed as physical pain.
Yes, your emotions are wrecking you, but not because you feel them, it’s because you don't. When you repress / cut off your emotions, they don’t just go away. They stay in your body and eventually find a way to be heard. Sometimes when you feel pain, it's your body saying, "Listen to me. I would like to have a voice here. I would like to feel the things that I'm feeling." But often we subconsciously and reflexively shut it down, “You're not convenient, I don't want to hear you, leave me alone."
"Oh, you won't listen to me? How about a migraine? You'll listen to that. You’re going to stop what you're doing, you're going to go lay down, you're going to take a pill and you're going to turn off the lights. Gotcha now."
Dr. John Sarno, TMS
We have been trained and raised to believe that emotions are one thing, and our physical body is another. For example, I’ve spent the last year treating my neck and shoulder pain by buying dozens of expensive gizmos and getting the run-around from a series of doctors and physical therapists.
For certain kinds of chronic pain like mine, Dr. John Sarno’s theory of mind/body medicine, Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), rings true to me. TMS suggests that physical pain is created in our body in order to create a distraction so that undesirable emotions can be avoided and kept down. People joke that TMS stands for, “Telling Me Something.” That basically sums it up: Your body is trying to tell you something. See Dr. Sarno’s books The Mindbody Prescription and Healing Back Pain for more on TMS.
In order to embrace the concept of mind/body healing in full, let's start with the conditioning we receive as children to be, for example, good, nice, strong, or selfless. In trying so hard to be strong, you may not allow yourself to feel normal responses to difficult situations. Maybe you feel scared or hurt, maybe you’ve been ignored or rejected, but it can be easier and more socially acceptable to just let it go, not make it a big deal.
Sometimes even without any conscious awareness, you push down feelings of anger or resentment because you know those feelings aren’t “nice.” They aren’t acceptable. The moment you even begin to feel them, you become stressed, and your mind is in motion telling you all the reasons that thinking these dark thoughts will get you nowhere. So, you push them away and shove them down.
Here’s what happens: These unfelt emotions build up and when the feelings reach critical mass, they finally refuse to be held down anymore. They start to rise to your consciousness, and threaten to inform you exactly how angry you are, or dissatisfied or sad.
Your brain says, “No! That’s not acceptable to feel those dark things. It does not assist in your survival!”
Remember, in some ways our brains are still primitive, operating in the same fight or flight techniques since the dawn of man. If the brain does not find something adaptive or imperative, it will do its best to protect us from it. Although feelings are actually safe to feel when given a voice in an appropriate manner, our minds do not understand this as of yet. When these feelings of anger, sadness, shame, embarrassment, regret, and fear threaten to rise into our conscious thoughts, the brain’s reaction is the same as if it is telling you to run from a woolly mammoth. You see, it thinks it is protecting you.
As the brain has this reaction in your subconscious, some place in your body seizes up, knots up, cramps up. Just like the headache you get when you’re stressed, the stomach ache when you’re about to give a speech, or the hives that break out when you’re on the spot, your body is responding to frustration.
The pain appears somewhere in your body, and Voila! The brain has done its job: It’s distracted you from the thoughts or feelings you didn’t want to have. They are naturally pushed back down as you have more important things to attend to, like altering the way you sit / sleep, researching alternative products / treatments, and plotting how to avoid future pain.
The process of recognizing and listening to our emotions gives a steam valve to this entire system, allowing feelings to safely evaporate into the air. Even though you might worry at first that feeling potentially dark things about people and events in your life will hurt “worse,” it is strikingly the opposite. Alongside pain elimination, people often feel unburdened, lighter, and more at peace.
Repressed emotions are only powerful in creating pain if they don't have a voice. Nobody needs to hear this voice but you. You may share if you choose, but you don't have to share this with anyone in order to heal.
The easiest and most effective way to give these feelings a voice is through journaling. Here is an exercise written by Dr. Sarno, which involves creating three bulleted lists. The first list is entitled childhood, the second is daily life, and the third is personality.
Childhood refers to any memory, event, or reality that happened to you growing up, until you consider yourself no longer a child. It could be big things (trauma, divorce, abuse, violence). But it also could, and should, be the time in third grade when Susie left you out on the playground, or when you had stage fright and ran off the stage at the school play. It is an exhaustive list of everything that you can remember in childhood that makes you take notice. It’s everything that sticks with you, has effected the person you have become, or still fuels your desire to be a certain way.
Daily life is the same kind of bulleted list. Everything that affects your day to day: your family, your partner, your business, your financial situation, or any responsibilities that you take on. Anything and everything that happens in your daily life that you think “Oh God, that's hard.” Even beautiful, happy things are hard. Having a child is hard. Anything that effects your life in a way that you need to work hard to deal with, tolerate, or accept should be put on the daily life list.
The third list is personality. We all have a personality. Most of the time it's shaped by the childhood stuff. Your compulsions to be a certain way, to look a certain way, to present a certain way, to achieve certain things. Think about the beliefs in you that direct you to behave certain ways in order to perceive yourself a certain way. Those things go into the personality list.
ATTACKING THE LISTS
You are going to create time for yourself every day. Right now, you might think, “I don't have any time.” Yes, you do. How much time do you spend on Instagram and Facebook a day? You have 20 minutes a day.
Then you are going to pick an item from one of these three lists. Look at your lists and say, "What pops out at me today, during this session?" You're going to write it at the top of the page, set a timer for 20 minutes, and just journal. Free write on the topic.
It's going to go in ways that you might not have expected but just go with it.
One of the things that's most important in this kind of journaling is that this is just for you. This is not journaling in some beautiful leather bound book that's going to tell the story of your life that you're going to read again one day. This shit is not pretty. Not every single thing you need to come up with is going to be dark. Some of it is just going to be the blah, blah, blah, which may end up leading you to the dark stuff. Also, this kind of journaling needs to be disposed of – it’s not meant to be kept.
This is not some pretty thing that you're going to keep. You are going to either write it into a document that you will erase before you even close your computer, or you will write it in your notebook and you will shred it into a public garbage can. This journaling is going to be something that you don't need to read again, because once you bring it to the surface and you take a moment to reflect on it, you've done the work. You've started to inform your conscious brain that these unconscious feelings are here, they are not going to kill you, and it's okay.
Your language should be emotional. It’s the language of your adult brain and the emotions of a five-year-old. It is, "Oh my God. This is not the way I want it to be. Everything is ruined. This is a complete disaster." It is not, "Oh, well. Today with the baby wasn't really so great, but that's okay. I'm going to be fine. It's all right if I feel alone. It's all right if I feel alienated, if I feel tired."
Once your brain is alerted that you don't need to hold down these ugly feelings anymore, that you do not need the physical pain, it will melt away. But you must be open to believing that an emotional exercise can actually heal you physically. And you must do the work. Little by little it will heal you.
Nicole Sachs, The Cure for Chronic Pain
Thank you, Dr. Sarno
All the Rage, upcoming documentary about Dr. Sarno featuring Howard Stern, Larry David, Bernie Sanders (trailer here)