10 Lessons From Healing Back Pain by Dr John Sarno: Part 1
Along my journey to becoming a life coach and working with people who struggle with chronic pain and other trauma after effects, I came across several books and resources that helped me change my life. My intention with this blog is to share some of these with you. Learning about how other people transformed their lives inspires me and helps me stay on the path of pain-free living. I hope sharing these resources and stories about my healing will spark some magic for you on your journey to live without pain too.
Please note that my posts are not meant to be formal reviews of any of the resources. My goal is simply to share with you my biggest learning nuggets and how they helped me. In most cases, this probably involves making the material a whole lot simpler than any of the creators intended. Any mistakes I make along the way to simplifying the material enough for me to understand and communicate easily are all mine and I beg forgiveness. I have no intent to offend!
There’s so much meaty stuff in my first resource, Healing Back Pain, that I decided rather than skimping on the magic, I’d write this in two parts. Read on for my first 5 learning nuggets in this post… there’s more over here when you’re ready.
Foundations of a new life
When I read Healing Back Pain by Dr John Sarno, I felt like my world had quite literally blown apart. Although it wasn’t the first mind-body, personal growth or self development book I’d read, it made a significant enough impact at the time to change the trajectory of my life. I’ve read a couple of other home-run hitters since then, but I’ll save those for stories all of their own.
While I was reading Healing Back Pain, it dawned on me for the first time that it might actually be possible to live a different life to the pain-filled one I’d landed up in. It seems so bizarre when I look back now, but I honestly never thought that living without pain was feasible. I’d lived with aches and pains of varying descriptions for so long and heard so often that there was nothing that could be done, that there was no obvious cause of my pain and that I would just have to learn to live with it, that that’s what I was doing. Living with it. Believing it. Accepting it.
It didn’t even occur to me that pain and discomfort didn’t have to be my norm.
It turns out I was wrong about so much.
Introducing Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) / Mind Body Syndrome (MBS)
In his work at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York, Dr Sarno saw many cases where his patients didn’t respond as he expected to the conventional treatments of the day, considering the physical symptoms with which they presented. He noticed that in addition to their complaints (mainly back, neck and shoulder issues), his patients often shared a common pattern of underlying tension.
In Healing Back Pain (and his other books), Dr Sarno introduces the concept of Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). Today TMS is often referred to as Mind Body Syndrome, and in my mind the terms can be used interchangeably. At the time, Sarno defined TMS as ‘a change of state in the muscle that is painful’ – while this is undoubtedly technically accurate, personally I don’t feel it does justice to the somewhat complicated animal I’ve come to understand as TMS. It is, however, as good a place to start as any…
I’ll talk about the many faces of TMS in another post, but I think it’s important to recognise at the outset that this condition can manifest in so many different ways. Dr Sarno worked initially with back, neck and shoulder pain, but there are many more examples of how TMS manifests as painful symptoms and conditions. These include headaches, migraines, pelvic pain, irritable bowel and other gastrointestinal complaints, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel and repetitive strain syndromes, TMJ, vertigo, dizziness, insomnia and even psychological equivalents such as anxiety, depression, phobias and disorders.
Even though lots of new research has been done about the mind-body connection and how the brain works since Healing Back Pain was written, I often find myself coming back to the solid foundation Dr Sarno established for learning about TMS. There’s so much valuable content in all his books.
This is what I learned from Healing Back Pain…
1: It’s more than ‘just’ physical
Quite possibly my most dramatic discovery from Healing Back Pain was the notion that physical pain doesn’t necessarily have (only) physical causes. It seems like such an underwhelming thought now, but when I first read that emotional pain could and did manifest as a variety of physical symptoms, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Think lights flashing, horns tooting, bells clanging – the whole shebang. It was a massive relief to realise that the pain I’d been experiencing for so long could be healed – and that no invasive medical intervention was needed.
It helped that my bolt of insight was corroborated by the fact that I started to feel dramatically better. Almost overnight. I know (now) it doesn’t happen like this for everybody, but the instant physical relief I felt motivated me to keep learning and find out more.
2: Squashed, stuffed, buried, ignored and repressed emotions
For people who have TMS or MBS, our built in tendency is to repress unpleasant, painful or embarrassing emotions. When we repress these emotions, our bodies respond to the real and perceived threats that make up our lives, even though we’re not aware of all the action that’s happening ‘below the skin’, so to speak.
3: The role of oxygen deprivation
While we’re bottling our emotions, our very clever autonomic nervous system activates our fight, flight or freeze response. As part of this, the oxygen in our blood supply is channeled to all the large organs needed to mount a defence against the threat. This effectively means it drains away from smaller bits, like our muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments. The oxygen deprivation means we experience tension, dysfunction and physical pain.
Repressed, ignored and/or unresolved emotions can cause physical pain. It really is that simple. And that powerful.
4: The unconscious mind: a complicating factor
Unfortunately, though, things get complicated by the fact that most of us, most of the time, aren’t even aware that we’re repressing our emotions. For some of us, controlling, hiding from and/or ignoring our emotions has become such an integral part of how we live that we don’t even realise we have emotions.
As Dr Sarno explains:
“It is an interesting fact that the overwhelming majority of emotional and mental activity occurs below the level of consciousness. The human mind is something like an iceberg. The part that we are aware of, the conscious mind, represents a very small part of the total. It is in the subconscious mind that all of the complicated processing goes on…
… This condition begins and ends in the unconscious.”
While I was reading Healing Back Pain, I recognised that I didn’t know yet WHAT was going on below my conscious mind, but knowing that SOMETHING was going on that was causing a reaction in my body was an encouraging revelation for me. It gave me much needed confidence to start accepting this new way of thinking about my pain.
5: The power of distraction
Working with a psychoanalyst colleague, Dr Sarno discovered that there’s another, more active ‘component’ of TMS, one that purposefully works to distract you from figuring out what’s going on in your emotional world. Physical distractions (i.e. pain) work really well as defense mechanisms against our emotions bubbling to the surface because “they have the ability to really grab ones attention, particularly if they are painful, frightening and disabling”. Yeah. Been there, done that, can attest to the truth of those words.
It’s almost as if the mind decides that a physical pain is preferable to an emotional one. Understanding this helped me see more clearly the role physical pain was playing in my life and how it was helping me avoid some not-so-pretty emotional stuff. There’s so much more going on for someone with TMS than just the physical pain of the moment.
Talk about a double whammy.
If this is resonating with you, and you’re already curious about exploring how TMS / MBS may be playing out in your life, contact me today. I’d love to help you look at your pain differently so you too can live without pain. It could be the journey of a life time!