Somebody asked me recently: how did you feel when you first learned about mind-body approach to CRPS? It has been over 5 years, but I still vividly remember that day when I finished reading Dr. Sarno’s book Mindbody Prescription. At first, it was absolute, total disbelief. No, my mind was telling me, it cannot be that simple!!! Why all other doctors have not arrived on the same idea? Why was I told to subject myself to all kinds of invasive treatments when result can be achieved by simply adjusting the way you think about your pain? But the book was so logical, persuasive and straightforward! It also had thousands of extremely positive reviews written by grateful readers, and it was obvious that those reviews were sincere, truthful and by no means fake.
My head was spinning. On one hand, the book promised a miracle. On the other hand, I knew darn well that miracles did not exist. On one hand, the book put the control over recovery from chronic pain squarely in the hands of a patient, which was so much better than dealing with the maze of the healthcare system. On the other hand, it left me with a full responsibility for my recovery. It made me feel equally liberated by putting power in my hands (no pun intended), and burdened with the work of healing, which, looking back, was much harder than I initially thought it would be. I soon learned that my brain was much more stubborn than I could expect, but still trainable!
Looking back, I can tell that my newly acquired knowledge changed my life forever. It made me a stronger, more confident and more compassionate person. Not only I understand myself much better now, I am better equipped to handle my relationships with other people, I am more open to new experiences and new ideas. But most importantly, I am healthy and I know how to manage daily stresses of my life so inevitable occasional pains caused by stress heal quickly.
Five Stages Of Mindbody Healing
Mindbody healing is not a simple or linear process. Mind does not work like a switch. It takes time and effort to re-wire your brain and un-learn the information that was being imprinted in your brain for years. Once people learn that there is a mind-body path to healing from any chronic pain, most of them go through five stages. I call them five Ds of TMS healing.
Stage 1. Disbelief. Almost everybody starts with disbelief, because it is very hard for them to accept the fact that their pain is induced by the brain. Their brain, trained in the opposing theories, offers many ways to go back to convenient knowledge:
- My pain feels so physical, it must be structural.
- I have a herniated disk, and I have my MRI to prove it.
- My EMG shows that I have a carpal tunnel syndrome, there is a structural damage to the nerve
- Doctor such-and-such told me that I have a pinched nerve
- Swelling or skin changes cannot be induced by the brain
I am sure, this list can continue forever.
Well, multiple studies were done to show that back pain is not a result of a herniated disk, but rather a coincidence. Study after study show that spine deformities are equally present in those with chronic pain as they are in those without chronic pain. Here is one of them, from the United States, and another one, from Japan. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bruce Moseley conducted a clinical study comparing an arthroscopic knee surgery for osteoarthritis to a placebo one. He found no difference in the outcome. Now, for those who are still stuck on skin changes: it has long been a well-accepted notion that acne and rosacea are known to be triggered by stress.
Disbelief is normal. Every revolutionary idea starts with disbelief. And that’s OK. What makes a productive revolutionary idea different from an unproductive revolutionary idea is that it stands the trial by practice. Thousands of people around the world have proven Dr. Sarno and the mind-body method right by simply using it and healing. If you are in disbelief, you are welcome to continue questioning this theory. However, keep your mind and eyes open to the facts and try to accept them instead of resisting or ignoring them. Only then you will progress to the next stage of healing.
Stage 2. Doubt. Regardless of how much or how little time you spent on stage 1 – a year or just one minute, you will inevitably enter stage 2, which is doubt. If you have not sufficiently disposed of your disbelief, with every spike in pain your mind will continue going back to the concept of structural damage. Why? Because your mind is searching for easy solutions: a pill, a surgery, an injection. Because the advances of our modern medicine in fighting bacterial and viral infections, in developing amazing surgical techniques and painkillers or amazing diagnostic technologies conditioned us to believe that there is an instant solution for every illness. Well, mind-body healing is hard work, and it is slow, especially for CRPS, which manifests itself with very complex and widespread symptoms. Usually, there is no instant relief and no instant gratification. But eventually you will convince yourself that slow but successful healing is better than an endless search for a magic pill. Sometimes people even accept that some of your mind-body symptoms (for example, pain) are psychosomatic, but the rest of them (swelling, rash or spasms) are not. Acceptance is often a gradual and painful process.
Still, once you get over those doubts and firmly convince yourself that your pain is, in fact, of psychosomatic origin and can only be defeated by a mind-body approach, there is another doubt waiting for you. You begin to doubt yourself and your ability to beat your pain. This one is the biggest obstacle on your path to recovery. This doubt comes in different shapes and shades. You may be worrying that you are not going through the right steps, or that your choice of the methodology is wrong. It may be that you decide that you are lacking skills or even capacity to re-wire your brain. My advice to you is very simple: as long as you understand that everybody has doubts but most of us succeed with enough effort – you will eventually overcome your doubts and move on to the next stage.
