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.



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