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).

Could my personality be contributing to my chronic pain?

Almost a year ago, I developed lower back pain. At first I thought I had pulled a muscle ducking under a tree branch while out running with a friend. I took it easy for a few days and the pain seemed to subside. But then it came back, and with a vengeance. It remained with me on and off for a year and was often so severe that I had to hold onto pieces of furniture to support myself when rising from a chair or my bed, or when brushing my teeth.

I’m a runner and, when my pain first appeared, I was training for my first 50km ultra run. Thankfully I was able to complete this, and felt no pain during that special day (this became a very important piece of ‘evidence’ for me to refer back to once I began my healing journey).

Thereafter, the pain became more permanent and, like most people, I followed the traditional medical model of treatment: Xrays, MRIs, osteopaths, chiropractors and physiotherapists, but nobody was able to ‘heal’ me. It was only later on that I realised I was capable of healing myself.

I often left an appointment feeling worse than I’d felt going in. Each practitioner offered me a new nugget of negativity: I was diagnosed with hip arthritis, disc generation, flat back syndrome, lumbar sciatica, convex left inflection, discopathy of L4-L5 and L5-S1 with a trapped nerve and a 9mm pelvic imbalance, meaning that sexy wiggle wasn’t so sexy after all! The MRI showed arthritis in the lumbar region, some swelling at the vertebral endplates and a trapped nerve around L4-L5. It all sounded pretty scary, and I’ll admit to shedding tears in my car on a few occasions. I was advised to stop running by everyone I encountered, including my aerobics teacher at my once-weekly class. For a while, I listened to them. They were the experts after all, weren’t they?

Then I got fed up of not being able to run. After running for twenty years, I felt it had become part of my identity and who I was. It was a form of stress relief, gave me a sense of freedom and empowerment, was my only social activity and made me feel strong and motivated to cope with life’s challenges. Besides I didn’t suffer symptoms whilst I was running, something that should have been a significant clue that the cause wasn’t a physical one.

Acute pain or chronic pain?

The body naturally heals tears, breaks and other musculoskeletal injuries in around 12 weeks or 3 months. After this point, what started as acute pain becomes what is termed ‘chronic pain’. It was frightening for me to identify with this category. I later discovered how fear would fuel the pain fire.

A book that would change my life

After months of desperately searching for someone to ‘fix’ me, feeling frustrated and close to desperation, I came across a podcast that mentioned a book, credited with healing someone of their lower back pain. It was called, Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno, Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and attending physician at the New York University Medical Center. I was filled with hope for the first time in months.

I read the book, and although I didn’t have a ‘book cure’ as some people have claimed to have experienced, Dr Sarno’s words completely resonated with me, and I saw myself on every page.

Dr Sarno explained that the terrible terms I had been diagnosed with were part of the normal ageing process. They were what he termed ‘normal abnormalities’. It shocked me to learn that the spine degenerates from the age of 20 and that if anyone my age (I’m 46) were to have an Xray or MRI they would almost certainly be found to have some form of degeneration in their spine too.

The fact that these ‘normal abnormalities’ could be present in the body without causing any pain was a revelation to me! This discovery became an important part of my journey towards becoming pain free. The second impactful discovery for me was the notion that certain personality traits made it more likely for some people to suffer from chronic pain.

According to Steve Ozanich, in his book ‘The Great Pain Deception’, there is a Type-T personality. The T stands for Tension and is taken from ‘Tension Myositis Syndrome’ (TMS), also known as tension myoneural syndrome or mind body syndrome – the name given by Dr. John Sarno to the numerous psychosomatic (relating to the interaction of mind and body) musculoskeletal and nerve symptoms and conditions, most notably back pain, but also tendonitis, fibromyalgia, plantar fasciitis, coccydynia (pain in the coccyx), gastric conditions, neck and shoulder pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Type-T personality traits

