Most people think of back pain as a physical issue, but stress and negative emotions often contribute. If you’re stuck with ongoing discomfort, or even disability, knowing how to address the emotional side of pain can help you change the situation.
Pain sufferers often overlook or avoid emotional contributors to pain because of pressure to perform, shame about emotional challenges, and a lack of support for developing emotional health.
Thankfully, the situation is changing. Groundbreaking work by physicians like Dr. John Sarno has shed light on the connection between emotion and pain and provided relief to thousands.
The growing popularity of emotional intelligence and mindfulness practices has also been shifting attitudes toward emotions, and new scientific findings are providing physical proof of the mind-body connection.
Solutions for Reducing Stress and Relieving Pain
So let’s look at a few simple ways to get started taking some of the emotional weight off your back.
1. The TMS Approach
In his bestselling book Healing Back Pain, Dr. Sarno described a new diagnosis for chronic pain, which he termed Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) and a simple approach to resolve it.
He believed that ongoing emotional stress, especially unconscious anger, causes the body to tighten, which prevents your muscles from getting enough oxygen. When that happens, you get pain.
He found over many decades working with thousands of patients that simply by understanding their condition as emotional, they often got better.
Studies are underway to validate his clinical results, and according to the New York Times, “A study…in 2007 found that chronic pain subjects who underwent a mind-body treatment…experienced an average pain reduction of 52 percent.”
Massage is a great stress reliever, and most people unfortunately look at it as a luxury rather than a powerful or even necessary part of getting out of pain.
Massage works not only to relieve tight muscles, but also to increase blood flow and oxygen levels and calm the nervous system. The effects are cumulative, so getting massages regularly over time will have much more impact that just getting them once in a while.
Meditation is another popular solution for reducing stress, but it ironically makes many people more anxious, especially when they first try it.
You think, “Okay, I’m just going to sit here, clear my mind, and relax.” 30 seconds later, you’re bored out of your skull and trying to decide what to have for dinner. Then you kick yourself for being a meditation failure.
Not to worry—you can still benefit from meditation!
First off, just know that your mind is not going to stop. Masters say it takes years of dedicated practice to achieve a still mind, so don’t make that your starting point. Instead, give your mind something to focus on such as your breath, and when you realize your mind has wandered, just bring it back.
Like massage, the effects of regular practice are cumulative, and unlike massage, it’s free! Try setting aside a few minutes a day to start, and slowly build up to 20 minutes or longer.
4. Changing Your Environment
Pain itself can cause stress, which causes more pain, which causes more stress, and so on. One way to break the cycle is by changing your physical environment, which includes the spaces you spend time in, the people you interact with, the information you consume, and the products you use.
For instance, if sitting all the time is hurting your back or standing all the time is straining your knees, you might consider getting an adjustable standing desk.
5. Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine has been growing in popularity in the US since the 1970’s, helping many people when medical doctors have said there’s nothing they can do. It can include not only acupuncture, but also herbs, food therapy, practices like qigong, and bodywork methods like cupping and gua sha.
Many people recognize that the system can be very effective for pain, but most don’t understand how or why it works. Part of the answer lies in its holistic view of a person and its detailed understanding of the mind-body connection.
For instance, practitioners often diagnose issues in the Shen (mind or “spirit”) by observing specific physical signs on the tongue and in the way the pulse feels.
6. Energy Psychology Techniques
A cutting edge science that draws from both eastern and western methods, energy psychology provides effective ways to reduce stress through simple practices. One of the most popular techniques in this field is called Emotional Freedom Technique, or “tapping.”
You can learn this technique in just an hour or two with free online resources and use it any time to relieve pain, reduce stress, resolve phobias, and more.
Our thoughts can literally create stress and pain in our bodies, but sometimes these thoughts happen so fast that we’re not even aware of them. Freewriting is a great ways to uncover stressful thoughts, and get them out of your head and onto paper. Journaling by hand is better than typing because it activates more of your brain.
The key is not to hold anything back, even the crazy-sounding stuff you would never want anyone to know about. If you prefer, you can tear up your paper or burn it when you’re done, so you can rest assured no one will see it.
8. Practicing Gratitude
Getting in the habit of feeling and expressing gratitude can be a game changer for reducing stress and pain. When you are truly feeling grateful, it’s much harder to feel stressed out, angry, or anxious—your mind is focused on what’s good and right in your world, helping your body relax.
So look for what’s going well. Did you get to eat today? Not everyone did. Even if you burned your toast, you can still be thankful.
Your capacity for gratitude is like a muscle you can strengthen with regular exercise, and unlike a muscle, it will never get tired!
Living in the modern world almost demands we find and practice ways to reduce pain and stress. There are lots to choose from—this post is just a starting point. Don’t try to do everything at once, though. Pick one method and make it a habit for a few months. The results might surprise you.
Your turn! What are the best ways to reduce stress and back pain you’ve tried? Don’t keep it to yourself—post a comment!