Rita’s Blog

“The More You Know”!

“Scientia potentia est”, the Latin aphorism meaning “knowledge is power” is the basis for transformation and freedom from suffering. In order to learn the “how” of eliminating the horrid symptoms of CRPS, one must first learn the “why”. In order to understand the root cause of this “condition”, it’s essential to understand the operative system…in other words…how the mind and body interact. Although the field of neuroscience has made tremendous strides in the past 20 years, these amazing findings have not yet filtered down to the field of medicine.

After my own odyssey in the medical mill, desperately searching for answers, I often wondered why this knowledge is not more mainstream. How much suffering could be alleviated if it was? After ping ponging helplessly to numerous specialists for 6 months, I was finally given the diagnosis of CRPS. The irony is that the diagnosis did not serve me one whit. If anything it confirmed my worst fears…that I was damaged and “broken” beyond repair, doomed to a life of existing in pain and debilitation. At the time, I was terrified and really believed my life was over. Fortunately however, I had information on the brain and chronic pain. I endeavored to delve deeper and find out if it applied to CRPS as well. !With the knowledge I gleaned from books such as “The Mind Body Prescription” and “Unlearn Your Pain”, I decided I could apply it to CRPS. This was confirmed to me by Dr. Schubiner, who reassured me that CRPS was still brain induced pain …that is faulty signals stemming from the brain and altering my physiology.

At that point I knew it was a reversible situation and I was not going to allow a label or the medical industry to discourage me. After all, I knew too much! !The emerging field of PsychoPhysiologic disorders (which includes an array of labels (such as: CRPS, Fibromyalgia , Interstitial Cystitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, RSI , Trigeminal Neuralgia, Tension Headaches, back pain, neck pain and foot pain) is producing study after study demonstrating the role of the brain and neural circuits.

90% of chronic pain is NOT caused by structural issues (infections, tumors etc.) but by neuro pathways in the brain that send pain signals and maintain the fear-pain-fear loop in the brain and body in a state of chronicity. Let’s start with understanding the nature of pain: All pain is real and it’s a subjective experience. The brain is what creates all sensations. All experiences are derived from learned circuits (vision, hearing, taste, how we talk, walk, ride a bike, respond to different people or activities like snakes or heights etc.). Basically, we feel what we EXPECT and the term for this is “Predictive Coding”. Pain is a decision made by the brain to protect us from danger (whether it’s real or imagined). Depending on the situation, our brain will decide if it should alert us. When our fearful thoughts about symptoms become ingrained and habitual, the danger/alarm mechanism becomes sensitized over time. I realized that the CRPS label simply meant that my brain had become extremely opinionated!!

One of the huge deficits in medicine, is the lack of knowledge between “Dynamic Pain” vs. “Static Pain”. Physicians and the costly world of alternative practitioners are trained in static pain and that is why treatments fail the patient. CRPS is a great and dramatic example of dynamic pain (or neural circuit pain) that can be turned on or off, that waxes and wanes, shifts locations, changes in intensity, morphing symptoms, and it often “spreads”. It is not the same thing as static pain like a broken leg or metastatic cancer. This is actually great news! Dynamic pain is common and reversible. We can retrain our brain out of these learned pathways and habits, by using our conscious mind.

When you have an accurate diagnosis, you employ an accurate treatment. Rather than having to “cope”, the mind body approach “cures”. !This leads me to the difference between acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain is mediated by an entirely different area of the brain than chronic pain. Chronic pain is actually driven by the area involved with emotions and memory. When we treat pain as a symptom of somatized anxiety, we can then place it in the construct of thought. Stay with me here!! When we are embarrassed, we blush. When we are frightened our heart races and our pulse quickens. When we are aroused, sexual organs react. When we are sad, we shed tears from the eyeballs.

CRPS is no different it’s just on steroids so to speak. When we look at cases of “phantom limb syndrome”, we see how dramatically the brain creates sensations. People have reported feeling their watch on an amputated arm. Why? Because that is what their brain was used to and now EXPECTS!

When we can understand how the brain operates, we understand the cause. When we know the cause, we can implement change. Stay tuned…more blogs to come! In the meantime start reading those books and getting empowered!

“Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!!”

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This quote by Viktor Frankl is one of my favorites and describes the journey you have chosen to embark on. In order to do the necessary work in your road to recovery, it’s essential to understand the “operating system” of the brain and body.

