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….

You still have life (despite Covid-19).

Two of my neighbours died this week, on the street where I spent my childhood. Both deaths were unrelated to coronavirus. I used to babysit their lovely children, and I only have happy memories of both men. I feel so very sorry for their families. It is, as the Guardian newspaper termed, ‘grief upon grief‘, where people around the world are being denied the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones, and friends and neighbours are unable to show their support by physically coming together to support a family.

It got me thinking: life can be short. Nothing can prepare you for the death of a loved one. You never know when your time is up. I speak from experience. I lost my dad when I was 14, and my mum the day after my 37th birthday. I lost my sister when I was 41. None of these people were what you would call ‘old’ when they died.

So, no matter what you have lost during this Covid-19 pandemic, you have not lost life. You have not lost love and you are still breathing the same air – only right now it’s cleaner.

I’m sorry if you have lost:
– Your gym classes
– Your weekly coffee morning
– Your monthly visit to the hairdressers
– Your holiday

But that’s all temporary, and it’s not a really a ‘loss’ in the real sense of the word.

I’m really sorry if you have lost:
– The date of a scheduled operation
– Your chance to sit exams you have worked damned hard studying for
– Your job
– Your marriage

However, chances are you still have a roof over your head, and you’re going to be OK – even if it may take time to get back on track financially.

What do you still have is LIFE! Life is precious. Appreciate every day that you wake, and everyone you love and who loves you back. Tell them. Make sure they know you love them. You lose that opportunity when they are gone. Heal old wounds, get back in touch with those who hold a special place in your heart, even though they did X,Y,Z to you X years ago. Let it go.

You will get through this, and if you live life consciously I’d go so far as to say that you’ll come out of this stronger and with so much more gratitude for the things you took for granted before this started. And we are all guilty of taking things for granted; assuming he/she will be there the next time we wake or come home from work, assuming our children will stay healthy just because they are young, assuming everything will be fine if we keep working, paying the bills and putting food on the table.

So be thankful for your life and the life of those you love. Appreciate them and use this time to support them and let them know you are always there for them, even though you are physically separated – for now. Life will return when it’s ready, and then we’ll be complaining about the next thing! Don’t bother – it’s a waste of your time and energy. Focus on what really matters.

Take care of yourself and those around you. Make this time count, for you’ll be back to that commute you always hated before you know it.