Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!!
Your Brain is a Smoke Detector
What Dorothy Learned the Hard Way, So You Don’t Have To
Don’t Let The Grinch Steal Your Recovery!
You Are Not a Campbell Soup Can!
Nostalgia and Neuroscience Part 1
“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.”
“Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I always loved this line in the poem by Dylan Thomas…a battle cry of defiance and the refusal to settle. The truth was, that if it were not for my own odyssey into chronic pain, I may never have plucked up the courage to act on that inner rebellion.
The emotion of anger gets a bad rap. Its connotations can range from unpleasant, to anti social, to violent, but what are the implications of its disavowal? As humans, we are meant to experience the entire range of emotions and when we disallow them we pay a heavy price. Emotions such as rage, resentment, guilt, sadness, shame, fear, and even love, get relegated to the bowels of our unconscious where they are left to fester. Dr. Sarno recognized the role of chronic pain as a distraction mechanism and a defense against what he termed the “reservoir of rage”, threatening to erupt to the surface at any time. I was confronted with my own cauldron of suppressed rage in therapy, when I finally verbalized the intolerably ugly feelings and impulses I had towards my young son with autism. By granting myself permission to own the rage, while having compassion for the rage, I freed myself from the shackles of guilt and self judgment. They didn’t define me as some kind of monster or degenerate mother, and I certainly would never act out those horrifying stories or impulses my brain seemed to conjure. They were just emotions, and as such, normal and safe!
I came to realize that the anger was not the problem, it was my lack of tolerance to it (as well as to other emotions I had deemed “unacceptable”). If it didn’t fit with the idealized image of myself, I concealed them from myself. The unintended consequence of hiding myself from myself, was living half a life in a self created prison. By acknowledging and even embracing the kaleidoscope of emotions, I could finally feel the feelings, rather than freeze or suppress. I learned that I could even use anger to create safety, through asserting myself or setting boundaries. Although our culture tends to view anger as a negative emotion, recent neuroscience has turned that view on its head. The evolutionary purpose of anger was survival, and thus “positive”. If the anger can be separated out from harmful or destructive actions, it can be channeled in a multitude of positive motivational directions. Depending on the situation, anger can be healthy or toxic. While unbridled fury is unproductive, anger can be a catalyst to stand up for yourself….to be be fiercely in your own corner. Anger can also act as a counterpoint to fear, spurring a person on to become more creative, ambitious, more of a leader, and more of a risk taker.
As someone who wishes to spread the message of the mind body approach, I have often been the recipient of aggression and hostility ….in online groups, private emails, and most recently a bruising experience at a live Q & A with one CRPS group of sufferers. I reason that if Dr. Sarno was willing to be viewed as a heretic, for the sake of disseminating the truth to the world, than I’m willing to go to the mat with an occasional naysayer to further his mission. In that sense, I am channeling my own anger for good. I no longer need to avoid “controversy” or the displeasure of others, or harm myself with “goodism”, when I know that I’m speaking my truth. As Mohammed Ali quipped, “It’s not bragging, if you have something to back it up.” I no longer fear my anger, as I know it won’t lead to hate, but hopefully a better understanding of myself and others. Zsa Zsa Gabor said it best darrrlinkk !, “I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back.”
