I was recently listening to an episode of the podcast “Like Mind, Like Body,” in which Dr. John Stracks was talking about his experiences treating Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), also called Tension Myoneural Syndrome, Neuroplastic Pain, or Mind-Body Syndrome (MBS). All of which refer to how the body expresses something the mind isn’t comfortable allowing you to think or feel emotionally. Dr. John Sarno, Dr. David Clarke, Dr. David Hanscom and others have written about TMS for quite some time. Dr. Stracks was saying how he has noticed many of his patients start showing physical symptoms after a death in the family. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as momentous a shift in one’s life as the loss of someone close to you, it can be a job change, a move, a physical diagnosis, divorce, a history of trauma, or anything that takes a fair amount of emotional and psychological restructuring to assimilate.
TMS can manifest as sleep issues, a backache, sciatica, neck pain, IBS, Gerd, migraines, tics, TMJ, palpitations, tinnitus, knee pain, pins and needles in your hands or feet, vision issues, numbness, sudden muscle spasms, or anything physical that stops you in your tracks and distracts you from feeling anger, grief, panic, or anxiety. Your body is simply processing something emotional and protecting you from what it unconsciously believes is worse: a flood of overwhelming disturbing or negative feelings.
One of the hallmarks of mind-body syndrome, is a rotating roster of physical issues. It’s like mind-body whac-a-mole. One day you might have Gerd, another day it’s a backache, next week it’s a migraine, next year it could be sciatica or tinnitus. To make matters even more complicated, some people find that when their physical symptoms abate they can be replaced by emotional issues, like anxiety, grief, or depression.
If you already know you fit Dr. Sarno’s pattern of someone likely to develop mind body syndrome, i.e.: you’re sensitive, generous, a do-gooder, perfectionistic, self-critical, have a variety of physical symptoms, are hyper-vigilant about what’s going on in your body, and you have had a major life change, it might be a good idea to consider your physical issues psychogenic. This doesn’t mean you’re making them up; rather, it’s your unconscious mind creating a physical symptom. It’s helpful to understand your body is simply trying to help you assimilate a major life change or something else you could find disturbing or overwhelming. Of course, these mind-body symptoms do not always come from something so easily traceable. They might just show up when your unconscious mind is concerned you’ll be drenched in grief and it wants to preoccupy you with something else it deems less bad.
One of the most useful things you can do is to keep a written or audio journal where you vent your deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings. Dr. Sarno used to say it was crucial to focus on your rage because people who are kind, nice, overly generous, sweet, people-pleasing, considerate and perfectionistic generally have a tendency to not allow themselves to feel their anger to its full extent. In people with that constellation of traits and tendencies unexpressed rage can often turn into a physical symptom. The good news is: Getting in touch with your feelings, even ones you might think are unacceptable, can be safe and freeing. Simply writing about what’s going on in your life, including things you are unhappy about, allows them to move through you. It also lets your unconscious mind know you can handle feeling all your feelings.
Another aspect of moving through TMS into recovery is going against your symptoms by engaging in physical activity. Exercise is an essential component of healing from TMS.
While it feels wildly counter-intuitive to have real pain and convince yourself it’s in your head and you’re really OK, this is the road to feeling better. A short phrase that helps with this is: Hurt doesn’t equal harm.
When thinking of stressful events, it’s important to remember that positive life changes, like getting married, buying a house, starting a new job, or having a baby can also trigger TMS. It dosen’t have to be anger, memories of a traumatic childhood, or current annoyances.
Of course, with each new symptom it’s easy to get scared and think, “This time something is really wrong with me.” I certainly wouldn’t assume that every physical malady is a symptom of TMS. Check out whatever ails you with a doctor. If you find you’re really fine, there is a cornucopia of techniques that can re-orient your thinking and allow your body to come back to a more peaceful, pain free state.
A huge part of overcoming TMS is constantly reminding yourself that nothing really bad is happening to you physically, quite a feat when you’re suffering with an intense migraine, unpleasant stomach issues, or what feels like debilitating back pain. Yet, that is what ultimately allows your body-mind to switch back to a symptom-free state.
This is often a matter of retraining your brain, since a part of you unconsciously wants to create a physical symptom to distract you from emotional pain and while your conscious mind wants to get over the physical symptom and might be willing to feel the emotion. To make this even more difficult, you might also be aware enough to know you are grief stricken or furious at someone or something in your life; but, as Dr. Sarno used to say, there is a lot more anger there than meets the eye. This is why it’s so crucial to do the journaling and meditation.
