I’m reading a book right now, Healing Back Pain, by John Sarno, MD. I was introduced to it by our own Paul Miller, who was inspired to write a graduate curriculum around its premise. (Graduate students take note: here I refer to Psychic Horizons’ Mind Mastery class, which made its debut to rave reviews in January of 2023. We’ll offer it again in the not too distant future.)
But back to our story: Sarno’s theory is this: most of humanity holds a level of discordant emotion that’s very intense and which we have collected throughout this (and potentially other) lifetimes. This inner rage, as Sarno calls it, smolders away in the unconscious.
Here is my casual interpretation of why this is so: it’s because we’re alive in human bodies! We possess free will and so we go out and have experiences that work well, or not so well. Afterward, we might do one of two things on a subconscious level: we might collect up and store the experiences that we have successfully resolved in our energetic database, or Akashic record, which is a record of everything we’ve learned throughout multiple lifetimes and with which we are complete. Or, when an experience turns out to be discordant and painful, we might store the story and its emotional debris in our unconscious, then carry it around with us until we have a chance to work out the bits we weren’t able to resolve in the moment. We might think of these discordant emotions as our baggage.
In the meantime, the challenging emotions remain more or less dormant until, for whatever reason, they start making themselves known. One day we get triggered at work, or walking the dog, and here comes old rage, or grief, or whatever it is. Because this is deeply buried stuff, we don’t necessarily know the what and the why of our emotional reaction, rather we might only know that something is happening that makes us feel terrible.
At this point the brain shouts “mayday!” and, in an attempt to distract us from emotion that it interprets as too difficult for us to face, it takes oxygen away from some part of the body. In turn, the lack of oxygen typically causes muscle or nerve pain, but it can also create other physical events like allergic reactions and digestive complaints. Sarno calls this psychosomatic phenomenon TMS, or Tension Myositis Syndrome.
Now our protagonist has low back pain, upper back pain or neck and shoulder pain. Or maybe they have acid reflux or hypertension – you get the idea. Whatever the case, now there’s something to solve or fix, and in the meantime the emotions have calmed because the person is distracted by a health-related project. What’s really interesting is this: if the problem is the result of Tension Myositis Syndrome, once the back pain is resolved another irregularity will often crop up. The neck pain is gone but suddenly there’s acid reflux or migraines to consider and so the distraction goes on.
Which is not to say that all back pain, for example (this applies to other pathologies) is caused by unresolved emotion. For some, their pain is a purely physical problem and not tension-related, but it’s incumbent upon a medical practitioner to determine the proper diagnosis. Once a doctor determines that our protagonist is suffering from TMS, she or he will make recommendations for next steps. This might involve working with a therapist, but most certainly involves acknowledging in some way the emotions that are rising to consciousness. The treatment can involve writing about what’s going on in one’s life and how the patient feels about her or his circumstances. This allows them to acknowledge the emotion and in turn release it, bringing the body to a state of greater balance.
Dr. Sarno has written several books, and I can recommend the two that I have read: Healing Back Pain and The Divided Mind. His work is based on decades of research and treatment of TMS, but his books are intended for lay people. Dr. David Schechter, a former student of Dr. Sarno’s, has written The MindBody Workbook, which is a great complement to Dr. Sarno’s books. His workbook is a 30-day writing program with easy daily prompts that are designed to guide patients through the process of exploring the emotions around their TMS diagnosis. The day I started the workbook I found that writing some short introductory comments reduced my anxiety and physical pain by at least 50%.
A gentle disclaimer: books like Dr. Sarno’s and Dr. Schechter’s, not to mention this article, are never a substitute for proper evaluation and diagnosis of a physical challenge!
Happy reading, happy summer and thanks for reading our newsletter!
Rt. Rev. Katie Heldman is the Co-Director of Psychic Horizons Center, and wrote this article for the July 24th, 2023 eNews.