The character of “The Robot” in the 1960’s tv series “Lost in Space” illustrates the alarm function in our brain that alerts us to danger. On the tv show, a family find themselves struggling to survive in outer space after their space ship gets sabotaged and highjacked by the evil agent Mr. Smith. The Robot is ever aware of threat to the Robinson family and frequently exclaims “danger, danger!” to Will.

Having CRPS is exactly like having the robot as your brain’s default setting. We all have an alarm function that is activated when the brain senses danger. It’s the evolutionary survival mechanism meant to keep us alive. When the alarm center is triggered, the brain goes into fight or flight within milliseconds, sending signals throughout the body (heart rate, breathing, adrenaline, muscle tension, vision etc.). In the case of chronic pain syndromes, and most dramatically in the case of CRPS, the alarm function and danger signal becomes sensitized and reinforced over time.

Often this leads to the freeze response and a feeling of helplessness that also becomes chronic. When signals are continuously transmitted from the brain to the body, symptoms ensue. So how do we turn this spaceship around? The first step will require a suspension of belief on your part. This is critical because once you accept the diagnosis that CRPS is simply mind body pain (learned pain), you believe that it’s reversible. In order to be successful in reversing the brain’s strategy, the reduction of fear is critical. Without belief in the diagnosis, it is impossible to reduce fear. So are you ready? Read on in the next blog! Stay tuned….

Your Brain is a Smoke Detector

If my smoke detector could differentiate between fire, carbon monoxide and burnt toast, I would never have to worry!  Unfortunately I seem to have a talent for burning things in the kitchen! Our brains are no different.  The brain cannot discern what is a real threat or danger, from a perceived one.  When we experience pain sensations and altered physiology (swelling, redness, temperature changes etc.), they are actually the burnt toast in the story of how our brain responds to messages of danger.  What is the messaging you are giving to your brain on a daily basis? On a minute to minute basis?  What messages have you received from the medical or alternative industries? If you have the label of CRPS, then it’s guaranteed they were all communicating danger, doubt, fear, and hopelessness.

Ask yourself if you have engaged in these thought habits or behaviors:

1.) Panicking when symptoms arise or worsen.

2.) Researching online about it’s “incurability”.

3.) Reading in toxic “support group” forums filled with horror stories and doom and gloom.

4.) Believing the dire prognosis given to you by medical “experts”.

5.) Chasing “treatments” or “therapies”.

6.) Generating chronic, ruminating thoughts about how your body is “broken”, “flawed”, or “weak” in some way.

7.) Avoiding so called “triggers”….activities or movements or other innocuous stimuli that your brain has deemed dangerous and linked to your symptoms.

8.) “Guarding” areas of the body that are affected for fear that you will hurt yourself.

Do any of these ring a bell?  If so, what is the antidote? We combat the messages of danger, by replacing them with messages of safety.  Our job is to teach the primitive part of the brain (‘our stupid friend”) that is bombarding us with false alarms, that we are totally ok and safe in the present moment. Some ways of cultivating safety are:

1.) Using knowledge and logic to shine a light on this label.  It makes no sense from any medical or scientific standpoint that the body would renew a subscription to acute pain on a moment to moment basis, in the absence of any pathology or structural damage. For evidence, refer to the PPDA association’s list of peer reviewed research studies on chronic pain. The science and truth are indisputable!!

2.) Do an assessment of your symptoms.  Review if they fit the criteria for mind body syndrome (for ex.:  symptoms change location, mirror image, pain and symptoms “spread”, symptoms are triggered by harmless stimuli, pain varies, your personality profile, and any history of trauma.) Even if you have one of these that fits the criteria, that is enough to prove it’s TMS!

3.) Feel your emotions rather than resisting them.  Teach your brain that emotions are safe and normal.

4.) Calm your thinking down by catching yourself when you are catastrophizing or pessimistic.  Become aware of those thoughts and nip them in the bud.  Just because you think something does not make it true!!

5.) Respond to symptoms with curiosity and detachment, rather than terror or frustration.  They may “hurt”, but they cannot “harm”…they are as harmless as burnt toast.

6.) Practice gratitude (even if it’s just for finding this site and knowing you will get better!)

7.) Focus on your life as much as you are able to.  Even if you are totally debilitated right now, see if you can find enjoyable and relaxing things to do….even if they are small, things like organizing your sock drawer or watching stupid cat videos on YT.  This will train your brain out of danger mode.

8.) Believe that you can get better and reclaim your life.  Choose to believe you can, and you deserve it as well!

