Is your mind causing your {back} pain?

The body/mind connection
The body and mind are connected

Did you know that physical conditions, discomfort and pain can be linked to your emotional state?

Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself.  If you’ve ever gone through extended periods of emotional/mental stress or anxiety you may have noticed your digestion being affected (e.g. IBS) or you suffered tension headaches or migraines, or even back pain.

Or think of a time you were nervous – before a job interview or giving a presentation for example (or in my case my recent first drive through Southampton in rush hour!).  Chances are you felt a tightening of the muscles, a fluttering in your stomach, you sweated more than usual and perhaps fell over your words a little.

Just a couple of examples of how our emotions affect us tangibly and physically.

Yogis have long known that the mind and body are interconnected as one.  But so often our {medical} culture sees the mind and emotions as separate entities.

One example is back pain.

Modern medicine can’t always offer much help here. In the great majority of cases there is nothing structurally wrong with the back – but the pain or discomfort is very real for the sufferer. You might get a few physio appointments and then months or years on painkillers.

You’ll be very lucky if your GP looks into your emotions and how they may be affecting your back.

A different approach to understanding pain

I’ve recently read a very interesting book called “Healing Back Pain” by John E Sarno, MD.

He asserts that the vast majority of back pain (as well as neck and limb pain) is caused by a condition called Tension Myositis Syndrome (or TMS).

He says that in the vast majority of cases, physically the pain is caused by lack of oxygen in muscles – not underlying structural problems with the back.

But, and here’s where it gets really interesting, the true underlying cause of this pain, he asserts, is the unconscious mind manifesting pain in the body to prevent us from looking at and dealing with repressed emotional issues – particularly fear, anger and anxiety.

Put simply: if your unconscious mind makes you cope daily with physical pain then you won’t have the mental energy to deal with the emotional pain and so it stays pushed under and unrecognised and undealt with.

The mind has decided it’s more painful to deal with emotions that it is with physical pain so it creates the physical pain as a decoy.

Deep  – and maybe controversial – stuff!

The inseparable mind and body connection

Now, I am in no way saying that if pain is being caused by emotions that your pain is all in mind – and neither is Dr Sarno.

Far from it. Dr Sarno’s research endorses the fact that the physical pain is very real. The body is having a physical response through the nervous system which leads to muscular tenderness, discomfort and pain.

This approach is simply recognising that the mind and the body cannot be separated. What affects the body affects the mind. And what affects the mind, affects the body.

While this approach is not accepted by mainstream medicine, Dr Sarno has successfully treated over 10,000 patients to release them from the agony of pain – particularly back pain – without surgery, drugs, physical therapy or exercise.

So, could your back pain or muscular tenderness be a sign, not of a physical issue, but of your mind trying to repress some kind of emotional issue such as long-repressed fear, anger or frustration?*

How I’ve experienced this connection

I’ll share with you some of my experience of the connection between body and mind.

I cracked / bruised my coccyx when I was 12. The base of the spine in yoga relates to our fundamental sense of security. Yep, I experienced many years of feeling insecure and fearful. A physical issue affecting the mind/emotions.

I suffered with IBS through many years of my 30s. The digestive system area relates to our dynamism and self-worth in yoga. Low self-confidence had been an issue with me through my 20s and early 30s.  A mental/emotional issue affecting the body physically.

I’ve always talked very quickly and used to get a lot of sore throats and colds – looking back, for many years, because of the above issues, I often held back and didn’t feel confident in expressing my opinions. Again, a mental/emotional issue affecting the body physically.

Practitioners of yoga have long understood this fundamental connection between the emotions, the mind and the body and the feedback loop they give each other.

The state of the mind affects the body.  The state of the body affects the mind.

Over to you

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing chronic physical discomfort or pain, I encourage you to look a little deeper – with honesty, patience and without judgement.

Are there emotional issues in your life now, or from years gone by, which could be playing a role in this? Is unrecognised emotional pain manifesting as a physical condition?

So, I invite you to be brave and honest with yourself.

Take a look at the table below which lists some common physical issues – and suggests some of the emotional issues which could be behind them.

Do any of these ring true with you?  I invite you to try some of the yoga practices listed to gently work through the emotional pain.

Yoga can bring deep healing to our body, mind, spirit and soul. With time, honesty, awareness and patience we can heal the wounds we have experienced through life.

Physical difficulties Corresponding emotional / mental issues Try to bring balance with:
Issues with the feet, knees and lower back (including sciatica) or lower digestive tract. Fear, lack of security, financial issues. Mountain and Tree pose can help us to feel grounded.As can simple exercises such as stamping our feet, resting, eating and sleeping.
Bladder, kidney issues, sexual problems.
Hip pain & sacro-iliac issues.
Feeling powerless, depressed, blocked creativity, insensitive to others. Yoga poses such as Butterfly and movements which focus on the pelvis can help.
IBS, blood sugar problems, diabetes and eating disorders.
Chronic fatigue.Mid-back (lumbar/thoracic) discomfort / pain
Low self-confidence; self-critical, angry with ourselves and over-sensitive to perceived criticisms. We lack the energy to put ideas into practice and are overcome by inertia.  We can feel a victim and lack the willpower to change our circumstances or attitudes. Overcome our inertia and find the fire in our belly!Yoga postures which focus on twisting the torso such as rotated Triangles or seated spinal twists can help as can Pranayama techniques such as the Breath of Fire.
Asthma, heart problems, pneumonia and upper respiratory tract issues.
Upper back problems.
Emotional trauma can lead to the heart centre closing down, as we try to protect ourselves.Feeling heavy, lacking in joy, possessive, jealous and clinging.Grief. Lack of emotional fulfilment. Breathing exercises can help to bring the heart energy into balance, as can the simple act of touch.Yoga postures such as Cobra and the Fish which open our heart centre can be beneficial. As can meditation.
Speech complaints, eating disorders, stress.
Thyroid troubles.Throat problems.Neck and shoulder pain.
Feeling we cannot communicate our needs and inner feelings. We may be timid and put a brave face on things.Or we may talk too much, not listen to others and indulge in gossip. Voice toning exercises and chanting mantras can help to bring balance and healing as can Brahmari breathing.Yoga postures such as Shoulder Stand, Bridge and the Lion can help.Periods of silence and meditation can help to calm over activity.
Vision problems, headaches, migraines, and dizziness, sinusitis, memory problems and insomnia. Lacking discipline and imagination.We may have a poor memory, communicate poorly and fail to understand subtleties.Or we may be dogmatic, authoritarian, over-intellectual and rational and not trust our intuition. Focus on stilling the mind.We can meditate or use yoga techniques such as candle-gazing.Yoga postures such as Downward-facing Dog or the Plough can help us to bring attention to this area.

{*Of course, any pain, discomfort or health condition should be checked out with your GP first. Where no physiological cause for the pain /discomfort can be found (such as non-specific lower back pain), that’s the time perhaps to delve a little deeper into our minds.}


What Next?

If you’d like to explore your yoga practice in more depth then consider a 1-2-1 with me –  yoga tailored to your needs to enable you to practise at home with confidence and safety.

My next Saturday morning workshop is “Happier Back: Healthier You” on March 14th 2015.  Find out more and book your place.

I teach six public classes a week as well as offering private 1-2-1 tuition, with a programme of workshops to come in 2015. Check out my yoga class timetable to find out more and make a booking enquiry.

{Photo credit: PraveenbenK / Foter / CC BY}

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