Previously, we wrote that the brain instantaneously parks emotional overloads in our tissues. While these continuously broadcast a state of emergency to every cell in our body, we can use the mindbody connection to evict that troublesome content. Today's focus is on how all that relates to pain.
Forget supercomputers and Artificial Intelligence, the human nervous system is the most complex, sophisticated and highly evolved enterprise known. Consisting of trillions of cells and millions of miles of neurons, etc., its primary job is ensuring our survival. Pain is an integral part of that, the nervous system's best way of getting our attention. Abdominal pain could indicate appendicitis, gall- or kidney stones, a bowel obstruction, or ulcers—all medical emergencies. A slight sensation might be our only clue that we've been stung or bitten by something dangerous like a spider, bee or tick.
For all its sophistication, our nervous systems cannot distinguish pain that is largely physical from pain that is mostly emotional pain. When I worked in the Air Force's pain clinic in Alaska, many patients suffered from bulging discs and other skeletal problems that were torquing, compressing or putting tension on the nervous system. But other than a previous injury that seemed to have healed, there were no obvious reason for many of the patients' pain. To eliminate their pain for good, I needed to understand why.
Eventually, I discovered three things common to the mystery pain group: First, they saw themselves as "less than" or lacking in smarts, athleticism, appearance, etc. Secondly, to a man and woman, all were highly critical of themselves. Typically, both the self-criticism and sense of inadequacy were learned from a parent, sibling, peer or authority figure. Finally, all had a pronounced band of fascial armoring around the respiratory diaphragms. Once we released that band, they could breathe more fully with less effort and were able to stand for and pass their twice-yearly physical fitness tests. Once we convinced them that they were good enough and deserved to be their own best cheerleaders, their pain diminished dramatically. Many were able to resume their normal duties, and with newfound confidence.
Nobody better illustrates the relationship between attitude and pain than Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned and tortured daily for 38 years by the Chinese for posting Free Tibet flyers on telephone poles. His pain was unbearable. To end it, Gyatso initially tried to taunt the guards into killing him. That failed. He eventually remembered a practice wherein one takes on the anger directed at oneself and returns it as compassion. (Don't try this without formal training.) Although the torture continued unabated, the pain he experienced diminished significantly. (Gyatso's story is in the book "Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk.")
Both the military patients and the monk illustrate the power of the mind in creating, managing and eliminating pain. While medication has its place in pain management, many patients might also benefit from exploring the possibility that their pain is an artifact of old trauma or beliefs parked in their tissues. No matter how old and deep those neural ruts are, you can rewire your brain. Pain may indicate that we need a doctor, that we need to heal our past, as Dr. John E. Sarno believed, or "our greatest dream trying to come true" (Arnold Mindell, PhD). Possibly all three. Embrace it.
—Bend's Mike Macy, LMT, is an avid skate-skier, fat-tire biker, and birder. His book "BodyWise "conveys insights gained during 35 years as a Craniosacral Therapist. Reach him at email@example.com.