Stage 3. Disappointment. This is another likely period for those who made it past doubts. You have done all the work understanding the mind-body connection with regards to pain, you are now diving deep into your emotions, you are working through your childhood traumas, you are meditating every day, but your pain is not going away. Or maybe your original pain is down, but your anxiety is now through the roof. This is the time when you start wondering whether you wasted all of your time on this Dr. Sarno mind-body business and you would be much better off by just getting a prescription for an opioid painkiller or look for a good surgeon to fix your problems.
However, I have very good news for you: you are closer to success than you think. Increase in the levels of anxiety, depression or OCD is in fact a very good sign. It indicates that your pain has psychosomatic origin. The same applies if your pain moved to a different location. Everybody goes through this period. Why? Because good things never come soon enough and because there are no free lunches. People who developed CRPS often have a long history of stress, difficult life situations and even tragedies. It takes a lot of damage to make the nervous system fall apart to the point that it creates symptoms of such intensity in different parts of the body. But that also means that you must put a lot of time, effort, and patience into climbing back to normal. And with time, patience, and effort, you will get to the next stage, Determination. But for now, keep working!
Stage 4. Determination. This stage, when I switched from despair and anxiety caused by my CRPS to hope and determination, was maybe the most exciting time of my life. My hard work was paying off and the sense of personal achievement in beating this officially incurable illness was exhilarating. I felt like a mountain climber feels being a hundred feet away from the peak of Mount Everest. So, what one should expect at this stage? By now, you have seen small improvements. You were able to achieve occasional reduction of some or maybe even all of your symptoms. You are no longer fearful of pain because you know that you can improve. At this point, you are working on your healing with renewed energy. Congratulations! You should be very proud of yourself! Still, I have a word of warning for you: do not get overconfident or easily discouraged. Your success may still be temporary, with setbacks and long plateaus when you seem to be stuck without any progress. Continue your work. You will know when you are fully healed. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen. Keep working!
Stage 5. Defiance. At this point, you are symptom-free. You are walking on clouds and confident that your pain and the rest of your symptoms will never return. Life is great and you regained your normal lifestyle. Enjoy your victory but be mindful that pain may still come back if your emotional problems reoccur under pressures of life and stress, and it would be more than you can successfully cope with. Don’t be defiant, be vigilant instead. You have a playbook at your fingertips, try it again, and you will be fine!
Many chronic pain patients who start on the path of mind-body healing soon discover that, as their pain level goes down, something happens to their mental health. They often report increase in anxiety, depression, mood swings or obsessive behaviors. They get frustrated and scared because they view these emotional issues as a new set of symptoms, often more unpleasant than their physical pain.
In fact, they are still dealing with the same problem. Physical and emotional pains are connected vessels. Remember, your physical pain is a result of a suppressed emotional pain. Your pain began when you started repressing the feeling of negative emotions because those emotions were too painful. Eventually avoidance became habitual, and your brain re-routed emotional pain into a physical circuit. Fast forward to today. You stopped hiding from your emotions and the pain went down, but all those bottled-up emotions are now staring into your face.
Does it mean that you are now forever stuck between the rock of pain and a hard place of anxiety? Not at all. This is your opportunity to finally address your underlying problems. I will walk you through the steps.
Let’s first understand what anxiety is. Emotions exist in our nervous system for a reason. Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism that helped humans avoid dangers: tigers, falling rocks, lightnings etc. Before we can see a tiger hiding in the bushes, we are likely to hear a sound of a movement or notice a faint shadow on the ground. We don’t know what it is, but our brain generates suggestions that we may be facing a danger. That sense of an unspecified danger is anxiety, and it is, in a way, a good emotion. However, it becomes a negative emotion when it starts dominating your life.
You don’t believe me? Watch this presentation by Dr. David Hanscom, a renown orthopedic surgeon, who explains the mechanism of anxiety-generated pain. It is a bit detailed, but what matters is what you do after you are done watching.
So, what do you do now, how can you tame the beast of anxiety? There are three actions that you can take:
- Acknowledge that your previous life experiences led you to the elevated sense of anxiety. Continue re-examining your life and connecting past life events with your current emotional state. Remember that by now you were able to reduce your physical pain by doing so, therefore, your emotional pain will eventually go the same way.
- Use mind-body approaches to reduce anxiety. Read books and listen audios by Dr. Claire Weekes, the world-renown anxiety specialist. You can find her work here.
- Start meditating. If done right, meditation stabilizes central nervous system and normalizes emotional response. Multiple studies were down showing positive impact of meditation on patients with anxiety and depression.
Each one of these actions works on different aspects of mind-body, but all three get you to the goal of getting your life back. Remember, until you learn to recognize your emotions for what they are, accept them as part of your nature and learn how to handle them as they come along, you will be in this ping-pong between the emotional and physical pain, so get to work!
I was diagnosed with CRPS in 2016. By then, I suffered relentless neuropathic pain in my hands, loss of dexterity and was seriously considering disability. Thanks to the work of Dr. Sarno and his followers, I fully recovered.
As I overcame one challenge after another in my healing process, I promised myself that in case of a successful recovery I would write a book to help others defeat their chronic pain conditions.
After my book Defying The Verdict was published, I became an advocate for the chronic pain patients and created this website to promote mind-body healing to the CRPS patients.
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