Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lesson #50: How to be a "Pain Buster" (Part 3: the Prescription)

For the last two weeks, we've focused on the mindbody connection, and how repressed emotional material (especially rage) is implicated in many of our modern-day pain and illness syndromes. Today I will share Dr. John Sarno's "prescription" for a pain-free life, but before I do I'd like make an important, if slightly ambiguous, distinction.

If you've read parts 1 and 2, you understand the basic message of  Dr. Sarno and fans like myself. What you may still be wondering is where to draw the line in your thinking. Which disorders are strictly psychologically based, and which ones absolutely require medical intervention? For instance, if you have chronic pain, and have been to four or five different doctors, none of whom can give you a satisfactory explanation or remedy for your pain, then it would make sense to shift your focus from medical intervention to psychological inquiry.

But let's say you have back pain (either of unknown origin or the result of a minor injury), and you go to your doctor or chiropractor, who examines you and perhaps takes an x-ray or MRI. These professionals are trained to diagnose and label complaints, and, predictably, they will pinpoint a cause for your pain. They even have an important-sounding name for it. But what happens then? Chances are you start behaving in a disabled fashion, taking megadoses of anti-inflammatories, and saying things like, "I can't do that because of my back," or "I'm in pain due to a herniated disc." Usually your symptoms get worse.

Dr. Sarno, while careful not to disregard serious medical conditions, explains that the structural "abnormalities" to which many practitioners attribute pain, are in fact quite normal (or commonplace), and may not be the cause of pain at all. How does he know this?

First of all, studies have shown that most structural abnormalities do not actually cause pain, and secondly, that when Sarno's patients (who had abnormalities accompanied by pain) got in touch with their repressed emotions, the pain went away. This would not have been possible if the structural issue itself was responsible for the pain.

This leads me to Sarno's 3-part therapeutic program (which emphasizes "the power of knowledge"):

1.   Challenge the structural diagnosis, or the "physical" reason for the pain.
Just because your doctor gives your back pain a formal diagnosis doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with your back! As previously mentioned, Sarno explains that many types of pain (but not all) are caused by the brain restricting bloodflow to that area of the body for the purpose of masking repressed emotional pain. It is a diversion tactic, and can be quite harmless. When you "bust" the pain by saying with conviction, "There's nothing wrong with my back," or by allowing the repressed emotions to surface, then the jig is up, at least temporarily. (There may be follow-up work necessary to make the fix permanent).

2.   Acknowledge the psychological basis for the pain.
This step requires you to turn your attention away from the physical preoccupation, and toward the emotional or psychological aspect. Especially when you're experiencing symptoms, go ahead and dredge up whatever might be bothering you. Ask yourself, "What could I possibly be upset or angry about?" Let yourself really explore this, knowing that it's better to face the stuff and release it, than to continue letting it sabotage your health. (See Sarno's books for more advise on how to manage this phase).

3.   Accept the psychological.
In this step, Sarno encourages us to say to ourselves, "It's all right to be the way we are: illogical, unconsciously enraged, like a child having a temper tantrum. That's part of being human, and it's universal." While we may love being in control, or seeing ourselves as nice or good, ultimately the truth of our experience will set us free.

This has been a quick introduction to the facinating world of the mindbody connection, and I should point out that while I used the example of back pain, this concept can be applied to any number of other medical issues that we commonly deal with.

I'm certainly not a medical doctor, but John Sarno is, so if you're interested in learning more, please check out his bestselling books, Healing Back Pain, The Mindbody Prescription, etc.