A few months ago I had the idea of sending my recovery story to a few different media companies to try to get the word out there about TMS in the UK. I honestly didn't think it would come to anything but much to my surprise Happiful got back to me and yesterday, the Feb 2021 edition came out and landed on my doorstep!
Here's the original article, they edited it a little for the mag, but I don't have that version typed up so I'm sharing this version here for you. You can also subscribe to the App version of their magazine for free, on the Happiful website.
About a year ago, I couldn’t sit up in a chair, I couldn’t walk more than a couple of steps, or even get a good night’s sleep. I was in so much pain 24/7 that my head ached from all the tablets I was taking to numb the pain in my body. The muscles in my back were as hard as rocks, burning hot electric rocks, so tight that they twisted me up like a crooked stick. My mental health dwindled as I faced a life of solitude, constant pain and the isolating depression that came with that.
I had suffered from headaches a lot in my life, but the back pain that jumped into my life with no warning was brand new and it was loud. It started gradually in 2015 and got progressively worse until I couldn’t go a day without serious pain medication and constant rest. It screamed at me like an alarm bell, like a siren spiralling constantly around my mind.
One morning, after a particularly uncomfortable night’s sleep, I woke up in an excruciating back spasm like something had pulled, popped or broken. Unable to stand and in crippling pain, I needed to get to the bathroom but could only crawl along the floor in agony.
I fought with this debilitating condition for around three years, as I was batted between doctors, traumatologists, surgeons, specialists, chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths...you get the idea.
Nothing worked. In fact, every treatment I had - including electrodes, laser treatments and daily steroid injections - made me worse. The only thing that they could find was a herniated disc, which despite looking really scary on MRI, apparently wasn’t bad enough to be causing me that much pain and I was refused surgery or any sort of intervention (thankfully). I was devastated, believing this was going to be my life forever. I ended up in a wheelchair at times and utterly broken inside. I later discovered that herniated discs don’t cause pain, they’re really common and a completely “normal abnormality” found in most people.
As you can imagine, my mental health suffered greatly throughout that time, the more fear I had and the more despair I felt, the worse the symptoms got, which totally makes sense now I understand what was happening to me.
Hear me out, this might sound a little far-fetched at first...
Purely by chance one day I noticed someone posting about their back pain on Facebook, and a friend had commented about a book called “Healing Back Pain” by Dr John Sarno. I was thoroughly sceptical at the time but I was also utterly desperate and willing to try anything. Dr Sarno was a pioneer in his field and spent his career educating patients and practitioners (although none of his peers actually believed his theories at the time) about the mind-body connection.
His theory (which is now proven brain science), was that repressed emotions and unaddressed past traumas can cause our nervous systems to become stuck in a ‘stress response’ mode called fight-or-flight. This is our body’s primitive natural defence mechanism that kicks in to help us flee or fight a predator or threat.
By not addressing my feelings properly and therefore not allowing myself to process traumatic events or threatening scenarios in my life, I was literally toxifying my body with an immense amount of stress. As a result, a number of physical symptoms had shown up throughout my life until my back pain became so bad that I had no choice but to take notice.
Back pain is one of the most common areas for mind-body issues to manifest, so it’s no surprise that back pain is one of the most common complaints in GPs’ surgeries every year. Other common mind-body symptoms are migraines, chronic fatigue, widespread pain often diagnosed as fibromyalgia, gut problems like IBS, skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, pelvic pain, sciatica, and mental health issues such as OCD, depression and anxiety. Collectively, these conditions are called TMS (The Mindbody Syndrome) or just “stress illness”.
I’m not saying all chronic pain is caused by suppressed emotion. Obviously, if you have a tumour, or a broken bone, for example, this is a very different scenario.
Neither am I saying that my pain was all in my head. The symptoms were very real, and very physical and felt exactly the same as an injury or tissue damage of some kind. But my pain was not created by my physical body, it was created by my brain and was exacerbated by my nervous system being on constant high alert and completely out-of-whack.
My emotional world was like a big simmering pot of water. The pot has a limited capacity, but the more emotion and turmoil we suppress, the more the pot fills and boils. At some point, if the volume in the pot isn’t reduced, it’s going to overflow and cause problems.
Our mind and our body are the same things, not separate entities. When we’re nervous, our palms sweat and our tummy aches. After a long stressful day at work, our heads hurt, our mouths are dry and our bodies feel tense. These are just a few examples of the power of the mind-body connection in our day-to-day lives. So it’s no surprise that the more tension I left unaddressed, the more the symptoms built-up and became chronic.
