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….

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:

Healing from within

I am always studying the fascinating mind body connection and how past trauma and current day-to-day stress can manifest itself in the body, if not expressed, and lead to chronic pain. I’ve been doing a few exercises on myself and it’s incredible how many ‘aha!’ moments I’m having.

I will be talking much more about the mind body connection and adding some really useful and insightful information to help coach clients to better health. Watch this space! I already have two clients lined up and can’t wait to get started.

In other news, I can finally talk properly after losing my voice for several days! I had been travelling a lot, talking much more than is usual for a country mouse and my immunity was compromised. I ended up with a stinky cold for almost a week. I couldn’t even remember the last time I was ill, so this time I just told myself to accept it, rest and take care of myself and let my immune system do its work. It meant I couldn’t exercise for 7 days (and nobody wants to be around me when this happens!), but it did mean I had plenty of time to read, research and be kind to myself. It worked, and was just what I needed.

This morning I ran and felt great! I even had my son with me for the second lap, so we had a little bonding time. This time together becomes rare during the teenage years, so I’ll take any positive moment and treasure it!

Back to work now. Wishing you a wonderful, positive day doing at least one thing that you love, just for you.