How to write your way out of chronic pain

What is journaling?

There are many forms of journaling, but the one I found the most effective in dealing with my own chronic pain was ‘therapeutic journaling’.

Therapeutic journaling is a simple and effective way of releasing the pressure valve on our own internal pressure cooker – which, for sufferers of chronic pain, is often close to bursting, since they are the most likely to repress their emotions so as not to cause a fuss or upset anyone. They are often people pleasers, goodists, stoics and perfectionists, making it harder for them to express the silent rage, resentment, distress, pain, frustration, fear or worry they are experiencing. They would prefer to be the sounding board for another person’s worries than ‘burden’ another with their own.

This is why therapeutic journaling can be such an effective outlet for their unexpressed thoughts and emotions. It allows them to free themselves of pent up emotion, see an issue objectively and gain a sense of perspective.

Put simply, therapeutic journaling involves writing down all your thoughts and feelings without censorship, judgement or the fear of anyone else reading your words. It’s an honest outpouring of emotions.

Your journaling time is private and is your opportunity to let it all out. No holds barred. You can be as angry, hurt or upset as you wish. Use foul language if it helps and don’t even think about spelling errors or grammatical correctness (this can be somewhat challenging to the ‘Type T’ personality).

It can help to imagine yourself as a 5-year-old having an enormous tantrum. Use phrases like ‘I feel angry/sad/hurt/mad because……….’ Don’t hold back and don’t be frightened or ashamed of what comes up.

Write, offload, then delete, throw away or burn. It will feel liberating. Any anger, resentment or shame you feel will lighten and the pressure will release. You will often physically sense the tension leaving your body.

How does journaling help?

Creating an awareness of your thoughts, good or bad, separates you from them. When you can detach yourself from your thoughts you are able to look at them in a more objective manner and gain a different, more positive, perspective on them.

Scientifically proven to do you good..

Clinical studies have shown that journaling can:

  • Reduce pain
  • Allow healthier emotional reactions
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Improve sleep quality and duration
  • Reduce symptoms of depression
  • Reduce stress reactions in relation to a traumatic event
  • Reduce and regulate heart rate

Could journaling be upsetting?

If you have experienced particularly traumatic events in your life, you may initially find journaling too direct or upsetting. This is not to say that journaling should be avoided, rather that other strategies or treatments may be necessary first in order for you to reach the point of feeling safe to journal. Please do seek help from a professional counsellor or therapist if you feel this would be beneficial.

Getting started

Find a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed. First thing in the morning, when others are still asleep, or not requiring you attention, is a good time to write. Take a few deep, calming breaths and make sure you have something comfortable to sit on. Don’t overthink things, and don’t plan what you will write.

Choose your preferred style (you can alternate depending on your needs):

1)      Unsent letters to people who have upset you (past or present). This has two possible benefits: you get to tell the person what you think of them without fearing their reaction, and the act of forgiveness is very healing. Of course, you can always just be bold and tell them to their face! Realistically though, good, kind, conflict-avoiding people pleasers often find this very hard to do.

2)      Exploring emotions in the here and now, and gently inquiring into the thoughts that led to those emotions. Was it really the spilt milk on the floor that upset you, or was it the many small but challenging events leading up to that minor incident that resulted in your angry outburst?

3)      Exploring a traumatic or upsetting event in the past and writing to shed light on how this is bringing up emotions in the present.

Any of the above can take more than one attempt, in order to work through the layers of emotion we hold onto and repress – often likened to the layers of an onion. The goal is to be able to put these thoughts into perspective, reframe them and move on. Please don’t attempt to move onto the next stages before first really allowing yourself to feel the feelings and express them fully, without judgement or criticism. Be a passive observer of your thoughts.