“The pain is not in your head, but the solution is not in your body” ~ Nicole Sachs LCSW
After reading Sarno’s book, I was convinced that this was what was happening in my body. I fit the description of the typical patient that suffers this way. The people-pleaser and validation seeker, the perfectionist, the one that suppresses their real feelings to suit others, etc.
I went down the rabbit hole of research into Dr Sarno’s work and found a successor of his called Nicole Sachs, based in Delaware USA. She worked with him for years as a Psychotherapist to his patients and designed her own form of expressive writing therapy called JournalSpeak. One of Sarno’s main recovery principles is to address the emotions that you’ve so successfully buried for so long in the form of daily journaling.
I mean the ugly stuff, the hurtful feelings we buried throughout our lives, the truths we hide from others and even ourselves, the horrible things you want to say to people that have wronged you that you’ve swallowed down… it all has to come out. It is pretty? Obviously not. Is it easy? Hell no. Was it worth it? Every single word.
Journaling peeled back all the layers of protection I had built up around myself for years and allowed me to just sit with my real self and heal her. It sounds ridiculous, believe me, I know it does, but this is the real deal. By releasing these emotions, it was teaching me how to really feel. Feel it all, good or bad. Once my nervous system got the memo that I was in fact safe from these ‘perceived threats’ that I’d buried, it settled down. This is simple brain science, not witchcraft.
Getting all the dark stuff out was not quite the magic pill I was hoping for, but it worked better than any pill I had ever taken. I offloaded my innermost turmoil into my journal every day, followed by a soothing meditation to settle down any ruffled feathers I had felt during the journalling.
The recovery timeline is very different for everyone, but after around two months of consistent practice and more learning along the way, I started to have pain-free days...whole days! Then the days turned into weeks...and to cut a long story short - here I am today, completely chronic pain-free, anxiety-free (for the most part!) and no longer living in fear of my body, convinced that something is broken.
Shockingly, I am now grateful for my pain and what it taught me. Since recovering, and with COVID-19 changing my day to day work life significantly, I decided to write my story into an online stress-illness survival guide, to help other people do the same as I did, from home, for free.
When I had recovered enough to restart my life, I decided to fulfil a lifelong dream I had fantasised about for years, I went to India to train to become a yoga teacher. I now teach others in the chronic pain community to overcome the fear of movement and settle their nervous system out of fight-or-flight to propel their recovery forwards, just like I did.
Suppressed emotions and past trauma can also manifest as mental health issues, not just physical pain and conditions. Anxiety and depression are rife in the chronic pain community, another result of unresolved tension. There’s a vast amount of information online about how trauma manifests itself into our mental and physical health, no matter how big or small that trauma may seem. I have plenty of related resources on my website about this too.
If you’d like to read more about my story or find out how I recovered, what I did, the expert podcasts, YouTube channels I follow and the books to read, please check out my website https://mytmsjourney.com for more information.
I became my own medicine and healed myself along with millions of others doing the same. Mindbody medicine is still seen as somewhat controversial, and many people reject it as insulting to their official diagnosis. But it worked for me and might work for you too.
The mind-body approach is becoming more accepted these days. Sadly, Dr Sarno was dismissed by his peers throughout his career and died before he could see his work flourish worldwide.
Many traditional medicine practices are beginning to accept the mind-body approach these days and applying it to their practices. But it seems that many patients are resistant to this type of approach, as it seems dismissive to our physical suffering. But mind-body medicine isn’t telling us our pain isn’t real. It’s just that the genesis of our pain isn’t what we assume it to be.
Since recovering I’ve reinvented my whole life, some people even say I even look different now. I’ve become much more resilient, courageous, honest, and protective of the peace this work has given me. I fully accept myself for exactly who I am these days, something I’ve never been comfortable with in the past at all. I can only wish the same for you. I know this is hard to believe, but keep an open mind and do some research of your own, if you try this approach, and you’re anything like me, you’ll be even more surprised at what you find out about yourself.
Happiful magazine has a free App you can subscribe to the magazine on, check it out, they run some really cool content!
Check out my Recovery Journey Roadmap if you would like more details about exactly how I became pain-free. Check out my YOGA page for more information on what I offer to help the chronic pain community.
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