The mind-body connection is no joke

A remarkable thing happened to me about a year ago. The simple act of reading a book healed the intermittent back pain that I had lived with for almost ten years — pain that had resisted multiple rounds of physical therapy, massage therapy, yoga, stretching, standing desks, and ergonomic chairs.

Again: I merely read a book, and the pain was gone within about a month. Moreover, this was not “all in my head”: my physical therapist and massage therapist both found significant changes in my physical muscle tissue during that period.

I know it sounds ridiculous, because it sounded ridiculous to me when a friend of a family member relayed her own similar story. But as I read the book she recommended — Healing Back Pain: The mind-body connection by Dr. John E. Sarno (and there are other similar books) — I began to understand the emerging science of mind-body interactions and it all started to make a lot of sense.

Megan summarized the findings this way: “Most recurrent or long-term pain in the neck, shoulder, back, and buttocks is caused by your autonomic (unconscious) nervous system restricting oxygen flow to these regions, and this oxygen deprivation causes pain. Your autonomous brain does this to distract you or relieve you from having to deal with difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, and fear, especially when these emotions are not deemed acceptable by you and/or your society (e.g., it’s not ok to be angry).”

It turns out that the unconscious nervous system controls a vast array of body systems, including the regulation of blood flow, digestion, healing, immune system activity, and many more, so there are plenty of plausible pathways for the mind to create physical pain and discomfort. Meanwhile, our cultures have a tremendous number of ways of encouraging us to repress and numb our emotions. So the ingredients are all there, bountifully. It turns out that this isn’t pseudo-science — nor ridiculous at all.

Yet the idea of psychologically caused pain is still so foreign to the Western world that no doctor or physical therapist in ten years ever said anything to me about this area of study. I’m not here to vilify them — on the contrary, I had some wonderful physical therapists who taught me exercises that I still practice for general strength and health. But I do feel a responsibility to spread the word, because so many others also experience chronic back, neck, shoulder, stomach, and other types of pain and related conditions.

Unfortunately, I can’t summarize in a short blog post the core of the cure — namely, learning to face the emotional difficulties that are the true cause of most chronic pain. But Dr. Sarno says that the material covered in his book was sufficient to help the vast majority of his patients. I count myself among them.



Crossing the Atlantic

“When [Jewish immigrants fled their villages in Eastern Europe in the period 1881-1918], they moved to the most advanced industrial cities in Europe and America, but also away from an atmosphere of medieval [living conditions]. They found a world where many of the ideas they had brought with them could not stand up to scrutiny. In the Old World, women had learned to accept that only half their children would survive. A serious illness was a physical catastrophe whose cure, as everyone knew, lay in God’s will. […] Even the astonishing physical combination of lights, steam, and power that drove them across the Atlantic in ten days could hardly prepare them for the new Industrial Age of elevated railways, street lights, sewage disposal, safe drinking water available at the turn of a tap. In crossing the Atlantic they had made a leap of centuries in time.” (p. 118-119)

“All my friends came from identical immigrant families, [so] I was prepared for all kinds of revelations [the first time I visited] a non-Jewish family. The first surprise that awaited me was how the parents treated their children. Their style was something that I did not know — good-tempered, considerate, gentle. One day the mother observed that one of the little girls was not looking well. She had no fever, but did not seem to be her usual self — somewhat subdued and limp. Her mother suggested that she would make up a bed on the sofa where her daughter could lie and read and be comfortable. The little girl agreed, and snuggled down on the sofa under a paisley shawl with a sigh of relief and contentment. I watched all this closely and, I must confess, with a pang of longing for the quiet attentiveness I had never experienced.

“Here, the child was regarded as someone who had wishes and thoughts and desires — all of which were legitimate and to be considered in any dispositions made concerning that child. As to the child’s sickness, the mother was responding by taking a simple first precautionary step. But what impressed me was that she was thinking about the child. When I considered the world in which I had grown up, I saw a remarkable contrast.

“When I was sick, my parents responded first to the sickness — and always with alarm. They then took measures to allay their fears, but they were too frightened, paradoxically enough, to think about me. They watched the thermometer to see whether the fever was going up or down. But they did not ask me how I felt. My mother would wander white-lipped through the house, wringing her hands and murmuring in alliterative Yiddish, ‘Dear God frighten me, but do not punish me.’ On such occasions, my parents did not trouble to make fine distinctions between a fever brought on by a chest cold or by diphtheria; the response to illness was always to declare a state of emergency. Even as children, my friends and I perceived the disproportion between our common ailments and the storm of concern that they aroused. We mistook this intensity for love.” (p. 9-10)

-Ruth Gay, Unfinished People (1996)


“We want desperately to take uncertainty out of the future. But when we take uncertainty out, it is no longer the future. It is the present projected forward. Nothing new can come from the desire for a predictable tomorrow. The only way to make tomorrow predictable is to make it just like today. In fact, what distinguishes the future is its unpredictability and mystery.”

-Peter Block (Community: The Structure of Belonging p.105)