More chronic pain b.s.

I think I’ve only made a few posts during the pandemic, and this is the second one about chronic pain. If you are not experiencing any ongoing physical symptoms, that’s awesome. If you are, I hope you find the following helpful.

I had back pain for a few years, then I solved it in 1 day. (You can read about it here.) My overnight healing made me cocky! I thought I would never deal with chronic pain again. 

What a laugh!

Now I have acid reflux. I was sure I’d get rid of it by eating a low-acid diet, in which I ate only foods with a pH value of 5 or higher, but nothing changed. I think it’s a great, anti-inflammation way to eat (it’s called “The Acid Watcher Diet” by Dr. Aviv), but after following it perfectly for a month, I had to concede that reflux is another in the long list of physical maladies said to be caused or exacerbated by stress. 

So, I started doing some ‘emotional clearing’—i.e., feeling my suppressed feelings. But even after dredging up every single thing that could possibly be bothering me, I kept having stressful thoughts about the future. Like, every day, for months, I was obsessively thinking about end-of-the-world scenarios due to climate change. 

As Julia Roberts said to the mean salesgirls in Pretty Women, “Big mistake. Big. Huge!”

If you research current thinking on chronic pain, or if you listen to some of the talks on the Curable app, everyone seems to be saying the same thing:

Chronic pain has an emotional component to it.

The emotional component is either suppressed emotions (such as unprocessed anger, sadness or fear) or negative thought patterns such as “catastrophizing” and ruminating.

Chronic pain occurs when the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” stress response has been triggered too often, for too long. 

Most people who have chronic pain become more and more fearful of the symptoms they’re experiencing, as well as more hopeless about ever having relief from them. Which makes things worse. “The brain begins to think activities that used to feel safe are now very threatening,” said one site.

The solution to chronic pain is to stop triggering your sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight-or-freeze stress response. 

To do this, you must relax.

Relaxing your body–consciously releasing tension held in your stomach, your shoulders, your neck, your face, etc.–stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system response. Which is the key to healing.

Other ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system:

Slow down your breathing and inhale deeply. Your stomach or waist should actually expand and contract.

Soothe yourself by telling yourself you are safe and okay. This may sound pathetic. But truly it is very helpful. Literally ask yourself, “Am I safe?” Most of the time, the answer is yes. Reassure yourself that that is the case.

Let pain symptoms come up. Don’t fear them. Don’t try to suppress them. Don’t try to solve them. Just let them arise. Acknowledge them, and let them be. 

If you keep activating the parasympathetic nervous system, you retrain the brain to believe you are safe. And it will start to activate the parasympathetic nervous response again on its own. And you will heal. 

Probably lots of people heal from chronic pain without consciously doing anything to address it. Maybe they just naturally start having more positive thoughts, or at least stop having super stressful thoughts. And they either forget about or ignore pain symptoms they’re experiencing. Then one day, they realize the chronic pain is gone and they are healed. 

Ever since I have been consciously catching myself engaging in negative thought patterns (worrying, ruminating and catastrophizing), and consciously activating the parasympathetic response (which I’ve been doing for about 2 weeks now), I’ve seen a major reduction of symptoms. So, I’m hopeful.

There’s a short video that my friend Juli sent me, from a physical therapist in San Diego named Jim Prussack, that has made all the difference to me. It’s what I have listened to repeatedly, to remind myself of the only thing I need to do: RELAX.

Prussack has several great videos (all of which center around the same message, which is reassuring—I don’t want to have lots of goals, I like having just the one: Relax!). And his voice is calming, which is key when you are experiencing symptoms and trying not to stress about it. He also works one-on-one with clients if you think you need it.

If you have experience with chronic pain or have any insights about healing from it, please let me know. I’d love to hear your story or thoughts. 

If you know someone who might benefit from this post, please share it with them! If you want to be alerted the next time I post, please subscribe. Thank you.

xo, Courtney

Three years of pain, cured in one day

This is my stupid back pain story. “Stupid” because I suffered for three years, spent a small fortune on various practitioners, lost a lot of time running around town to see those practitioners, and in the end, all it took to cure myself was $10 and a few hours of thinking.

The reason I’m going to tell you this story is that I hope you find it useful. If you don’t have back pain but have other difficult maladies, such as migraines, IBS, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, allergies, tendonitis or planter fasciitis, please keep reading.

The author of the bestselling book above, Dr. John Sarno, says most back pain, as well as the conditions listed above, plus a lot of other random physical issues, are caused by TMS–Tension Myositis Syndrome.