The following guide, written by Georgie Oldfield, founder of SIRPA (https://www.sirpa.org/) in the UK, contains some really useful information on journaling, including the helpfulness of visualization techniques at the end of your journaling, and expressing gratitude for what is going well in your life https://www.sirpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/7-Tips-for-successful-Therapeutic-Journaling.pdf. Georgie has also written a very helpful eBook called ‘Journaling for Health’ https://www.sirpa.org/product/journaling-for-health-ebook/

Sometimes, you may feel the need to search around a little when you begin to write, so try asking yourself the following to help get things going: Am I annoyed, upset, angry, frustrated or disappointed about anything or with anyone?

How long should I write?

How long is a piece of string? Don’t overdo it (journaling can sometimes feel a little emotionally draining), but allow yourself sufficient time to release the thoughts and associated tension you’re holding onto. Nicole Sachs, creator of JournalSpeak™, recommends 20 minutes of journaling, followed by 10 minutes of meditation. This could be in the form of a relaxing guided meditation, or a silent meditation where you observe the thoughts and feelings that arise from the journaling. Allow them to wash over you without judgment or attachment.

It can also be helpful to ask yourself ‘what have I learned?’, ‘has anything good come of this?’ or ‘how can I reframe this?’

Reframing means changing your perspective on a given situation to give it a more positive or beneficial meaning to you.

Then destroy your writing! Rip it up, burn it, delete it.

As Nicole Sachs (https://www.thecureforchronicpain.com/) says ‘Repressed emotions are only powerful in creating pain if they don’t have a voice. Nobody needs to hear this voice but you’.

(I hope journaling will help you, as it did me. This is no longer a daily practice for me, but I find it useful as one of my tools to occasionally return to if I feel any symptoms returning).

The problem with TMS..

..is that it can be a (bleep!!****) to shift! Here’s what got me thinking:

I just got back from a 12k run and now I’m scared to bend down and take my shoes off….what the hell?! I had to have a word with myself: “You have just comfortably run 12k on dirt tracks, grass and road. You can certainly bend down to take your shoes without experiencing pain”.

So, what did I do? I bent down in the most relaxed way I possibly could, (it still twinged a little) took off my shoes, then bent down 5 more times more confidently just to tell my brain it was OK! And it was.

I cannot possibly do justice to the work of physician and TMS rock star Dr John Sarno without quoting him directly. I hate to stumble over my words when there are important messages to share:

..psychological stress occurs from a negative perception of events. when we think we want some specific thing – but in our judgement – we got something else, or nothing at all, we become stressed.

Tension is the body’s physical response to that stress. Stress is perceived within the mind, and tension is real within the body. TMS is a real physical mindbody effect that begins as a perception within, and permeates the corporeal body as crippling pain, illness and fatigue (from the book ‘Dr John Sarno’s Top 10 Healing Discoveries’ by Steve Ozanich).

Dr. Sarno contended that you don’t always have to eliminate the tension to heal, but it certainly helps if you can. The idea in tension reduction is to change the perception of the need to fight or flee to one of surrendering, and the body will not react as strongly (from the same book).

We hold fear, anger, sorrow and resentment in our bodies to protect ourselves from the pain of really experiencing the full brunt of the pain those emotions cause us, and to maintain the persona – to show that, outwardly, everything is going well in our lives. The problem is that those feelings are held in the body as unpleasant physical sensations unless we deal with them. Many of these thoughts threaten our ego and we’re too concerned with how others perceive us, so we push those feelings downwards and inwards.

Most people see TMS as a weakness, but it isn’t. Strong, kind, generous, thoughtful and selfless people are classic TMS sufferers. They hide their emotions for the sake of others, constantly putting their own needs on the back burner. They don’t want to accept or recognise that these perpetual acts of pleasing others and not themselves is building resentment within them – “No, I’m not a mean and angry person! I’m perfectly happy to serve others……..my needs are unimportant…….it’s all fine”. The TMS protective mechanism acts as a ‘crutch that keeps the person walking, but crippled’ (Steve Ozanich).