The Disease to Please
Do you avoid conflict at all costs? Conform to the expectations of others? Worry about the needs and preferences of others above your own? Are you over accommodating or adaptive for fear of ruffling feathers? Have trouble asserting yourself or setting boundaries? Do you have difficulty saying “No” or disagreeing with others? Do you chastise yourself or worry that others may judge you negatively, or worse yet…uncover your fraudulence? Are you constantly “should-ing” on yourself or wondering if you are a bad person? Do you feel guilty for advocating for yourself or “gasp!”, doing something nice for yourself? Do you even know who you would be or what you would be doing without these self imposed conditions?? If the answer is yes, to any of the above, you may be suffering from one or all of the anxiety trifecta of people pleasing, perfectionism, and “goodism” ( the moral version of perfectionism coined by Sarno). Dr. Sarno recognized certain personality behaviors and chronic thought patterns in his patients, which he later termed the “Type T” (TMS) personality profile. He found that people possessing these traits were at a far higher risk of developing somatic pain disorders, due to the fact that they have the tendency to generate tremendous inner stress, pressure, and tension on a daily basis. As a recovering worrier in all three traits (amongst others…Rome wasn’t built in a day after all!), I could often relate to the characters like Elaine (and her cringeworthy dancing) on the show “Seinfeld”, but in one episode, I remember empathizing with George. “The Masseuse” featured a storyline in which Jerry is dating a massage therapist whose dislike of George is palpable. This creates so much anxiety for George that he becomes obsessed and complains to his own girlfriend Karen “I wanna know what I did to this woman.” Karen is baffled and responds, “What difference does it make? Who cares if she doesn’t like you. Does everyone have to like you?” George answers, “Yes! Yes! Everybody has to like me! I MUST be liked!”. For the rest of the episode, George is driven to extremes to seek approval from an acquaintance, rather than accepting, being at peace with himself, and focusing on connecting in his real relationships.
We don’t need to change our entire personalities or uproot our lives to reverse the pain strategy, but we do need to become aware of our traits, our habitual thought patterns that these traits engender, and how they interact with our life situations. Once we are aware, we can catch ourselves and switch out of these traits or make different choices. The false core belief that so many of harbor, is that we are not good enough, and therefore we must meet certain standards of acceptability, in order to stave off judgment. This façade we present to the world gives us the illusion of safety. It makes us feel bullet proof or beyond reproach, but unfortunately, what seems like a protective mechanism becomes our prison….an exhausting, unsustainable way of life that breeds resentment and self betrayal. What starts out as an attempt to change ourselves in order to be loved, ironically prevents us from genuine relationships. It becomes a tightrope walk of constant fear of our true self slipping out and subsequent rejection. The symptoms in your body are the messenger. They are indicators of how you are being on a moment to moment basis…”a cry from the soul”. The question is, will you receive the communication and free yourself from the tyranny of the “should” ? Will you decide that dropping the mask to be authentic is worth it in the long run? Can you be honest with yourself and start living in accordance with your true values and desires? Can you talk back to that inner critic and tell it to “shut the hell up!” once and for all? Can you treat yourself with the same compassion you would give to a dear friend? Can you use the word “no” as a full sentence? These choices may feel risky at first, but they are risks well worth taking, because the alternative is far more painful. Besides, what is a little discomfort compared to what you have already endured? Nothing! When we heal the relationship with ourselves, cessation of symptoms is the happy by product. Sammy Davis Jr., crooned it best, “I can’t be right for somebody else, If I’m not right for me….I gotta be free, I just gotta be free….Daring to try, to do it or die…I gotta be me.”
Recovery is Real
“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” Anthony de Mello
So often I am taken aback by the question, “Are you fully recovered?” from TMS sufferers, and even my own coaching clients ,who are already well themselves but don’t yet realize that fact. We live in a culture that fosters illness and fear, where the voices of recovery are drowned out by the din of chaos and messages of danger. We need to remind ourselves of the power of choice. The possibility of recovery, which was once a question mark in my mind… a “maybe’, a “wish”, a “dream”, a “remission” a “partial”, a “management”, an “alleviation”, is now a conviction of truth. Recovery is not a word or an abstraction,… it’s an action. A choice that any one of us has the capacity to make. As William James wrote, “Believe, and your belief will become fact.” As long as 1 person has recovered from your symptoms or label, you can be number 2, and if no one else has (that you know of!) then you can be number 1! If I had to distill the “how” of my recovery into one word it would be “belief”. You may be reading this and thinking, “Could you break that down into something a bit less ineffable?” Absolutely! I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to hit rock bottom to figure this out. My experience can serve as a way of skipping over the hell scape of the mind.
The two main sources of reference we have are science and religion, and one could argue that they share more in common than not. Both instruct us to believe, and our beliefs are based on an evaluation of something. When we re-evaluate, our beliefs can change. My process was twofold: 1.) Examine my falsely held and limiting beliefs that had created my self constructed cage, reject them and walk out, and 2.) Make the choice to have hope and a willingness to cultivate faith. I started re evaluating who I really was, and let go of the persona/facade I thought I “should” be. This meant healing all aspects of myself. There were things I needed to accept and of which to let go. With the strength I had used against myself to cultivate fear and obsession, I began to nurture hope and take back my courage. Safety no longer signified staying in my nightmare, it meant letting go of my vice grip on the bars and opening the door. The loss of hope has been described as a “soul sickness”, but the mere fact you are reading this blog is proof that hope is alive and well. No matter how cluttered our minds may be, hope waits patiently to be watered. From the hope we carry with us as we navigate the bumpy path, we move forward to faith….faith that the fear will lessen and faith that we are far, far stronger than we realize, and brave enough to keep going.
When we leave the familiar prison that may have been hell, but it was “our” hell, the one we knew, what we get in return is freedom . We get to have our lives because we say so…it’s not the property of our past traumas or illnesses, it’s ours….Recovery is there for the taking. The blessing of TMS is we get to receive the communication from our body (the “cry from the soul”)… that we have a right to take part in the living world, experience joy through relationships and use our gifts to make an impact. I know recovery to be a fact because I have seen it over and over and over. With equal certainty, I can say I am fully “recoverED”. I am not “broken”, never was “broken”, and neither are you!! Ultimately belief stems from willingness…If you are willing to take a leap of faith, to make the effort, you will begin to accumulate concrete results, and you will have the proof to bolster more belief. While I can’t claim that my “recovered” life is always sunshine and tulips, I can gratefully say I am no longer stuck in survival mode. I can imagine greater possibilities for my life and loved ones, and most of all, I have unshakeable faith in YOU!
Nostalgia and Neuroscience Part 1
“Nostalgia… it’s delicate but potent.” Don Draper, “Mad Men”
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” which I’m currently revisiting, is a semi autobiographical novel, in which essentially nothing happens, but author Betty Smith’s vivid, bittersweet, recollections of life in the the 1910’s tenements, transports us back to a specific time…the same milieu of my grandmother who would share with me her photo albums of her large Italian immigrant family. How I loved poring over the pictures of a bygone era as she recounted stories of her 11 siblings, the way all the sisters would make the beds, “keeping company” with my grandfather in Coney Island…him looking sheepish and skinny as my grandmother squeezed him with glee. Nowhere is the concept of nostalgia, capitalized on more, than in advertising and marketing. In the tv series “Mad Men”, set in the advertising world of the 1960’s, Don Draper masterfully pitches to Kodak execs, the latest in technology… a slide projector, “not a space ship, but a time machine. A device you can use to travel backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we long to go again. It’s not a wheel…it’s called the carousel.”
Nostalgia holds fascinating aspects, some of which I will attempt to explore here, through the lenses of art and science, the personal and the collective, time and space, memory and imagination, the unconscious and self identity. Can a blog encapsulate such scope and breadth? Probably not, but one can die trying! Traditionally we think of nostalgia as a desire to return home (nostos, Greek for “nest”) and the pain (algos) of being unable to do so, but we can also feel nostalgia for eras in which we never lived, such as the 80’s Facebook group to which I belong, filled with millennials! Nostalgia can also arise for those times we actually begrudgingly endured. I have experienced this first hand, from recurrent dreams of longing to go back to college…a time of my life in which I was fairly miserable. The campuses and dorms vary wildly in my dreams, but the intense emotion of longing is consistent. According to Freud, these repetitive remembrances are a way to assert control over our past. In this case, nostalgia as a mind state serves to re imagine our troublesome past in an attempt to better our future.
