Several years ago a family member was suffering from debilitating pain in her back and other parts of her body that had built up for months, with no apparent cause or cure. In the course of researching what might be helpful to her, my husband and I came across Dr. John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Eventually the philosophy and instructions in that book became an important part of her healing so we’ve been recommending the book to other people, too. We’ve bought a number of copies and given them away or loaned them out. Right now we don’t have a single copy in the house.
Which is unfortunate because I really need it right now. I have been dealing with my own back pain of unknown etiology, as the physicians would say, for the past month.
Here is what I have remembered from the book.
1. Sarno says that back pain and many other physical maladies are psychogenic. Not psychosomatic—“all in your head”; the pain and physical symptoms are very real. But they originate in the psyche. The body becomes the repository of stress and trauma that the mind refuses to acknowledge. When it becomes too much, the body cries out in pain and protest and develops a real malady as a distraction from the subtle pains of the unconscious. “I’m hurting!” is the message, and we assume the hurt is physical—because it is at that moment. But it doesn’t start there, although the body often uses a physical incident or accident or even injury as an excuse to bring the pain to the surface.
2. Psychogenic symptoms tend to come on suddenly, go on a long time or recur mysteriously, and seem disproportionate to any physical trauma. They often move around to different parts of the back or body. They are not continuous, often showing up after you exercise, for example, rather than during the exercise itself.
3. The way to deal with such pain is to bring all our subconscious mental/emotional pain and stresses to awareness. It’s not quite that simple, but almost. Our psychic pain doesn’t even have to be resolved—only acknowledged. And then we can talk to our body pain, telling the aching back, in effect, “There, there. I know that I’ve been dealing with a lot in my life lately—there’s this and this and this that I know of and probably a lot more. I promise to keep these things in my conscious mind and deal with them there. You don’t have to carry them for me.” This acknowledgement—and not any kind of physical treatment, no stretching or relaxation or special exercise—is the key to healing.
That is as far as my memory of the book’s instruction went. So I mined my unconscious for weeks, dredging up all the reasons that my back might have begun twingeing early in November and then seized up seriously after Thanksgiving in painful spasms that came and went so unpredictably that I was on constant alert.
I found plenty of reasons that my psyche could have been generating this pain, and they were all issues I thought I could deal with. But the more I talked to my back, the worse it got. And nothing else helped, either. Not rest, not exercise, not ice, not heat, not meds, not herbals, not, not not. My back was becoming a mass of (k)nots, one gigantic “No!” Every time something seemed to make it feel better, a spasm would come on and I would feel utterly defeated. I felt like I was coming apart in the middle.
I needed help. This past week I scheduled two sessions over three days with my daughter, who lives a few hours away. She is a Feldenkrais practitioner and she has always been able to work miracles with my body. I wasn’t sure she could help me with this, and I knew both of us would be disappointed if these sessions didn’t help. But, God be praised, they seem to have set me on the path to healing, for a combination of reasons.
First of all, she was able to untie the knots that my body had tied around the pain, all up and down my torso, front and back. Until much of the physical tension that had become embedded from a month of pain and frustration—let alone what might have brought on the pain in the first place—was released, nothing could help. This is why techniques like Feldenkrais are crucial in healing back pain. Massage or chiropractic may serve similar purposes.
While she was gently probing my body, Joanna probed my psyche as well with gentle questions, bringing me to a deeper awareness of the causes for my psychic tension as well as my internal resources for healing. This literal joining of the mind and body was astounding, nothing less than miraculous. I was so proud of my wise and gifted daughter. Few healers possess such a combination of skills.
Finally, she helped me remember a key instruction of the book, one I’d forgotten: Don’t give in to the pain. This is important because, although the pain truly hurts, it doesn’t hurt you. That is, the pain does not mean that you are injuring yourself further.
I stood up from her table feeling assembled in an entirely different way but still afraid that the pain would come back. She helped me get over that fear, not by denying that it would return but by finding a different way of meeting it when it did. She helped me summon my inner strength, my inner athlete, the one who could say, “Bring it on! What’s the worst you can do? A few seconds of torture and that’s it!” She encouraged me to breathe through the pain. It reminded me a lot of Lamaze instructions on labor pains. Huff and puff your way through!
I’ve been practicing these instructions for the past two days and they are working. The pain did come back (when I got into the car, when I stood up, when I went up steps, yada yada) and I huffed through it and went right on doing what I was doing. And it didn’t last.
Then I walked two miles late yesterday afternoon, feeling fine, but afterward I hurt a lot. This was a familiar pattern. This time, however, I tried not to let the pain feel like a defeat. I breathed through it. I went to bed early and slept long. This morning I am fine, proof that, whatever last night’s pain represented, no harm was done. I believe I am on my way to healing.
And I just bought the Kindle version of Sarno’s book so I’ll always have it. Why didn’t I think of that before? Duh.