In a nutshell: Emotional tension causes a temporary constriction of blood vessels in the muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments–i.e., not enough oxygen gets to these parts of the body–which causes physical symptoms.

From the book: “The word ‘tension’ used here refers to emotions that are generated in the unconscious mind and that, to a large extent, remain there. Many of them are either unpleasant, painful or embarrassing, in some way unacceptable to us and/or society, and so we repress them. The kinds of feelings referred to are anxiety, anger, and low self-esteem (feelings of inferiority).”

The important thing to know is that although the pain or discomfort caused by TMS is very real, there is nothing structurally wrong with you. Even herniated disks and other issues that are visible on X-rays are rarely the actual cause of pain.

Dr. Sarno theorizes that physical pain is the brain’s protective measure, distracting you from looking at an upsetting emotional issue. I think it’s the opposite: the pain is flagging you that something’s amiss. It’s urging you to pay attention to yourself, to take take stock of what’s going on inside.

Anyway. When a friend recommended Sarno’s original bestseller, “Healing Back Pain,” to me, it didn’t immediately register. I guess I thought there was no way this little paperback book could help me. Although my friend had told me a compelling anecdote: An actor friend of his was hours away from having to go on stage, but his back went out and he was sure he wouldn’t be able to perform that night. He got the gist of Sarno’s premise, he followed his advice, and the show went on. But my problems were serious! So, I continued making appointments with naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, and musclework specialists. After each appointment, I felt amazing. And then a day or two later, the pain would return.

The pinched nerve in my neck caused vertigo and I often would fall down from dizziness and I even threw up a few times. My sciatica was so bad that my left leg throbbed with pain then went completely numb. My lower back pain was so intense that I couldn’t sit in a movie theater seat for the length of a film, and on long car rides, I would have to take turns leaning on one side of my butt or the other, to shift pressure on my spine. I even started to get anxious when backing out of parking spaces, because I was so afraid of further injuring my neck. In short, the list of things I couldn’t do kept getting longer, and my world kept getting smaller. What finally inspired me to stop the insanity of seeking treatments that weren’t “sticking” was this:

I was at my physical therapist’s office, getting my muscles worked on, and he was telling me about his own back pain. He said his musclework guy had told him his pain was caused by repressed emotions, and that he “must look at whatever he was not willing to look at.” As soon as my guy repeated his guy’s words, a stressful personal issue I had been hiding from flashed in my mind. And I immediately thought, “Hell no. I am not going to look at that.”

But… now that it had popped into my consciousness, I suspected the reckoning was coming.

I went home and finally ordered “Healing Back Pain.” Maybe I was hoping it would have some miracle cure that did not involve my having to face what I was refusing to face! When the book arrived two days later, I sat down on our living room couch and sped through it. Then I set it aside, walked into our kitchen, and told my husband Jimmy its premise and what I thought was the source of the emotional stress causing my physical pain. It did not pertain to him, it pertained to something that’s too private to go into, but suffice to say, it was scary to face it and it was really scary to say it aloud. But the cliche you always hear turned out to be true: Your fears (and dark secrets) lose their power when you finally voice them. (According to Sarno, you don’t even have to talk about your repressed feelings. You just have to THINK about them.) I told Jimmy some of my worst-nightmare scenarios and followed them to their logical conclusions aloud. Then I told him I was going to keep thinking quietly about anything I could dredge up around this fear. And I did. I spent the next couple of hours privately peeling back layers of the onion, following each scary thought all the way to the “end.”

That night, I realized my neck and back pain were gone.

I have not had back pain, neck pain, or sciatica since then. It’s now been about 5 years.

If you get the book—and I do recommend it, because it has more information and helpful tips than I’ve included here—and you try his advice, please comment. I am curious to hear how it goes for you!


p.s. When thinking about the source of your emotional tension, here’s one more thing to consider–well, two more things. My dad, who is a great student of human behavior, having worked in Human Resources for 30-plus years and garnering a reputation as an expert in the topic, says the two biggest causes of stress are:

  1. Not making a decision. He says Americans put a lot of pressure on themselves to be successful and thus they are afraid of making a wrong decision. But he pointed out that we rarely get confirmation we’ve made the wrong decision and we have no way of knowing for sure that things would’ve gone any better if we’d taken a different path. He says it’s important to just make a decision and commit.
  2. Poor time management. (This might be the only life we get. So, it IS stressful when we know we are wasting time, right?)