Understand TMS and why the mind affects the body
Knowledge is the foundation of all TMS healing is achieved from a deep understanding of the relationship between the brain and the body. Recognising that we are emotional beings and understanding that our emotions can create our physical pain is the basis of all mind-body medicine.
Keep an open mind
All I ask is that you go into this discovery with an open heart and open mind and be willing to hear about a different way of healing than you might be used to. The mind-body approach is quite different from the typical medical/pharmaceutical model that focuses on symptomatic relief with medicines and surgeries, rather than treating the root causes of our discomfort. You might find it surprising that I'm not going to recommend specific treatments or physical exercises to soothe your suffering, but just be curious enough to hear me out, I promise you it will be worth it.
Please remember that my particular case of chronic back pain is just ONE symptom of TMS, so wherever I refer to that, it's just because that was my experience. Your stress illness symptoms might be something different or even various conditions together...
TMS is an abbreviation of Tension Myositis Syndrome also known as The Mind-body Syndrome, coined by Dr John Sarno in the 70s. Dr Sarno was a specialist in rehabilitation medicine at NYU Medical Center and pioneered the mind-body medicine movement. Dr Sarno was a ground-breaking physician who was fascinated by the growing global epidemic of stress-related conditions and their many manifestations, he developed a method that explains how chronic symptoms can occur in the body and how to treat them without surgery or medication. You will hear a lot about him on this website!
It's important to note that Dr Sarno was in no way saying that chronic pain is in your mind, it's just as real as pain created by an injury, it is just CREATED by the brain and PROJECTED onto the body, regardless of what's triggering and driving the experience of pain.
So what he meant was, there is MORE THAN ONE WAY to experience suffering in the physical body...
Anyone who has ever experienced a tension headache or felt an intense stomach ache before an important event intuitively knows how strong the mind-body connection is. These common physical reactions to stress are pretty well known, so if you already know these things, then you already understand TMS...
Throughout our lives, we learn (or rather, we are taught) to suppress, neglect, reject or ignore our negative emotions, traumatic experiences, anger, stresses and anxieties. Put simply, TMS symptoms are just a result of that built-up emotional tension displaying in the body as physical conditions. When we continue to reject our real feelings, they build up over time.
Imagine your emotions like a river, if that river becomes blocked the water will become stagnant, built-up and jam with even more obstructions. Eventually, the river will become toxic, burst its banks and overflow. The more we address our emotions the steadier the waters become in day-to-day life.
Some common TMS symptoms
TMS symptoms can be VERY varied. For me, TMS took the form of unbearable lower back pain (a very common area for this to show up) which debilitated me for years. I later realised that throughout my life I had also experienced migraines, palpitations, insomnia, anxiety and fatigue as part of my TMS baggage.
There are literally millions of ways that this stress illness can manifest itself in the physical body. Migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), rashes/eczema/psoriasis, neck pain, chronic anxiety, shoulder pain, frozen/stiff muscles, pelvic pain, urination frequency, insomnia, reproductive issues, joint pain, varying vision conditions, muscle weakness, fibromyalgia, fatigue, watering eyes, vertigo, numbness, carpal tunnel, tremors, too many to list here.
Emotional repression can start at a very early age. A large proportion of TMS sufferers have been through some level of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). These early traumas create danger signals in the brain, then later in life when stress occurs these triggers are rekindled and symptoms can emerge. Traumas such as divorce in the family, early parental death, substance abuse, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, bullying, moving home frequently, household dysfunction etc. Anything that could be considered a stressful event for a child that is unable to process those emotions could become a trigger.
Interestingly, it tends to be a certain type of person, or rather a type of personality, that suffers most with chronic symptoms, as a result of unaddressed traumatic life experiences. The hypervigilant, the super empathetic, the highly sensitive and over-protective, the people pleasers and the fierce self-critics. The perfectionists, the high achievers, the validation seekers, the do-gooders, the hyper-vigilant and those that give everything they can but rarely to themselves. Those that do and do and give and give and then burn out. Sound familiar?