So, rather than smashing your smoke detector with a hammer after burning some toast , simply take the batteries out!!

What Dorothy Learned the Hard Way, So You Don’t Have To

If anyone had asked me how I perceived the road ahead of me when I was bedridden with CRPS, I would not have envisioned it as a yellow, brick one….Dante’s journey through the 9 circles of Hell may have been a more plausible description at the time.  While I can relate to the guide Virgil, now that I work as a coach, the story of “The Wizard of Oz”  could easily serve as a TMS allegory for anyone embarking on the yellow brick road, out of chronic pain and back to “Kansas” ( aka your life). 

“Was I scared?  You’re talking to a man who laughed at death, sneered at danger, and chuckled at catastrophe.  I was terrified!”  The Wizard.

After contending with lions, tigers, and bears (“Oh my!), nodding off in a poppy field, being locked in a witch’s castle and chased by winged monkeys, Dorothy and the gang are confronted with the bombastic floating head of “The Almighty and Powerful Oz” on a screen.  Terrified but exasperated, Dorothy calls him out for being nothing more than a bully. It is in that moment that Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a diminutive man behind a microphone.  Upon seeing “Oz” for who he really is…. just a nervous little fellow, he lost his power over them.  Pull the curtain back and see what your brain is doing.  What is behind the curtain?  Real danger or just you….scared? See what your brain is up to and how persistent and desperate it is in wanting you to focus on this thought, or that fear. Know that it’s goal is to alert you or preoccupy you in some way.  Make the conscious choice to not buy into these thoughts.  Take their power away.  Disable the TMS strategy.

While we are on the subject of lessons from “The Wizard of Oz”, start allowing yourself to dream.  Before taking action steps, we have to imagine them first. Dorothy didn’t sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow…skies are blue” solely to showcase Judy Garland’s voice.  The song had meaning and it’s up to you to “dare to dream” and make them come true!

Don’t Let The Grinch Steal Your Recovery!

When Dr. Sarno flipped the medical paradigm on its head, with his observations and debunking of myths in the medical industry, he was met with tremendous backlash.  He bore the slings and arrows of disdain, criticism, and ridicule, with courage and aplomb. What made Dr. Sarno such a great doctor and human being, was his willingness to accept the label of heretic, by his own colleagues, in the interest of advancing truth and helping people to heal.  In your TMS journey, you will encounter various Grinches in the form of doubt and naysayers. It is only when you strip the “tag” of “crps” away, and stop “doctor shopping” for answers outside of yourself that you will prevail over the “Grinch”.

“It came without ribbons!  It came without tags!”

“It came without  packages, boxes, or bags!”

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!“ Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store!”

As hard as Grinch tried to steal Christmas, he could not take the inner joy that the Whos of Whoville held in their heart.  The opposite of fear is joy, and in order to reach joy, we must move through our doubts and fears. Perhaps you are struggling because your fear is too high and it’s keeping your brain in the fight or flight response.  Fear is the fuel for TMS and fear usually stems from our own false beliefs and doubts.  So where do these come from?  When we know from whence they came, we can employ logic and dismantle each doubt off of our list.  Think of it as a reverse Christmas list!  With each doubt we eradicate, we build more confidence in the “diagnosis” of TMS and ourselves.  Here are some examples of doubts that feed the underlying fear  of “what if I can’t get better?” :

1.)  Medicalization:  “Tagged” by physicians with a label that implies a neurological “disease” or “pathology”.  This includes nocebos:  suggestions by doctors that you have something incurable, that at best you can “manage” or hope for “remission”.  These types of experiences in the medical industry lead to PTSD in a patient …trauma from misdiagnosis, abandonment, and useless drugs or procedures)

2.) The “Inner Bully”: that negative voice and narrative in your head that tells you, you are “broken”, “not good enough”, “different”.

3.) False beliefs stemming from childhood messages you may have internalized (having to “hustle for your worth” or believing that negative events in the past predict more of the same in the future).

4.) Doubts arising from negative thought patterns:  Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true!  Become aware of your thoughts and ask yourself if they are accurate or based on faulty information or distortion. Nip those chronic negative thoughts in the bud, and reach for more accurate, better feeling, neutral ones that are  rooted in reality.

5.) Doubts about your symptoms being “different” or somehow too “far gone”:  TMS can take on any pathway under the sun, in any location(s) and any form (sensations and symptoms can take on a plethora of flavors).  Bottom line:  We all have 1 brain.  Your brain is not designed differently than anyone else in the human species.  

These are just some examples but examine the ways in which the Grinch appears in your life as doubt.  Is it pervasive?  Recognize it, call it out, and pulverize it.  Just as the Grinch could never win the battle against Christmas, don’t allow doubt to interfere with your healing, peace and happiness.  Find joy when and where you can, like the Whos of Whoville.  No one can ever take that away from you because after all, it’s an inside job!

“The Enlightened Groundhog”

The film “Groundhog Day” has always been one of my favorites and the fact that one of the main characters is named Rita doesn’t hurt!  When Bill Murray’s character Phil the newscaster, gets stuck in the dull town of Punxsutawney, waiting for the groundhog to make his appearance, it’s a metaphor for all of us. Have you ever noticed yourself living in autopilot? Recreating the same patterns day after day? Trapped in your own groundhog day? Every single day is the same in the film.  The events and people never change one iota, but the lesson that Phil has to learn the hard way, is that every single day we have the choice to take responsibility for our lives. In the beginning of the movie, Phil tries to “fix” the problem, then he decides to indulge in it, then he tries to escape it by committing suicide in various ways.  He would literally rather die, than change!  None of it works though until he fully commits to the present moment.  His misery was not from the day in which he found himself (over and over and over), but his  desperate and futile attempts to escape the present. Once he shifts perspective, his whole life changes and he even gets liberated form the prison of “groundhog day”.

Our time is literally our life so use it wisely.  Just as Phil learns over the course of the film that he gets to create his reality (with plenty of practice), we get to reverse the TMS strategy through our own choices.  We are not doomed to suffer in a chronic pain loop.  We can choose our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.  We can choose to live in the past, or appreciate the right now. We can choose to remain stuck and wait for someone or something to “fix” us, or we can realize that we are not broken.  The choice is yours!

Waiting on a Miracle

When reading the “Success Stories” of former Tms’ers, have you ever found yourself comparing your story, your symptoms, and your timeline to theirs? Don’t do it!  It’s a trap! In fact, the faster you want to be free of your symptoms, the longer this process will take!  Focus on the “how”, rather than the “how long”, or the nature of their symptoms.  Our recovery will be as individual as our lives and individual minds.  Your journey is unique to you, so when you read of people who had the “book cure” and were back in the game within a couple of weeks, don’t think of it as a “miracle” in the dramatic Hollywood sense of the word.  Miracles are actually commonplace and SUPPOSED to happen.  A miracle is simply a shift in perspective, so keep that in mind next time you read about a “book cure” or a success story.

When we begin to choose new thoughts, our new reality will not immediately follow.  There will always be a time lag during which you will be cultivating new thoughts, but your body will still be living in your old reality.  This “waiting for it to happen” period is where the rubber meets the road.  How you react to stressors and how you respond to symptoms during this waiting period, will either speed up or hinder the new reality you’re endeavoring to create.  It is during this critical period that your brain will test you, subvert you, and continue to send those false alarm signals.  Do not be fooled!  This is just your brain on tms so recognize it, expect it. it and heed not these symptoms.  Remember, every choice you make, is an investment in your future.  The cash register is ringing and ringing until the drawer opens, or in the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.”

Patience and persistence are required during the wait, but also make sure you have clarity about the miracle you want.  If you are focused on what you don’t want (symptoms) then you are actually moving farther away from the miracle because your desire is based in fear.  If you focus on what you DO want and what is aligned with your true self and purpose, then your energy is based in joy, and this will draw the miracles towards you. So the question is:  are you willing to take full responsibility, do whatever it takes, and however long it takes, to create your own miracle?

Setbacks Towards a Comeback 

Like the colorfully paved board game, Chutes and Ladders, the TMS journey is one filled with corrective experiences and necessary setbacks. While Candy Land, Clue, and Life, satisfy my inner 70’s child more, Chutes and Ladders has more practical application in the pain reprocessing domain of the mind body framework. The phrase “back to square one” actually hails from this classic game whose roots are in ancient India. Originally called Snakes and Ladders, the game is a metaphor for the duality of life. For every dangerous snake lurking around the corner, there is a ladder to bail us out and advance our progress.