  • Perfectionism – Does every project or task you undertake need to be perfect and do you ignore your own needs and feelings to accomplish a task?
  • Goodism/People-pleasing – Do you put the needs and desires of others before your own? Do you play peacemaker in a dispute and do you keep your thoughts to yourself, even if you disagree strongly with someone?
  • Legalist – Unlike perfectionists who seek to do the right thing, legalists seek to be right. Responsibility and upholding their commitments are common among legalists. Legalists also hold themselves to extremely high standards that can breed feelings of unworthiness and self-hatred.
  • Stoic – Do you find it awkward or difficult to express your emotions? If people saw you express your emotions, do you think they would think of you negatively?
  • Anxiety and Fear – Do you think that if you are honest with people they will reject you? When your family members go somewhere, do you worry that something terrible might happen to them?
  • Low Self-Esteem – Do you feel that other people know more than you or are usually better at things than you are? Do you question your ability to do things?
  • Hostility and Aggression – Do you sometimes overreact to an issue or event or do you place your frustration onto something less severe and less difficult to talk about than an underlying issue? Do you have deep issues you avoid discussing that are associated with fear or shame?
  • Dependency – When making plans do you prefer if other people take the lead? People with this trait often choose careers that have security yet lack any sense of challenge or reward.

Source: TMS Wiki site https://www.tmswiki.org/ppd/TMS_Personality_Traits)

If you can relate to the above character traits, there is a strong chance you are repressing your true feelings, and that the subconscious resentment you have over this will be felt in the body as pain.

This was a turning point for me, as I realised that the pain I was experiencing was merely a very natural way of my body telling me ‘you’re repressing your feelings to please other people and I’m trying to let you know’.

According to the famous 13th century Persian poet Rumi:

For the first time for a very long time I started to ask myself what I was really feeling and what I wasn’t allowing to surface. It was this repression of my emotions that was causing my body to remain in a stressed, over-adrenalized, anxious state.

The brain cannot distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat, and my own unexpressed thoughts, desires and fears were manifesting as chronic pain in my body.

I needed to learn how to turn off this stress response.

Part 2 ‘How to Turn off the Stress Response’ to follow….

Exercising out of love not fear

How many of us listen to music or watch TV when we are exercising? The answer: most of us. We are thinking about what we are hearing or seeing – an external stimulus – and not about the movement and feel of our bodies. The mind and body are disconnected.

Many of us exercise out of fear, rather than love. When we exercise from a place of fear we are exercising to: lose weight, stay in our current dress size, look like the ‘perfect’ being we’ve just seen on Instagram, beat our previous time or distance, keep up with up our perceived competition, brag to our friends or burn off the extra calories we feel guilty about. It may seem to come from a positive place, but it is borne of fear: fear of feeling inadequate and less than those we are comparing ourselves to, or of being rejected by our parents, friends or society.

When we exercise from a place of love, we exercise to: take care of ourselves and boost our mood through ‘happy hormones’ (dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin). When we exercise out of love for ourselves, we lose the fear that keeps us stuck where we are and can ultimately make us sick. Love and fear cannot coexist. When we exercise out of love for ourselves and our bodies, our mind and body are connected. There is no conflict between what the mind is thinking and the body is doing. We are whole and can truly appreciate what our bodies can do for us.

So, the next time you are exercising, try to lose the fear and just ‘be‘ in your body and appreciate what an incredible vessel it is. Exercise out of love for yourself and try to just enjoy it for how it makes you feel and the amazing health benefits it offers you.

And if you are suffering from chronic pain, know that:

the endorphins you are producing are your body’s natural pain reliever

the dopamine you produce helps with your motor system function

the serotonin you produce helps you to sleep better

and the oxytocin you produce helps promote trust and bonding in your relationships

Above all, don’t forget: Your body is not broken. It is strong, and so are you.

People’s opinions and why it’s important to ignore them

Ah, other people’s opinions! How I wish I hadn’t spent so much time listening to them and acting on them. But, it’s only when we start to become self aware and more confident in our own strengths and abilities that we realise why we have valued these opinions so much – because essentially we were looking for someone else to fill our cup. We were looking for someone else to give us self-esteem.

First of all, let’s define what an opinion actually is:

Opinion: a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective.

Subjective: a subject’s personal perspective, feelings, beliefs, desires or discovery, as opposed to those made from an independent, objective, point of view.

Since when was someone else’s perspective on life more important than your own?! Perspective is so individual that it can only ever truly belong to one person. How you see life is unique – seeing it through the eyes of someone else can never make you truly happy.

When you value other people’s opinions over your own, you end up becoming a slave to what other people want. Running around trying to please everyone with everything you do. Never really tuning into what you need.

