When emotions cause symptoms

I haven’t blogged for a few months. I’ve been busy with professional work and the months have flown by. Now I’ve had a taste of my own medicine. A couple of days ago I woke up with severe lower back pain.

I’ve had back pain before but it’s usually the type where one takes a paracetamol and gets on with it. Now this was different. A severe muscular spasm, mostly contained in the lower back but periodically radiating around to the hips. It felt like the flexors of my spine were trying to flex and the extensor muscles were trying to extend. And they had got stuck, trapping me in an S-Shaped position. Why should muscles tense up like this?

The simple answer is that it is likely to relate to some sort of threat. Our bodies respond physically to real or perceived threats. Many conventionally trained doctors do not realise this. We are trained to recognise physical pain as a sign that there there is some sort of tissue damage going on.

I did pop in to see my GP who examined me, confirmed the presence of muscle tension and prescribed some painkillers. Here at least I received a correct diagnosis – tension.

This is medicine’s blind spot, sadly, not asking the patient about sources or tension in their lives and not recognising when emotions are causing physical symptoms. Thankfully I knew the cause and went away to work on it. There was a large emotional conflict that was winging its way to the surface of my awareness. It related to my job, my frustrations with the medical system and my deeper frustrations dating right back to my early years.

One pioneer who observed the relationship between chronic pain and emotions was Dr John Sarno https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/science/john-sarno-dead-healing-back-pain-doctor.amp.html

He died in 2017 before his work was fully embraced by the medical profession. He noticed that many patients who were presenting to him, in pain, had other potentially stress related conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and migraine.

From this, he hypothesised that unexpressed emotions were are the root of many conditions (where no disease process could be found). Rage was the predominant emotion but there are others – shame, anxiety, jealousy and they are unconscious. He named this process Tension Myositis Syndrome or TMS.

These emotions are unconscious because the body-mind classifies them as too dangerous to come into conscious awareness. The person is not aware of the emotions and so it can come as a huge shock to find that there is anger and rage bubbling under the surface-particularly if one sees oneself as a “good, together type of person”

The interesting thing is that once these emotions are acknowledged, there is no need for the symptom or the pain. The game is up and the body-mind no longer has to create diversions.

In my case, I was aware intellectually that at times, I experienced a crippling low self esteem. I had an inner critic that berated me and I had tried for many years to “prove the voice wrong” by amassing a selection of worldly achievements. This desire to hide this “part”of me was so great that I was prepared to stay in a job I didn’t like and toe the party line as opposed to speaking my truth.

When this facade cracked open (this was through an intensive meditation practice), waves of shame and anger poured out and I sank into a deep depression for a while.

But interestingly the back pain went

I’d encourage anyone who is struggling with pain or medically unexplained symptoms to research Dr Sarno. His legacy lives on and health care professionals who have developed his work can be found in both the UK and the US

Check out the links below:






The edge of my world

My name is Lily. I work as a family physician. My practice is situated close to a university and many of my patients are college students. I never set out to go on this path. It kind of all started in 2014. Well it had started before then, but I’ll cover that in a later blog. I’d booked to go on a medical communications course. I’d been following the teacher running the course for a couple of years and had read his book. I turned up with the expectation that I would learn something useful to help me communicate more effectively with my patients. I wasn’t really going for self development. At that time in my life I lived mainly in my head. I loved reading and cramming my memory with all sorts of facts. It was an addiction. I didn’t realise this at the time, it was just what I did. I think others found me quite irritating as I was one of those people who talks too much and wants everyone else to know how much THEY know. I felt more comfortable that way. Call it imposter syndrome – whatever, I was deeply insecure.

Anyway we had an exercise to do and of course I volunteered to go up to the front. The course organiser asked me if I had any issues? (well is the Pope Catholic?). I’ll try and steer away from bad cliches in future. I mentioned that I often experienced this really unpleasant feeling at the base of my sternum. It was so unpleasant that if it turned up when I was trying to work, I would be distracted by it and it would get in the way of consulting with patients. I’d even taken antidepressants to try and quell its strength (to some benefit). It was like an unwanted dinner guest. My colleague asked me to step back, observe it and just allow it to be there. This seemed too simplistic but I went along with it as I trusted him.

Something really odd happened then which changed the course of my life. As I observed the sensation, I felt it move, initially up into my chest, and then it became expansive and spread quickly into my extremities. As the same time it went from feeling unpleasant to ecstatic. Something shifted, all self-consciousness melted away and I felt connected to everyone in the room. It didn’t last long, but it changed me. I couldn’t understand how something so unpleasant (that I’d drugged in the past), could morph into something like that. And there was something else that happened, that I didn’t really have the words for at the time. This is often one of the features of these sorts of experiences is that people can’t find the words. If I were to describe it now, I kind of saw the “edge” of my world. I had this sense that my issues and problems and neuroticisms were small fry and there was a much bigger sense of expansiveness out there. And from that moment, I continued to read and search for information about “awakenings”. It became a hobby, almost an obsession. Little did I know, there was no-where really to go. I was, in a way, already there.