This article is all about the connection between mind, body and subsequently pain. It’s very much a reflection and my professional and personal journey over the last 17 years as a sports therapist. Working on peoples bodies to bring them out of pain has given me a unique insight into the very real connection between our mind and body.
If you’re sceptical then please do your best to read on. I used to be sceptical too. This is written by someone who comes from a very scientific background. These days I consider what I do more of an art form (not wishing to sound overly grand) but I still approach things with a very scientific approach.
With this article I’m attempting to present to you my journey of understanding of the mind body connection so you benefit from my experience to help you reduce pain, reduce the risk of getting into pain or improve your wellbeing.
There is a growing body of evidence out there. Some of which I’m going to present here. There is also an increasing openness to the mind body connection as mental health becomes less stigmatised and talk of the mind body connection enters the main stream.
Can Emotions Really Be Stored In The Body?
When I first qualified as a Sports Therapist back in 2004 I was determined to be the best therapist I could be. It was a second attempt at a career. My first in IT hadn’t gone well! Based out of my front room in Swindon I buried my head in text books.
I was fascinated to read about injuries, concepts and detailed biomechanics. I was always intrigued when the physiotherapy text books kept mentioning psychosocial factors can be a component in the pain people felt.
In other words our psychological state, history, social standing or situation can be implicated in the pain that we feel. That’s what all the text books saying. But nothing of how, why or what to do about it.
As I expanded my practical knowledge and gained experience it kept coming up. Psychological factors affecting injuries. It was there to read but I didn’t have the bravery or the understanding to connect the mind with the body work that I was doing.
It wasn’t until I met Douglas Heel back in 2011 I started to get it. One of Doug’s many catchphrases is ‘whatever is in the mind is in the body.’ The penny dropped. Ever since that moment I have expanded my emotional repertoire to be more in tune with how, why and where emotions can be stored within the body and how to help people work through them.
I’ll have a go at explain how I do it. Every emotion has a physical expression or posture. This is backed up by the fact that now computers can now read our emotions. It sounds a bit scary and a bit 1984 for any Orwell fans but I guess it’s just an extension of us reading each other’s body language.
The more time we spend in a particular emotion, and consequently posture, our muscles adapt to keep us there. Our bodies think we want to be there all the time and so makes changes to make it ‘easier’ to keep us there. The human body is great at adapting.
This then makes it harder to change our posture and conversely to change our mood. Our mood affects our posture and our posture affects our mood. Take the example of this image I found by typing anxious person. She does look anxious. There are certain muscles that will bring her into this position.
The pectorals in the chest will be short and tight as she tries to hide the anxiety that she hides within. The slump or closing of her pelvis will shorten and tighten her hip flexors. These are the obvious ones. How everyone holds emotion within their body is entirely unique, but some muscles are more likely culprits than others.
So how do I know that muscles such as these hold emotions? Because I’ve seen it. As you release these muscles physically people can start to feel the associated emotion. Happiness, sadness, anxiety, depression, anger. Or they may have a flash back to a particular memory or something a little more vague. A feeling or a reminder at the edge of recollection.
These don’t occur as a result of suggestion on my part. It’s more a case of ‘oh that muscle release is making me feel anxious’ or ‘that muscle release is making me feel sad.’ Often tears will come.
Whilst talking about making clients cry I feel I should point out that these are invariably positive experiences! They are, if you like, emotional releases. Enabling people to move on from these emotions they didn’t realised were ‘trapped’ inside them.
Of course not everyone gets an emotional release. It has to be the right person, right time, right therapist and right technique. Some techniques or muscles are more likely to get an emotional response. I find fascial release emotionally liberates people more than muscle work.
I’d say about 20% of clients get a specific emotional release from the work we do. But that’s not to say that in 80% there is no emotional component of their condition. We just weren’t able to specifically tap into it.
Practical Examples Of The Mind Body Connection
It’s important to point out of course I’m no psychologist. Interested yes. Professional no. You don’t hear the expression amateur psychologist for a reason! We are simply releasing the physical representation of the emotion – as much as that person is ready to let go of on any given day.
We don’t have to specifically resolve the emotional aspect. We simply have to respect that it’s there. If we can trace injuries and conditions to specific life events it frees us from concern about their being a physical or mechanical cause. There doesn’t have to a connection. Sometimes there just isn’t one. But it’s important to consider if there is one.
I’ll use examples to give greater clarity. I could give 300 but here’s just 3 succinct ones:
- A friend whose hamstring pain started around the time that she started a round of IVF for their much yearned for child. (It ended happily, her hamstring is fine and they have a lovely daughter!)
- A lady who cried tears of happiness as she had an image of her brother who tragically died too soon looking down at her and saying it was ok – a release of grief.
- A lady who came to us with what she thought was a knee problem that we traced back to her body closing down after a sexual assault.
I’d like to go into more detail on this last one as this might sound very scary! It’s not that we’re re-traumatising people here. Very much the opposite. We’re releasing the physical representation of the trauma. As much as it’s ready to let go. When we started it was very clear that I needed to keep the session based solely on the physical. I’m always happy to do this.
Because of the success of the physical release at the first session she trusted me. She shared what she hadn’t shared with anyone since the attack. It was good to know. I knew what I was dealing with. By working together on a permission based approach we were able to start to bring her out of disassociation by releasing the body. She’s since been able to start therapy for the deeper trauma work and her knee is all but pain free.
That was a full spectrum of examples. If you have, or have had, bouts of pain that have come out of the blue think back. What was going in in life at the time? Anything especially stressful? It commonly happens during periods of high stress or less frequently after periods of high stress. It can be as if the body has forgotten how to relax. A bit like when you get a cold as soon as you finish work for Christmas having been rushing around (and maybe drinking) too much to get everything ready for Christmas.
Yours may not be as obvious as the examples above. We may not be able to see any link at all. But it’s important to have the conversation to understand how much of your condition dates back to emotions from the past.
Oh, and if you’ve just broken your leg, it’s probably just the leg that’s the problem! It can be entirely physical. But… I have seen many cases where people have done a spectacular injury when they’d had row with the wife or husband, or they weren’t paying attention to what they were doing as they were distracted by worrying about the kids or something at work.
My favourite example of this was a back problem which we traced back to an ankle break that had happened years before. When we probed deeper it was an ankle break that occurred playing football with a hangover while feeling bad after doing the walk of shame back from a night out!
What Does The Pain Science Say?
The mind body connection is also backed up in the latest thoughts from the leading pain scientists around the globe. My two favourite ones are: from (who sadly is no longer with us) and :
“Pain is an opinion on the organisms state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to injury” – Louis Gifford
“Pain is an unpleasant conscious experience that emerges from the brain when the sum of all the available information suggests that you need to protect a particular part of your body” – Dr. Lorimer Moseley
I also really like this rather poetic piece of prose which I think captures the mind body connection beautifully:
“You can’t outrun your pain. You are strong enough to face whatever is in front of you. Medicating your pain will only bring more pain. The only genuine shortcut life offers is facing your feelings. They won’t kill you. Feelings are your soul’s way of communicating. Pain is trying to teach you something, and if you don’t listen now, it will speak louder and louder until it is heard” – From Never Broken by Jewel.
In short we need to face up to what’s hurting us whether that be physical, emotional or both. We all tend to try to avoid dealing with things and distract ourselves rather than grow through what we fear to face up to.
This is why I wrote a blog about some common ways we avoid mindfulness. We’re all guilty of it. Sometimes we do really need to give things time and distract ourselves from things that are too scary to face up to. But when we get stuck in these mental and physical states this is when we get trapped in pain.
Research is suggesting that mindfulness has a role to play in helping people come out of long standing pain conditions. I think the key point from this research is that it is part of an overall package. For me mindfulness is another way of saying living in the moment.
When we live in the moment our anxiety about the future simply isn’t there. We are entirely focused on what we are doing. The longer and more often we can stay in this state the sooner our physical symptoms of anxiety disappear as I wrote about in our anxiety article.
Many things can be done mindfully. If you want some inspiration on what and how here’s another link to our mindfulness suggestions. If it doesn’t help your pain at least it will help your wellbeing!
Is There Any Scientific Evidence For The Pain Mind Body Connection?
The daddy of the mind body connection is Dr John Sarno. His body of work was mostly conducted in the 1970’s and 80’s when many considered him a quack in the era that if it wasn’t treatable using a pill then medicine wasn’t interested.
Personally I think his work is genius and I urge anyone struggling with long standing pain conditions to read his seminal book The Mind Body Prescription or watch the documentary of his work All The Rage. He suggests that if we accept the involvement of our mind in the pain we feel that frees us up from the fear of what is mechanically wrong with us and our pain starts to disappear.
I have seen evidence of this happening time and time again. I use this day to day with my clients. If during the session at the clinic we can change someone’s experience of pain who thought their pain was down to say arthritis. They start to believe, as I do, that not all their pain was down to the wear and tear in their joints.
If we can start to change that belief we change the conscious and sub-conscious guarding movement pattern and the change in pain becomes more permanent and confidence grows. We have a more stable platform on which to build.
This is backed up by research Dr John Sarno cites in his book. The imaging studies (x-ray and MRI) of 2000 people with agonising back pain. All the findings were collated across this group of people. 2000 people with no back pain were also scanned. The findings? The same wear and tear conditions across both groups.
Suggestive that pain is more than what is going on mechanically. I wholeheartedly agree. John Sarno would have us all believe that the pain is suppressed rage. I find that view too generic. My more moderated view based on what I have seen over the course of my career is that ‘trapped’ emotions can make us more sensitised to what is going on in our bodies and increase our sensitivity to pain.