Another important aspect of recovery is education. Current pain research is brimming with theories on the ways your brain creates pain. They are remarkably easy to understand, make sense, and help you see how easily you can re-train your brain. YouTube videos by Lorimer Moseley are engaging, fun and enlightening.
Dr. David Hanscomb has found 25-30% of a patient’s recovery from pain is based on getting enough sleep. (See Insomnia piece on this website.)
TMS can be a relapsing and remitting condition. That’s not a life sentence. It’s merely a way your unconscious mind shows you that you need to ratchet up your self care, create better boundaries with people, or start journaling and meditating again.
The good news is: There is nothing wrong with you. Even issues people have had for decades can suddenly resolve once the underlying psychological material is sufficiently acknowledged and you have been exposed to enough scientific information about the mind-body connection. At times, it’s helpful having a therapist on the journey, and an experienced body worker, massage therapist, acupuncturist. Not to “cure” you, but to support you.
I have suffered with mind-body syndrome since I was a young teen. It has manifested in myriad ways, none of which I enjoyed. The body can be astonishingly creative. No matter how many times I’ve been scared that something was really physically wrong this time, almost everything has resolved with a combination of journaling, meditation, education, and going against symptoms by staying active. The Curable app and their Facebook community are incredible resources, as they put all these healing tools in one place. I have also found reading Dr. Sarno’s and Dr. Hanscomb’s books incredibly helpful. Like so many things in life, dealing with this is both a process and a practice. If you have TMS please be patient and compassionate with yourself.
Here are some useful resources:
www.curable health.com and the curable app
YouTube videos and books by Lorimer Moseley, Dr. John Sarno, Dr. Sarno’s 12 Daily Reminders, Dr. David Hanscom, Dr. Howard Schubiner, Alan Gordon, LCSW, Dr. David Clarke, Adriaan Louw and Beth Darnall.
There is a ton of free information and detailed recovery guides on the pain psychology website: www.painpsychologycenter.com.
Candace Pert’s book: Molecules of Emotion. An excellent scientific explanation of how the brain communicates emotional information to the body.
Erik Vance’s book: Suggestible You. The audiobook is wonderfully done and fascinating.
Alan Gordon’s book: The Way Out: A Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Approach to Healing Chronic Pain
Podcast: Like Mind, Like Body by Alan Gordon, upbeat and extremely helpful.
Podcast: Tell Me About Your Pain
Podcast: Pain Reframed
Why Do I Hurt? A workbook by Adriaan Louw
This link will take you to a helpful graphic from curable.com:
Cartoon video explaining pain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aH9NG1c6mlY&feature=share
Recent research (2021): https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2784694?fbclid=IwAR1HK5ysqm9ODuXZuPOvSFZd9m0NloBBDejCq9aLCf0axyhDhfSwq7OBhqU
Here is a list of TMS or neuroplastic pain equivalents culled from a variety of sources, including Dr. Sarno’s classic: The Mindbody Prescription.
Pelvic floor pan
Gastrointestinal issues and IBS
Scoliosis and stenosis
Jaw pain, TMJ
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Dry eye syndrome and eye pain
Chronic headaches and migraines
Tendinitis or tennis elbow
Food allergies and seasonal allergies
Foot pain, Achilles heel and plantar fasciitis
Skin problems like eczema and rashes
Complex regional pain syndrome
Idiopathic pain is pain with no known cause, and at least half of the things on the above list medical doctors would call idiopathic.
Dr. Sarno said that real structural pain is almost always acute and chronic pain is almost always emotional.
Dr. Sarno also believed MRIs of your back are essentially useless because everyone has different disc issues that naturally occur with age. Only half of those people end up having any discomfort or pain.
If it is TMS, it’s typical to find that symptoms come and go, increase or decrease associated with your stress level.
You might have a history of conditions with no known origin.
It is also likely that your childhood was marked by an abusive, critical, highly demanding parent. An especially stressful childhood can contribute to a TMS-prone personality type.
TMS, or neuroplastic pain can run in families. One person has migraines, another IBS, and another back pain. This may come from trans-generational trauma, but can also be learned as a child.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang