How I Eliminated my Chronic Pain through a Mind-Body Approach

The original bestseller by Dr. Sarno
The TMS Wiki: a useful point of departure for examining Mind Body Syndrome
The book by Dr. Schubiner that really cracked things open for me.
It’s not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a popular book by Suparna Damany and Jack Bellis, though (to my knowledge) not explicitly hypothesizing Mind Body Syndrome as a source of chronic pain from RSI.
The Pain Cycle, via Goughs Solicitors, adapted from research by Cooper, Booker and Spanswick, 2003.
The Coping Cycle, the alternative process to the Pain Cycle. Via Goughs Solicitors, adapted from research by Cooper, Booker and Spanswick, 2003.
  1. Establish awareness and belief: Study TMS / Mind Body Syndrome and develop a core understanding of the emotional / psychological basis for physical symptoms. Come to a place of personal expertise on the subject, using the resource list that I compiled here as a point of departure. In addition to direct perspectives from existing practitioners, expose yourself to success stories from real people. The database of success stories on the TMS Wiki and the podcast from Curable Health are great resources for this.
  2. Build your own case for Mind Body Syndrome: First obtain assurance from a medical doctor that there is nothing actually wrong with your body that might be causing the pain. For me, I had already been through extensive diagnostic testing that affirmed my physical health and left the door open for MBS as a true diagnosis. It took a few months, but I also began paying attention to the emotional / psychological context around my pain flare-ups and was able to develop a robust evidence sheet indicating that my pain really only occurred in specific instances of stressful computer use and other repetitive-activities that I had come to fear. My invitation to you is to start paying close attention to the psychological, emotional, and social context in which your symptoms appear; consider documenting these in a journal.
  3. Reprogram the body to feel safety (instead of fear): The images above detail the basic shift that needs to take place in moving from the pain cycle to the coping cycle. Chronic pain symptoms like my own developed through nerve sensitization to pain from repeatedly exposing myself to a situation I experienced as dangerous. Every time I sat down at the computer over that initial six month period when my symptoms developed, I experienced increasing degrees of both pain and fear that fed into each other in a self-amplifying feedback loop. Over time, this created a learned neural pathway of pain in my hands, wrists, and upper body. Thanks to neuroplasticity, the body is actually capable of reprogramming these neural pathways. For me, this process of reprogramming occurred over a several week period in which I cultivated a deep sense of physical safety while returning directly to the activities I feared the most: computer use, guitar, bike riding, and regular use of my upper body through exercise and kitchen work.
  4. Proceed in the work with “outcome independence:” One important concept is what Alan Gordon refers to as outcome independence: “One of the clearest paths to eliminating your symptoms is to take away the pain’s power by overcoming your preoccupation with it,” shares Gordon. “Easier said than done, right? Shifting to an attitude of outcome independence is a great technique to help achieve that. Outcome independence means your definition of success is independent of a specific outcome.” Outcome independence is important because this work is not linear: in the first month, I experienced a back and forth of pain symptoms that challenged my perception of MBS’s legitimacy — this re-occurrence of symptoms is often what undermines or limits people’s success with the process of reprogramming learned neural pathways. Focus on the actual practice and commitment to the process of healing rather than the timeline of success.
  5. Be aware of symptom migration: One challenge people experience (as I did myself) is a migration of symptoms pertaining to mind body syndrome. In the year since my upper body pain disappeared, I have experienced pain in my jaw and foot arches, as well as varying degrees of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (also considered a Mind Body Syndrome disorder). I am aware that these symptoms are psychosomatic because they present themselves interchangeably and have a strong connection to my emotional state, however I do still experience frustration when they get particularly bad. The key is that I now have a non-catastrophizing relationship to pain: when I do experience pain, I practice reacting with feelings of calm and safety, rather than the fear and danger that sent me into a vicious cycle of pain sensitization. I now know that pain is a part of the human condition, and I am less afraid of it when it happens. Your job is to stay committed to disrupting the pain cycle.
  6. Invest time and resources into mental, emotional, and spiritual health: Mind Body Syndrome demonstrates the powerful influence of mind and emotions on the physical body. Cultivating awareness of this relationship is a first step towards a lifelong journey with psychological and emotional fitness. Exploring Mind Body Syndrome has for me been an opportunity to do the inner work necessary for perceiving the psychological conditions that led to my chronic pain in the first place. The resulting gift has been a much deeper understanding of who I am and how I relate to myself, my community, Earth, and Cosmos.
  7. Bonus Advice: If you are physically able and have access to the outdoors, spend a few hours (or days) in nature, both alone and in community with loved ones. Wilderness therapy is real. If you live in an urban environment, find a park or a botanical garden and cultivate a sense of oneness with nature. Go hug a tree!

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Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

Writer, Educator, and Consultant working in Food, Fermentation, and Regenerative Agriculture. See about.me/MarkjPHL for writing and affiliations.