Honestly, I think that everyone probably deals with some level of TMS in their lives, just based on the fact that everyone experiences stress and in one way or another and in order to cope, they bottle that stress up somewhere. However, the above personality types typically tend to suffer chronically and often with more than one symptom. They are so adept at making everything seem OK and everyone be OK, that the tensions that bubble beneath are never let out and their raging river of emotion eventually has to burst its banks.
Why TMS exists
What is happening here is simple yet fascinating brain science. It is a result of our brains trying to protect us. Basically put our subconscious seeks to distract us from emotional turmoil by keeping our mind fixated on something else - usually PAIN.
Imagine your brain like a supercomputer, connected to your body with a network of wires via our nervous system. This supercomputer comes with built-in survival software, a defence mechanism which serves as a bodyguard towards threats and danger, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It’s this response that springs into action when we sense a threat and quite literally allows us to run away, fight to the death or freeze in terror.
But our brains are not able to distinguish a physical threat with a psychological threat and so unfortunately for us, this automatic response in the body fires in exactly the same way regardless of whether a perceived danger is actually life-threatening or a complete false alarm.
Sharks & the nervous system
Today, for the most part, we no longer experience the dangers that this defence mechanism was designed for, such as escaping predators, but our bodies respond in the same way if they detect a threat. Whether we are swimming away from a shark or desperately trying to suppress stressful emotional tension.
Thankfully, this human survival software also comes equipped with a unique program for self-healing. We just need to learn how to access it, update it when necessary and give it the occasional reboot.
Fight or flight mode
When our brains are living in a prolonged state of hypervigilance they interpret our stressors as predators that could potentially hurt us and become a melting pot of built-up tension and fear. Our bodies are continually pushed into fight or flight mode literally seizing up and releasing buckets of stress hormones. If we continue to suppress feelings or memories that are too painful to address, our brains will eventually give us an alternative pain to feel, manifesting in a physical form, such as my beloved backache and frequent anxiety. (My theory on why this happens in the back so often is posted here, see what you think). So what was once designed as a protective survival response has now become a serious liability to both our physical and mental health.
Over time as we continue to block our true feelings from being expressed or even acknowledged, our body becomes chronically affected and painful health issues arise.
Like the river whose current becomes obstructed, our emotions that are blocked will become polluted and harmful, as by their very nature emotions are supposed to be experienced, expressed and flow with ease...
Perpetual fear fuels the fire
It's also critically important to mention that our symptoms are only partly created as a distraction from our emotions. I’ve come to learn more recently, that the majority of my ongoing flaring and constant pain was being FUELLED BY THE WORRY and preoccupation around the symptoms themselves.
The fear of the pain always being present, the scary prospect of never fully recovering, the constant vigilance and checking-in as to whether it is better or worse than the day before were perpetuating the fear, fuelling the perceived threat and therefore the symptoms even further. Coupled with the on-and-off wondering whether what I actually had was TMS or not, I was met with a terrifying cocktail of despair mixed with the uncertainty of what to actually believe! An utter shitshow.
If you could convince your mind that these symptoms are not actually dangerous, then it could be the single most important part of eliminating ongoing suffering.
FEAR + DESPAIR + UNCERTAINTY = SUFFERING
A misunderstanding of pain and fear of your body can be a huge burden. You don't trust your body can cope with movement. When we use this type of language ourselves (I often heard this from my chiropractor too - don't move like that, don't bend down etc) we become even more afraid of our physical capabilities. Fear-based beliefs added to already toxic stress hormones play a really important role in our experience of pain, so it's obvious how a vicious cycle can be caused here. When we feel weak, fragile and vulnerable this ABSOLUTELY contributes to our suffering.
Humans are fundamentally STRONG, we are not weak fragile structures. We can trust our bodies to heal and not break them. Instead of spiralling into inactivity and fear, we need to remind ourselves that we are powerful beings and capable of getting better...
This doesn’t have to be a life sentence
Finally, some good news! The principles of how to stop this cycle are relatively straightforward. They take time to properly understand, but this approach works. I’ve gone from being a drugged-up house-bound buckled-over mess who was barely able to walk, to a happy, active yoga addict with NO chronic anxiety or pain at all.
You CAN turn your life around, just like I did.
Where to next?
Building your belief in TMS can be tricky and take time - you are battling against what you have been told & believed your whole life.
Click here to continue to the next section (Believe)