Pain is the mind’s way of telling us we have unmet needs and unresolved emotions. Fear of facing these is the great motivator for the cycle to continue. Running from it feeds it, keeping it alive, allowing it to manifests in various physical and psychological forms.

The only thing that satisfies the hunger of fear is surrender – to who you are, to what already is, to Truth (Steve Ozanich).

This is my lesson to you, and to me. Love, accept and forgive yourself, and the rest will follow xx

Why it’s good to ‘switch it up ‘

I realised that I’m a real creature of habit – aren’t we all to a degree? I have the same salad almost every day, I do the same type of run several times a week and I stay with the same yoga classes each week. Essentially, I keep it ‘safe’. The exact same rituals may not apply to you, but we probably share a habit of keeping life boxed up fairly neatly, not straying too far from our comfort zones.

My back pain from TMS has not gone away yet, although I have seen improvements that I’m feeling really positive about. I realised I was avoiding certain movements out of fear – fear that they would hurt if I did them, or that I wouldn’t be able to do them at all.

So, today I decided to switch it up a little! OK, I didn’t suddenly take up rhythmic gymnastics (I much prefer the ‘proper’ stuff without the ribbons and hoops!) BUT I did try bridge pose and wheel posa in yoga! I got my bridge up, and even though it wasn’t beautiful engineering and you couldn’t have got much weight across it, it did go up!

And yesterday I went on a fast (relatively speaking!) 5k run instead of my usual slower 10k run. And, OK, it wasn’t as fast as I used to do it, but it was still better than I HAD been doing it, so I was happy!

And what happened as a result of this ‘switching things up’? I realised that there is nothing I can’t at least try to do, and that trying it is not going to kill me or make anything worse. And, that the only way to really rid myself of the fear is to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. In the words of Dr John Sarno, what I have going on in my back is a ‘normal abnormality’ (mainly disc generation, and a suspect diagnosis of a ‘pinched’ nerve – pinched for as long as it has been I’d have lost sensation to my legs by now!)

I’m also trying visualization techniques, which are proven to help with pain relief. Essentially I visualize a beautiful, strong and healthy spine and moving however I want with ease. I even talk to my spine sometimes (not out loud, I wouldn’t want to draw unwanted attention!).

This from the website Pathways: (https://www.pathways.health/visualization-for-pain-relief-management-the-ultimate-guide/ A compelling example of visualizations being used to relieve pain is from the example of psychiatrist turned pain specialist, Dr Michael Moskowitz:   Dr Moskowitz suffered a serious accident when water-skiing. The severe injuries left with battling with crippling pain that dominated his life for 13 years. When all conventional methods of treatment had failed, he began researching the discovery that the brain is neuroplastic (it’s always changing & adapting) and seeing how this might relate to him.   He realized that many of the areas in the brain that fire in chronic pain also process thoughts, sensations, images, memories, movements, emotions, and beliefs – when they’re not processing pain, that is. He thought that if he could practice visualizing pain relief when pain strikes, that will help him ‘reclaim’ the areas of the brain that get ‘hijacked’.   He started noticing a reduction in pain within a few weeks. Within a few months he had his first pain free periods. Within a year he was almost always pain free.   

So, please, if you’re suffering from what you feel is chronic pain (pain that you have experienced beyond the body’s normal healing period of 12 weeks) and, like I was feeling before I discovered the work of Dr Sarno, you are pretty fed up – even desperate – just open your mind to the idea that your pain could be a result of your emotions, even if you really don’t think it’s possible. It beats jumping right into surgery and regretting it, doesn’t it?

I’m here to help if you’re at all curious 🙂

On a final note, my sister said I should post a photo of myself as ‘people’ would want to know what I look like. So, people, this is me, in the middle of my first ever ultra run last year. That was one of the best days of my life 🙂


Some of the dos and don’ts from Healing Back Pain by Dr John Sarno, published in 1991: