A couple of months ago my morning started the way most of my mornings do. I made my sleepy way to the refrigerator for a cold Diet Dr. Pepper, before heading to my office to open my email. About halfway there, the soles of my feet started to burn. Before I reached my office, pain had spread up my legs and into my hips, pain so severe, it hurt to sit in my desk chair. Or anywhere. Sitting, writing, is my business, so I was shaken to my core.
I didn’t reach for the phone, however. I reached for a book.
The Mind-Body Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing Pain by John E. Sarno.
To explain why, I have to go back about twenty years. Back to when I had carpel tunnel syndrome and wore braces on both wrists. I was also getting cortisone shots for shoulder pain.
Way, way back then, my sister saw this 60 Minutes episode by John Stossel about this doctor who claimed he could heal pain by talking to his patients.
He’d also written a book about it. My sister called me and told me I had to get it. It’s called Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, also by Sarno. I read it and my pain went away. I quit wearing wrist braces and getting the shots. I’ve never had carpel tunnel surgery and it makes me wince when I see advertisements for it on television.
That should have been the end of my pain story, but the pain keeps trying to sneak back in, “attacking” different areas at different times. I have continued to fight back, while Dr. Sarno has continued his research into what he calls TMS: tension myositis syndrome.
How he came to his theory makes for interesting and enlightening reading, particularly his insights on the placebo effects of surgery and other ways the medical industry deals with chronic pain. I won’t even try to cover it in a short blog post. All I can say is, it made perfect sense to me and it worked. I went from being managed by pain to managing it.
Well, until it slammed me this time.
What is TMS?
According to Dr. Sarno, TMS—Tension Myositis Syndrome—is a painful but harmless change of state in the muscles. It is caused when the mind—in a state of tension and/or anxiety—cuts off oxygen to the muscles.
For many, when I mention TMS, they get defensive. As a society we can believe in “the power of positive thinking,” but not in the power of negative thinking. The pain isn’t “in our head.” It’s very real pain caused by our subconscious minds. Some of it flows from our belief that if we do X, then Y will happen. Other times it is our subconscious instinctively trying to distract us from dealing with a growing problem, or just trying to give us a legitimate timeout from the overwhelming. Sometimes it hits after the overwhelming—which is what happened to me. I’m coming off a tough year.
Because it happens in our subconscious, our conscious mind is where we have to confront and deal with TMS. We have to replace one powerful, unreasonable belief—that something is physically wrong with us—with a new, reasonable belief. That we can confront our subconscious and rewire that belief. That we can be pain-free or almost pain-free.
Someone tweeted me this link to a follow-up interview with John Stossel about Dr. Sarno that was very interesting. I didn’t realize what a risk Stossel took in running the story. And if I saw him somewhere, I would be like so many others and thank him for doing it.
I must say, I know exactly how he feels (in the interview). It seems like it shouldn’t work. But it did for me and it is still working for me. One question I keep coming back to, when it seems like I’m just being extra crazy, is this: What has changed in the structure of our bodies in the last forty years to cause this epidemic of pain? Does that make sense? We keep reading stories about how sedentary we’ve become and yet there is an epidemic of pain and back problems and other syndromes.
Dr. Sarno has a long list of common TMS patterns, but I’ll just share a few here:
- You wake up feeling pretty good, but the pain gets worse as the day goes on; by evening you can barely get around.
- Mornings are the worst; you struggle to get out of bed. A hot shower makes you feel better and you are able to function during the day, feeling better and better.
- You have surgery and it gets better for a while, but the pain comes back or moves to a new location.
For me, the logic of his theories really resonated. Even if there is a reason for pain, such as an injury, our bodies, for the most part, heal when they get injured. It is our minds that sometimes don’t accept that healing. And then use it as an excuse to distract us from something much bigger.
How Do We Deal with TMS?
Dr. Sarno doesn’t tell you that us have to eliminate stress before we can get better, because who can do that? Stress happens when life happens. Sarno lays out the steps for dealing with our pain:
• Repudiate the Structural Diagnosis
• Acknowledge the psychological basis for the pain
• Accept the psychological explanation and all of its ramifications as normal for healthy people in our [high stress] society (brackets my addition)
He even has a list of 12 affirmations to repeat every day.
If it sounds too easy, trust me, it’s not. I read Prescription about once a year. My subconscious is always trying to sneak pain back in. I shouldn’t have put it off this year. Because this time, my subconscious hit me hard. This is also common, as I should have remembered.
I know that some will read this and immediately think, “But my pain…”
And in some cases they will be right. My husband has degenerative osteoarthritis in both hips. His subconscious isn’t causing that pain. Dr. Sarno is not anti-doctor. He is a doctor. There are more resources about TMS available now than when I first “met” Sarno’s theories so many years ago. There’s even a Wikipedia with links to his Senate testimony and a forum.
I thought it was interesting that I tweeted the Stossel story link and immediately got some feedback and that link to the follow-up interview where Stossel says that story is the one he gets the most feedback on—still! (Though I’d like to know if Stossel’s brother ever listened to him.)
It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been beating up on myself. In fact, this blog post is part of the process. By “outing” my subconscious, by admitting that I have TMS and not some mysterious disease, it’s helping my conscious, logical brain take back control. I am better able to deal with my life as it is—joys, warts and all—and get out of my own pain.
Have you, or do you suffer from, chronic pain? What’s worked for you? Would you read a book to feel better? You know I love comments so much that I enter all of them into my monthly drawing for an AnaBanana gift basket ($25 value). I announce a winner the first blog post of the new month (which this is! Wootness! See winner below!).
And the winner is: Pamela Sims!! Congratulations! AnaBanana will be in touch!
P.S. I sometimes wonder if one of the reason I give my characters such a hard time is my own struggles with TMS. One character I gave a particularly hard time to is Doc in Girl Gone Nova. She’s probably living her life somewhere wondering why she has TMS. (Grin)
You can buy Girl Gone Nova in print, digital and audio. 🙂