The repressed truth behind chronic pain and symptoms
Two years ago, I suffered from an excruciatingly painful herniated disc and sciatica. Crawling out of bed in the morning took a throbbing ten minutes. I had never experienced such intense pain before. To boot, this was my second disc problem within a year. Why was this happening – again? I was fit. Did yoga. Meditated. Ran. Rode horses. Snowboarded. I was at a loss.
Months of physical therapy to put the disc back in place proved useless. Pain killers and injections were equally hopeless. Osteopathy made it worse. Traditional Chinese Medicine – no effect. I was distraught. My intuition however, insinuated there had to be another way. Deep down, I felt the root cause could not be structural. But what then?
In one of my doom scrolling sessions, I came across Dr. John Sarno and his book “Healing back pain”. On Amazon, the book, written in the 70s, had generated about 5,000 positive reviews. I perked up and pressed the order button. I devoured the book in one day and literally found myself on every page. It dawned on me that my problem was not structural after all, but in fact stemming from repressed emotions due to trauma and negative experiences stemming from childhood, daily life or personality traits.
Dr. Sarno was a Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine, New York University School of Medicine, and attending physician at the Howard A. Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, New York University Medical Center. He died in 2017 at 92 years old. During his practice he found that physical therapy, surgery, or any other standard treatment often had no or low impact. The patients either returned with the same pain or with pain in a different location. Frustrated with the results, Dr. Sarno decided to look for the root cause and started to ask patients about their past, their stress levels, trauma and emotional distress.
What he discovered was that most of his chronic pain patients suffered from chronic stress, suppressed emotions linked to trauma and other negative experiences. Dr. Sarno ultimately unveiled that patients suffer because the brain decides to inflict pain to shield from feeling emotional anguish. Pain is always created by the brain. The protective brain deems what is best – feel the emotions or inflict pain to distract from the emotions. The brain always wants the best for you.
Sarno named the condition TMS – Tension Myositis Syndrome, also known as Tension Myoneural Syndrome, which is a condition that causes real physical symptoms, such as chronic pain, gastrointestinal issues, fibromyalgia, migraines, insomnia and many more that are not due to pathological or structural abnormalities and are often not explained by diagnostic tests. TMS refers to the physical pain provoked by unconscious emotional issues and stress. TMS can be triggered by chronic stress, repressed emotions, trauma and other toxic emotions that are not expressed in a healthy way. Nowadays, TMS is also referred to as the mindbody syndrome, psychophysiologic or nerve or pain pathway syndrome as many doctors and therapists developed the concept further.
The way the unconscious mind deals with these emotions is by decreasing the natural blood flow to the muscles, nerves and other connective tissues. This is done through the autonomic nervous system which controls and governs all other systems in the body. The pain is caused by oxygen deprivation to the muscles and nerves which causes pain. The effect of TMS is real in the body and can have severe physical symptoms.
“There’s nothing like a little physical pain to keep your mind off your emotional problems.”
― John E. Sarno
The mind and body are one. They are not separate. Just watch how the body reacts when you are stressed, nervous, afraid, anxious. We immediately get physical symptoms such as clammy hands, an upset or tight stomach, a racing heart etc… It works the same with chronic pain, just at a different level. The suppressed emotional burden triggers physical pain.
Pain is a message from the body to pay attention, to destress, as the nervous system has reached its limits. Instead of reducing the water levels in the full cup, saturated with repressed emotions, we focus on fixing the pain. Pain often triggers fear and panic and causes us to run frantically from specialist to specialist. The more perception of danger we have, the more attention we give to the pain, the wider the pain pathway in the brain. With a large enough highway, the pain becomes chronic. We become afraid to move, to make it worse or even to be terminally ill. in the case of insomnia, we feed the fear by thinking about not sleeping, by dreading to go to bed or being exhausted the next day – a vicious fear porn!
As for my case, I was now certain that I had suffered from TMS all my life. I’d experienced childhood and adult trauma and nurtured the pain superhighway for years. It is important to understand that many small t traumas can amount to big T trauma. So little dents in the nervous system amount to big dents. When I was 16 I started to get migraines, back pain, anxiety, knee pain. In my 20s, after more trauma and other stuff, it got worse. I developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), strange wandering nerve pains, insomnia, and other fun conditions. Over the years, with more accumulation and no release, it developed into two crippling herniated discs.
After Sarno’s book, I devoured anything TMS I could get my hands on. I felt this was the cure for all my ills. Unfortunately, the relationship between emotions and physical disorders is still largely misunderstood by today’s Western medical model, which classically prefers to treat symptoms only and not the root causes. So, this concept is a mindbender for many as we are used to outsource pain immediately to one of the many specialists.
Sarno and many other doctors and therapists after him, devised and refined a method to release the stuck emotions and thin out the pain pathway. It involves
- Internalizing the brain science behind chronic symptoms (TMS)
- Stop feeding the pain with fear and danger signals (ignoring it as best as possible, exercise), send the pain the message that it does not run your life
- Releasing repressed emotions by expressive writing
- Soothing the nervous system with deep breathing, meditation, or other techniques
After I followed this approach for four months, my pain disappeared suddenly overnight by about 90%. I was in complete shock and disbelief. How could something so simple cure this horrific pain? I went from a ten-minute ordeal to get out of bed, to walking almost painfree – all due to understanding TMS brain science, writing and self-soothing! Not just any writing, but expressive writing. Letting the crap out of you!
Expressive writing is very effective at releasing repressed emotions. Studies done by James Pennebaker in the 80s proved that students expressively writing about their most traumatic experiences for four consecutive days resulted in less doctors visits and
- Decreased anxiety, blood pressure, depression, muscle tension, pain and stress
- Enhanced lung and immune function
- Improved memory, sleep quality and social life
- Increased grades and work performance
I religiously followed the advice of Dr. Howard Schubiner, Nicole Sachs, Georgie Oldfield, Steve Ozanich – just to name a few TMS experts. I started to ignore the pain as best as I could and ceased to arrange my life around pain. I rode a bike again. Rode a horse again. I dropped the sticks I used for walking. All this fed my brain the message that I was ok. When the brain gets the ok message, the pain superhighway starts shrinking.
I journaled daily for at least twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of meditation or slow pranayama to balance the heart rate variability, and get into a parasympathetic state (rest and repair). Breaths that support this are very slow inhaling through the nose, let the belly expand and a slow exhale through the mouth. If possible, reduce to 4-6 breaths per minute. It takes some training, but it’s achievable.
Even today, free from chronic symptoms, I am still journaling and self-soothing. In a way TMS is a life sentence. If you have what we call a “TMS personality” you may suffer from the mindbody syndrome or stress illness all your life, unless you do the housekeeping described in this article. Certain personality types such as a perfectionist who thinks nothing is ever good enough, goodists/people pleasers who seek everyone’s approval, legalists who always need to be right, stoics who never show emotions, hyper-vigilants who always think of worst-case scenarios, low self-esteemers with feelings of inadequacy etc mainly suffer from the mindbody syndrome.
TMS is a big topic and there is a lot more to it than shared in this article. It might seem easy to understand in theory but believe me to internalize and live it – it takes time. But truly, with this system, you can become your own medicine. This method can also be used to simply destress and keeping the cup half empty to warrant a healthy nervous system.
Back when I first learned about this method, I promised myself to become a certified stress illness recovery practitioner – and I did. If you want to learn more or book a consultation see my website www.becomeyourownmedicine.co – Susanne Meier Briggs – Certified SIRPA Stress Illness Recovery Practitioner