The cycle of fear and symptoms that ensue in “chronic” conditions (tms), results in yet another cycle of fear – response – avoidance. These avoidant behavior patterns become habits of the brain and body, which lead to symptoms that are remembered and learned. The more one avoids and restricts activities or other “triggers”, the more anxious family members and doctors of the sufferer’s orbit grow, and the smaller their world becomes. In order to break this vicious cycle, we need to stop avoiding the “game”. If we wish to play and reach the finish line, we need to accept the chutes (the setbacks), not allow them to spoil our fun, continue to spin the wheel, and expect plenty of ladders along the way! While setbacks can be incredibly demoralizing and frustrating, do not begrudge them, for they are actually our friend! They bring us experience, 

knowledge, and the opportunity to practice. If you are willing to practice, you WILL recover! This is the work! Another way to view them is captured in this quote: “Giving up your goal because of one setback, is like slashing three tires, because you got a flat.” So remember, confidence can only arise from experience. What better way to cultivate that, than by accepting the setbacks as speed bumps on the road? You can’t have a comeback without the setbacks, so trust the process and enjoy the ride, even when you hit those potholes!

You Are Not a Campbell Soup Can !

A recent experience at the ophthalmologist spurred me to examine the idea of the label and our society’s seeming obsession with labels. Since the time I was little, nothing makes me more squeamish than eyeballs. Every trip to the eye dr. would begin with my nervous laughter and ensuing vasovagal reaction, instructions to put my head between my legs, and the phrase “don’t faint”. The mere recollection of these routine office visits inspires nausea as I type. My latest incident involved an enraged, flaming red eyeball. Although unsightly, I was cheerfully informed that it was “nothing”…just a subconjunctival hemorrhage (if you decide to google this, don’t say you haven’t been warned!). In layman’s terms, a bruise. Before I could enjoy a sigh of relief, however, the dr. was compelled to mention my “drusen”. “Umm, what’s that?”, as visions of gnomes and druids danced in my head. “Oh it’s just a sign of macular degeneration and cataracts!” As she unveiled a high tech image of what appeared to be the topography of the moon, she indicated “See…that’s the surface of your eye and those spots are drusen !” “So what should I do then?” I asked feebly, my voice several octaves higher, as waves of nausea mounted. “Oh nothing…” she trailed off. I wondered then, why had she told me? Did I really need to know that other than to feel worse as I stumbled out of her office (into the blinding sunlight with dilated pupils), than when I had entered?

How do these labels and terminology help, and why do we worship our own inventions?….Images and scans that rarely
correlate to our symptoms? If the medical system were a church or religion, its sacred cows would be diagnostic labels, imaging scans, surgery, injections, and pills. This begs the question: Why do we have a devotional trust in a system that has never demonstrated recovery from “crps” or even defined health in the same was as we would? In other words…coping vs. curing, not dying vs. vitality and well being. These labels for seemingly chronic scenarios that are actually mind body experiences, only serve to instill the nocebo effect in the patient. They may be useful for the purpose of billing insurance companies, but they are nominations that have nothing to do with who you are, your “prognosis”, or your life. They are as useful as a brand label on a soup can, like the pop art created by Andy Warhol, to denote the surface and the banal. While some interpreted his static images as subversive art, his message was intended to reflect an emotional and social void….a commentary on modern civilization that could just as easily be applied to our healthcare system.
Nothingness under the guise of art …a mind body experience under the guise of a medical diagnostic label. A system in which human beings have been reduced to one dimensional constellations of symptoms…disconnected from the psychosocial-environmental factors of the human condition. My parting advice would be to knock that meaningless label off the table! No matter the label bestowed upon you by a practitioner, the methodology to reverse mindbody symptoms is exactly the same. Reclaim your power from the tyranny of the label, or as Dr. Seuss put it best, “Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive that is youer than you.”

Rita LaBarbera

I’m a 52 yr. old, happily married, mom of 2 teenage sons, living in NJ. After overcoming the diagnosis of CRPS and its debilitating symptoms, I endeavored to help others and now offer  short term, solution focused coaching sessions as a Mind Body Coach. 

My mission and commitment to others is not to “cope” with pain, but to eliminate chronic pain entirely…to help people take their power back and reclaim their lives. 

My background education is a Masters Degree from NYU in Counseling Psychology and a certificate of completion of Dr. Schubiner’s “Freedom From Chronic Pain” Practitioner Training  course.  Most significantly, my work is informed by my first hand experience of conquering CRPS through knowledge and implementing the core concepts of the maverick Dr. John Sarno.

My coaching sessions expand on Dr. Sarno’s framework to provide you with a laser focused roadmap to recovery, and a life of freedom! 

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