Stories and inspiration about living beyond pain and trauma
10 Chronic Pain Lessons from Dr John Sarno
1 Sep 2016

10 Lessons from Healing Back Pain by Dr John Sarno: Part 2

Posted ByBrenda Wille

This is the second part of a story that started here. In case you missed the beginning, I’ve been writing about the things I learned when I read Healing Back Pain by Dr John Sarno. This book was revolutionary in my life and set me firmly on the path to thinking about my pain differently. It was the foundation piece in how I learned to live without pain and I’m so excited to share my insights with you.

6: The conditioning behind pain

Healing Back Pain explains how we can become conditioned to believe that a certain activity – or even person or time of year or place – can cause pain.

If, for example, you got up from a chair one day and felt a twinge in your lower back, it’s possible that your brain might associate sitting with being the cause of your pain. Your brain comes to expect that you will feel pain every time you sit – and so you do. Without even realising it, we create habits that don’t serve us well and that can be really tricky to break, especially if we aren’t aware of what’s happening in the first place. The power of conditioning can be so strong that we can even be conditioned by things that people tell us or that we read – which makes it even trickier to break the bad habits!

Dr Sarno – and other authors I’ve read subsequently – cite many fascinating examples of how conditioning contributes to pain. It seems we might be more similar to Pavlov’s dogs than many of us might want to believe!

I was a little sceptical about the role of conditioning at first, but over time, I’ve become more adept at spotting when this is happening to me. I’ve got a great story about neck straps and shoulder pain that I’ll share one day.

7: The influence of personality

Healing Back Pain includes several anecdotes about the type of people that commonly experience TMS. Other resources discuss the role of personality in more detail, but for starters, Sarno’s view was that people who have TMS:

  • are conscientious perfectionists
  • need to excel, not just achieve
  • are competitive, determined to get ahead and more critical of themselves than others are of them
  • work hard, sometimes excessively
  • worry a lot
  • are often compulsive and irritable
  • have low self esteem and deep-seated feelings of inferiority
  • carry a strong (some say overly-developed) sense of responsibility
  • are often very accomplished.

It wasn’t much of a leap for me to admit that many of these applied to me. I was already pretty convinced that I was a TMSer, by the time I read this, but Sarno’s descriptions of his patients’ personalities certainly helped to bring it home.

8: Healing starts with awareness

For some, simply knowing that the source of their symptoms is inner tension is enough for their pain to disappear. Dr Sarno reports that about 95% of his patients went through his programme (and healed their pain) without a need for psychotherapy. They got better just because they became aware of what was happening between their minds and their bodies.

As encouraging as this sounds, from what I’ve since learnt about and experienced personally with TMS, I’m not sure it’s an accurate reflection of what really happens. I think expecting overnight success can set people up for disappointment and frustration (and yes, I’m thinking of all my fellow perfectionists out there!)

What I do agree with, however, is that awareness is an essential foundation for our journey out of pain. Even a simple understanding of how our bodies react to stress and trauma can be enough to set healing miracles into action. I’ve seen it play out so often in my own and my clients’ lives. I’m firmly convinced that growing and continually expanding our awareness is a fundamental component of any healing journey (in any area of life, actually. not just when it comes to pain).

As with any new journey though, it’s not always smooth sailing and I’ve found it’s not a linear process either. There are, however, some amazing tools and resources available now that can assist with healing. I teach and use some of them in my coaching programmes and there are many other guides, coaches, healers and therapists who can add value along a healing journey.

The first step often involves being able and willing to look at things in a different way and to start thinking differently about how and why you’re experiencing pain. To quote a much loved and very wise Dr Wayne Dyer, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. I have found this to be true so often on my own healing journey.

9: Education: a key factor

Once he started changing the way he treated his patients, Dr Sarno started to see surprising results. Instead of relying on physical treatments, he started teaching people about what he thought was happening with them. Much to his own surprise, this education-based approach delivered good results. It became clear to him that ‘educating the patient about TMS was the crucial therapeutic factor.’ His treatment plan shifted away from medical interventions to workshops, small group discussions, books and videos.

We’re all different and it’s natural that our capacities, interest levels and willingness to absorb information will be different. When it comes to healing from pain, I think the trick is to find our own sweet spot – that place where we know enough about TMS and the source of our pain to start healing but not so much that the education process itself feels overwhelming and just like another source of stress. It’s easy to see how that could become counter-productive.

I’m a hard core fact finder (take the Kolbe test and learn about your natural way of doing things) so for me, knowledge is empowering. I’m addicted to facts (did anyone say excessive or compulsive?!) I’ve become endlessly fascinated with brains and pain and neuroplasticity and can even stretch to a (very) little epigenetics. Many of my clients, though, don’t share my desire to absorb the detail. They’re quite happy to learn the basics and get on with the business of healing. That works too.

Either way, whatever your natural learning style or approach, it seems that repetition and reinforcement are important. This makes sense to me – I don’t think there’s many of us who learned our ABCs or times tables simply by reading them once. So too with TMS – for many of us, this is a completely different approach to pain and health and healing. It’s understandable that the concepts may take a little while to settle comfortably.

Whether you learn a lot or a little, what’s important is that you learn enough to break your cycle of conditioning so you can begin – and maintain – your healing journey.

10: Back to the physical

One of the things that happens when we have chronic pain is that we start to live our lives differently. Little by little, we stop doing things because they hurt, or start doing new things to avoid hurting. The media is full of stories about how we should rest sore body parts and treat injured areas with care and be careful with our weaknesses.

Dr Sarno’s view is a little different. For some, his stance takes some getting used to and often, a lot of faith. No one said that healing was for the faint-hearted!

Dr Sarno believes it’s important to resume all physical activity as soon as possible. Once you’ve accepted the TMS diagnosis* and figured out what’s really going on with your pain, it follows that there’s nothing physically wrong with you. There’s no more reason not to do the things you want to do and thought you couldn’t anymore. He recognises the role fear plays in keeping us stuck and encourages all his patients to resume normal activity, EVEN IF they’re scared. Using the same logic, he also recommends that patients stop all the physical therapy they’re doing to get better as it’s no longer necessary.

I remember reading that with so much trepidation my first time round. How could I possibly let go of all my treatment security blankets?!

Gradually, though, I started to see that I really had nothing to lose. The more I read, the more I understood and accepted the diagnosis and the braver I became. Before too long, I surprised even myself with all the things I had reintroduced into – and banished from – my life. It’s taken some trial and error and adjusting and adapting, but I am now so much more physically active than in the midst of my pain-filled days. I still have massages, for example, but more for the sheer indulgence of it than as a desperate search for healing. I haven’t needed any physical therapy for more than two years and the minor aches and pains I’ve had along the way sorted themselves out when I remembered the basic principles I learned from Healing Back Pain.

My final thoughts

So many of us live in so much unnecessary pain. I’m on a mission to help people understand how they can learn to live without pain, even if it seems like this could not possibly be true. It is. I’ve done it. I believe you can too. If you want to embark on your own journey through pain, get in touch. I can’t wait to help you see your pain differently!

* Dr Sarno makes it clear throughout Healing Back Pain that he believes a TMS diagnosis should only be made by a physician capable of recognising both the ‘physical and psychological components of the condition‘. He recommends that anyone experiencing persistent physical pain should be thoroughly checked out to rule out serious disorders. Once appropriate tests and examinations are done, and treatment has not resulted in resolution of the symptoms, then it may become appropriate to consider TMS as an alternative diagnosis, requiring very different treatment. I’m happy to discuss this in more detail – please contact me to set up a time to chat.