What Might Be Behind Your Physical Pains
Perspectives from a Chronic Pain Patient & Incest Survivor
Don’t be surprised if your medical doctors don’t know the cause of your physical pain. They may speculate and offer their best guesses, such as a herniated disc causing back pain, but there’s often no causal relationship between such structural anomalies and chronic pain. For trauma survivors, and anyone who has experienced hardship, emotional upset, or prolonged stress (i.e., nearly everyone in the world), chronic pain and illness are known consequences of these stressful life experiences.
Persistent back, neck, shoulder, knee, elbow, or head pain (you get the point); gut issues; or a whole host of other ailments, often result from a body that is overwhelmed with managing trauma or stress. In the face of actual or perceived danger, the amygdala—part of our brain’s limbic system—is directing our fight-flight-freeze responses. In these heightened states, the body is focused on survival. When the brain thinks you’re still in danger and these states persist, the body doesn’t have the capacity to heal and repair itself, as it normally would. Chronic medical conditions can result.
I know this from personal experience and from researching the topic for the last sixteen years of living with trauma-induced chronic physical pain. I ruptured a disc in my neck in 2005, but even after surgery to restore neurological function of my arm, I remained in life-altering, debilitating pain for another two years.
If you’re suffering from physical pain or other chronic conditions, and doctors either say they don’t believe you or that there is no cure, please know that there are many healthcare providers and individuals who do believe it’s real and who can help you discover that your body has the capacity to heal. It’s not always easy, as it takes personal strength and fortitude to work through underlying emotional pain, but it’s possible. Bottom line, we must consider our stress, emotions, and traumas.
After two years of misery and wishing I were dead, my chronic myofascial pain, which was triggered by neck surgery, finally started healing the moment I uncovered my repressed memory of sibling incest abuse.
Instead of resorting to drugs, shots, or surgery, I recommend searching for non-invasive approaches that address trauma and emotions. I’m not saying that sometimes we don’t need medications or other invasive treatments to temper symptoms and get our bodies back on track. But those usually aren’t healthy long-term solutions. I’ll never know if I could have regained the function of my arm without surgery, but I’ve read about others who have. Regardless, my continuing chronic pain was finally quelled through non-invasive mindbody healing approaches.
Working through trauma, addressing emotions, and understanding our physical responses to emotional pain helps us reprogram our brains to heal. As a place to start, below are some suggestions of ways to address trauma-related physical pain. This is not a comprehensive list, but it can help guide you toward approaches that address the mind and body as one entity. Many of these—in combination or at different times—have helped me. Everyone is unique and it may take trial and error to find what works best for you.
Note: I am a trauma and chronic pain survivor and a health scientist, not a licensed medical professional. While I recommend considering the following modalities based on my own experience and research, I cannot in any way guarantee their efficacy for any one individual. You should always consult with a trained professional before embarking on any treatment plan.
Psychology-related therapies (preferably with a trauma and/or somatic specialist):
Sensorimotor psychotherapy, Somatic psychotherapy, The Mindbody Syndrome (TMS) Psychotherapy, Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) (Tapping), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Biofeedback, NeuroAffective Touch®, Hypnotherapy
Reading books about the mindbody connection by the following authors:
Art therapy, Music therapy, Dance therapy, Journaling/writing
Pain Recovery Program (Alan Gordon), Integrative Pain Science Institute, Embodied ACT, Stanford Pain Management Center Psychological Therapy, Duke Integrative Medicine, Harvard Medical School’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Pain Reprocessing Therapy
Rest, Moderate exercise, Writing/journaling, Creative expression, Taking meaningful action, Letting go, Breath work, Meditation, Nutrition (e.g., eating mostly non-processed foods)
Support groups—online or in person:
Additional resource lists:
Compared to when I started this pain-to-healing journey in 2005, there are thankfully a growing number of doctors and interdisciplinary medical groups that understand the link between trauma and pain or illness and can better help sufferers treat their physical and emotional pain.
Maria Socolof holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Health Management from the Harvard School of Public Health. For twenty-two years, she worked as a health scientist, project manager, researcher, and technical writer. Then debilitating chronic pain took over her life after she ruptured a disc in her neck in 2005. This former competitive gymnast continued to pursue her career in spite of great pain, until she finally stopped to listen to her body. She ultimately discovered that past traumas, including sibling incest, were feeding her physical pain. Acknowledging the connection between the mind and the body, and taking steps to face her past traumas, has led her on a path of authentic healing.
She is now an author and speaker on the subjects of mindbody healing and the intersection of trauma and chronic pain. She is also an advocate for chronic pain sufferers and survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse. She is a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, Incest AWARE, and the Sexual Assault Advocacy Network. She has written a memoir, The Invisible Key: Unlocking the Mystery of My Chronic Pain, created a website and blog (healingfromchronicpain.com), and authored guest blog posts on various sites supporting pain sufferers and sexual abuse survivors. She is also a mother of two, a wife, and forever a gymnast-at-heart.