In 1688, the Swiss physician Dr. Johannes Hofer, coined the term “nostalgia” as a medical diagnosis for which the symptomatology included: rumination, melancholia, insomnia, anxiety, and loss of appetite. It was originally thought to primarily affect soldiers and sailors, but the label made an indelible mark in society. Even author Emily Bronte, while away at boarding school, became afflicted with nostalgia,…its subsequent treatment a speedy dispatch home. By the early 20th century, nostalgia was considered a debilitating psychiatric, rather than neurological, illness. The object of the nostalgic state as “homeland” or a place, was expanded to include the non spatial : loved ones, carefree times, holidays, and even societal norms. Marcel Proust described these sudden, nurturant memories so well in his magnum opus “Remembrance Of Things Past” (the longest novel ever written, clocking in at over a million words!), that the term “Proustian moment” was coined. In one of the early scenes of the novel, the voice of the depressed narrator describes an encounter with a little madeleine pastry cake and a cup of herbal tea, that can only be described as transcendental. The flavor and fragrance, unexpectedly evokes a flood of childhood memories in the French countryside, imbuing him with a renewed sense of grace….a sense of peace, safety and gratitude …the belief that no matter how hard life gets, and no matter the tragedies that befall us, there is beauty in the world and these fragmented recollections are “like souls….in the immense edifice of memory.”
In the mind body landscape, a plethora of tools are at our disposal.…whether of a scientific or spiritual bent, but I would venture to say that art is underrated! One could even argue that all of psychoanalysis can be found in art and literature. As Tolstoy lamented “Art is long, life is short”, but what triumphs over the destructive power of time better than art? Years ago I stumbled upon the film “Nostalgia” by the director Andrey Tarkovsky, and it was unlike any other prior film experience. The film was meandering, long, and seemingly plotless, but I found myself transfixed to this painterly, dreamscape of a visual fugue. Tarkovsky, an artist obsessed with the concept of time, was not concerned with entertainment, but of contemplation, and his films demand of the viewer to be part of the experience. He maintained the belief that cinema was the only way to record the moral qualities inherent in time itself. Asserting that time and memory were two sides of the same coin and that without time, memory could not exist, and without memory a human is bereft of self identity and connection to others. As a film geek, I concur that movies are the closest thing we have to a memory bank in visual form. In the case of “Nostalgia” (and Tarkovsky’s entire oeuvre), it is the journey into a person’s inner world…their psychology… a film that imitates life, and would lead to life imitating art. You may be thinking,”What does any of this have to do with my life or the present? I thought we were supposed to stay in the present moment?” Stay with me! By shattering plot driven narratives, cinema can illustrate non linear states of the mind in which past, present, and future are fused into the inner self. In order to understand ourselves better, we need to step out of the temporal plane, and art can serve as a tool. As Tarkovsky notes in his work “Sculpting in Time”, “Given that art expresses the ideal and man’s inspirations towards the infinite, it cannot be harnessed to consumerist aims without being violated in its very nature.”
Returning to the film, which recounts the story of a Russian poet, Gorchakov, who journeys to Italy to research the life of a Ukrainian serf who became a renowned composer in Bologna, Italy in the 18th century, only to become stricken with nostalgia and return home to poverty and suicide. Tarkovsky himself left the Soviet Union, became exiled, separated from his wife, his son, his farm house, and subsumed with what he described as “the stifling sense of longing that filled the screen, which was to become …the painful malady within myself…my lot for the rest of my life.” One of the locations in the film includes the thermal baths of healing waters, made famous by St. Catherine of Siena, in which for centuries travelers would wade, for ailments of the liver, spleen, stomach and skin. The water was believed to be particularly effective for expelling “melancholy”. Entranced by the pool, Tarkovsky employed it as the locus of the movie. Gorchakov, who has a heart condition and is accompanied by an Italian translator named Eugenia who bears an uncanny resemblance to a Botticelli painting. Eugenia pines for everything she can’t have including the love of Gorchakov, while he yearns for his homeland. I remember viewing “Nostalgia’s” long meditative sequences, and feeling an array of emotions, but it was the six minute long, uninterrupted, unedited take of Gorchakov crossing the drained pool with a candle, despite the wind threatening to extinguish it, that had me on the edge of my seat. A single task being carried out and completed in real time. One forgets why they even started it, much like writing this blog, it becomes about the act itself… you’re in a constant present. When he finally succeeds, his heart promptly gives out…The final shot represents one man’s inner division being made whole at last… the hypnotic image of a gothic cathedral on a Tuscan hill and a Russian dacha merging into one, indissolubly. As Tarkovsky expressed, “It is a way of preserving time which in theory gives us the possibility of moving backwards, freely, eternally.” More on the power of memory and nostalgia as a motivating force in Parts 2 and 3 !
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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