In time, you start molding yourself to fit the idea of what other people think you ‘should’ be and dismiss your own needs and desire. You stop showing your whole personality. You stop feeling like you can be yourself. And you stop trusting your own judgment because you assume that other people know better!

When you do this you start to live life on other people’s terms and not a life truly authentic to who you are. You can only offer people a shell of who you are, and you deny your partners, friends and family the opportunity to truly know you and how amazing you are. You also deny yourself true happiness.

And then, when they, and their opinions of you, are dead and gone, you will be left wondering why you gave them so much power over you, and why you believed all their stories about you and elevated their perspective on life above your own innate views of the world.

You’ll have lived a life that’s NOT what you wanted or needed or truly desired.

So, how do you tune into your desires, your voice and your truth?

Recognise Judgement for what it is

Let go of the fears about what other people think. Realize that 9 times out of 10, when you’re worried about what other people think – it’s a projection. You’re projecting your own fears and your own internalized self-judgment onto other people. So when we take responsibility for letting go of other people’s judgments we empower ourselves to stop being harsh and judgmental with ourselves too.

Stop feeling embarrassed

We all cock up sometimes! What’s the worst that can happen? You might just make someone smile when you make an idiot of yourself, and you show yourself to be human. Forget waiting until you’re a size 8 before you hit the beach. Who cares really? Just letting go of the fear of embarrassment is so liberating, and I find it a great tool to use on teenagers when you want to get their attention. Holiday karaoke is so empowering, and SO great as you’ll never see those people again, so why not?!

Stop comparing yourself to others

Stop looking at what everyone else is doing. Paddle your own canoe -everyone’s journey is different. No one’s life looks the same, and hurray for that! Why do we so often feel we’ve failed because we’re not doing what someone else is doing and we don’t have what they have?

Set your own goals and don’t be distracted by what other people are doing. They have their own agenda, for their own reasons. Good for them. Their plan is not yours, and it wouldn’t make you happy. In the same way, your plan wouldn’t bring them fulfillment either. That’s how life is and we are richer for it.

Comparing ourselves to others is exhausting and a waste of time. It’s self-imposed torture and like dying in installments when it makes us feel ‘not enough’.

Work on your self-esteem and self-worth

Self-esteem is just that – esteem of the self. No one can give you a ‘bag of self esteem’. It comes from within, once your recognise your own worth and value. You were born enough weren’t you? How did that worth diminish over time? Because you listened to other people’s false beliefs and you accepted them as your own.

One of the best ways to stop caring so much about what other people think is to start feeling really great about yourself outside of what other people think of you. That way you no longer look externally to fill your cup .

Set Boundaries

What do you do when you have toxic people in your life who sap the joy and energy out of you? You protect yourself and you set some boundaries that’s what! If you have people around you who are making your feel less than them, you politely and firmly exit the conversation, and if necessary cease communication. It may seem hard at first, but you owe it to yourself. If someone can’t treat you as you would treat them, you don’t need them in your life.

Whose Life is it anyway?

At the end of the day, this is about YOUR life, and life isn’t a dress rehearsal. You don’t get to do it all over again. You’re the one who will wake up at the end of it and either feel that you’ve lived a life that was fulfilling and authentic, or a life that you regretted.

One of the biggest regrets of the dying (from the book ‘The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware) is:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Ultimately, the only person’s opinion that really matters is your own. You’re the one who has to be happy and satisfied with how you lived your life, so you’re the one who gets to decide.

Stop fearing failure

We all fail. Don’t let this fear, or the fear of what others may think of your failure, get in your way.

Really, there is no such thing as failure. There is only learning and growing.

Listen to your Intuition

What feels right for you? What is your true path? What type of person do you really want to be? And, more importantly, why are you ignoring this voice?!

Tuning into your intuition is an essential piece of letting go of other people’s opinions.

So often, we follow the pack. We’re another lemming throwing itself off a cliff because everyone else is. We do what other people tell us should work because we crave that approval from other people. Or we crave that validation that we’re doing it “right”.

But listen to that voice that says, ‘Wait. This doesn’t feel right’. What’s right for someone else may not be right for you. Your path is unique and different and special. Just like you! Keep that connection to your truth and live a life you’ll remember.

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