There’s some more modern research looking into the Neurological Evidence of Mind-Body connection which is interesting reading. Another more wide ranging piece of research adds weight to the multi-faceted approach to pain I discussed earlier. In short it’s findings include:
- Mind-body approaches that include some combination of stress management, coping skills training, cognitive restructuring and relaxation therapy may be an appropriate adjunctive treatment for chronic low back pain
- Mind-body approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, particularly when combined with an educational/informational component, can be an effective adjunct in the management of rheumatoid and osteoarthritis
- Relaxation may be considered as a treatment for recurrent headaches and migraine
- An array of mind-body therapies (eg, imagery, hypnosis, relaxation) when employed pre-surgically, can improve recovery time and reduce pain following surgical procedures
How To Use The Mind Body Connection To Ease Pain
I often say the only thing that makes things worse is the fear of making things worse. This is true in all but the most extreme and rare conditions – which we do of course screen for! Once we have screened for anything truly nasty and physical we can start to help people let go of their fear. Reassuring them that pain is not damage.
The best way to expand on this is to do the 21 days pain recovery programme from TMS. These are the guys building on from Dr John Sarno’s work now he is no longer with us.
For some people that can be enough. If you truly accept that the origin of your pain has a psychological origin or stems back to a more stressful or traumatic time it removes the fear that there is something mechanically wrong with your body. It frees you up and enables you to let go of your compensation patterns and therefore pain.
For many people, it’s not that simple. We need to feel evidence. With our treatments (this isn’t a shameless plug you can use any treatment methodology that works for you) we look to give you that feeling and evidence, that your body can exist in a more pain free state without the need for any mechanical alterations i.e. surgery.
Let’s take a practical example. Say you arrive at the clinic with a knee problem that has been gradually getting worse over a couple of years. You’ve had an x-ray and it’s shown you have grade 2 arthritis – moderate wear and tear.
We do a physical assessment, check nothing untoward is going and start to allay your fears with anecdotes of how we’ve seen lots of people with much more severe cases of arthritis who’ve become pain free. We’re trying to get you to start to question your beliefs.
We’d start to realign you using our magically jiggery pokery which takes whatever form we decide will be the best way forward for you. Usually a combination of our favourite approaches: fascial release, muscles activation, deep relaxation techniques, joint mobilisation, massage, strengthening and stretching.
We then get you back off the couch and away you go. If you feel better. You start to believe what we’ve told you. Perhaps the pain you were feeling in the knee joint wasn’t due to the arthritis. It can’t be because all of a sudden it’s feeling better. We have changed your belief. We have given you confidence to let go of your compensation patterns – the true source of your pain. Reducing your anxiety about the condition and your long term prognosis.
Interestingly you can have people who don’t associate with being anxious in their day to day lives but have what we call body or health anxiety. The fear of something going wrong with bodies is the thing that makes them most anxious.
This will normally have its origin in something from their life that has gone before. For example a family member having previous similar issues or some bad memories around themselves or those close to them in hospital. This can be a rich avenue to explore to help people overcome their body and health anxiety.
Another option to help work on your pain is to work on your mind at the same time as your body. If this fills you with great trepidation then it’s probably not the right time for you. You either need professional help to help unpick your psychological history or you need more time.
For the swathes of is in the middle ground who don’t have any diagnosed mental health issues we recommend feeling those emotion things. Rather than repressing them, as is the British way! A good way to start that self-exploration is the excellent Language Of Emotions by Karla McLaren which teaches us sit with our emotions and listen to what they are trying to tell you.
The more we learn to do this the more we process what’s going with our minds the less stuck the our body gets and the less pain we feel.
In our day to day work it’s about finding the right balance between mind and body that is going to work for the person in front of us. What is the best thing we can do right now to help our clients move out of pain? We like to call it meeting our client where they are at.
Do we need to focus on body, mind or both? Between us therapists and our clients it’s a joint decision. It’s usually both. After 17 years in the business the link between mind and body and subsequently pain is very obvious. I would go so far to say it should be mindbody, all one word. No space.
I’ve presented some of the research behind this principle. Certainly there needs to be more and of a better quality. But I feel within the industry we’re moving in the right direction.
So what can you do to benefit from our experience aside from coming to see us. My call for you would be to focus on what you’re bad it. If you’re a physical person and have started to feel more injury prone and lethargic in recent times have you considered the emotional side of things?
If feel you have a good understanding of yourself emotionally have you done any physical work on yourself. Perhaps consider some form of physical therapy. I like to think of the physical work we do as catching the body up to where the mind is at. Often providing a platform for further personal insight and development.
Eminent psychologist Marion Woodman was of the opinion towards the end of her career and life that there is no point doing the hard emotional work without at the same time having physical work to help release the physical representation of these emotions. I agree. I encourage you to work on both.
If at Brighton Sports Therapy we can in some way be a part of that for you that would be great. If not I hope this article has been suitable inspiration to spur you on to do whatever you feel is best for you.
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