Back or Body Pain and Psychotherapy

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Do you suffer from back or body pain, migraines, tinnitus, carpel tunnel syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia? Amazingly, all of these often have a common cause — and a common cure!

woman with clinched fist fighting pain

Thousands of people with the above conditions have been cured through good psychotherapy alone! I myself have seen many people experience tremendous relief. What are these disorders all about?

According to the work of Dr. John Sarno, whose principles have brought relief to many patients, back pain and these other disorders are caused by the mind in a response to psychological stress. Indeed, many people have deep repressed emotions which threaten to surface and cause significant psychological distress and even emotional crises. In response, the mind generates various physical symptoms to distract the patient from these disturbing, powerful emotions, thereby saving him from becoming psychologically overwhelmed. The pain you feel is very real, except it is generated by the mind and not by damaged tissue. The mind has been proven to be capable of doing such things!
For example one person came to therapy with intense back pain, often experienced while playing basketball, and with no apparent physical trauma or other physical cause. In psychotherapy we revealed that he had a history of being bullied and shamed while playing sports as a boy, and playing as an adult brought these intense feelings of shame to the surface. They threatened to overwhelm his consciousness and even cause a breakdown. The fear and powerlessness of being a child and enduring this abuse came back to him and it drove him to a crisis. His mind judged it to be too dangerous to his mental health, and therefore created the back pain to distract him from his emotions! Consequently he worried about his back, and feared some serious injury, and also became preoccupied with seeing a doctor. This completely distracted from his overpowering negative emotions. Being in a state of worry about back pain, even severe back pain, was much preferable to his experiencing a psychological breakdown. The pain rescued him from his emotions!

The unconscious mind is so powerful!

woman looking sad with blue tint

Emotional illness is one of a person’s most serious conditions. It can completely derail one’s normal functioning. Most physical conditions, including those cited above, though painful, are also diverting, and are usually easier to handle than severe psychological distress. The unconscious mind knows this, and purposely creates a distraction. Amazingly, by simply becoming consciously aware of this whole process, and in dealing with his overpowering emotions in psychotherapy, this individual experienced a near complete cessation of back pain, even when playing basketball, without any other medical treatment!

Another patient came to therapy with years of maddening tinnitus. The ringing in his ears was constant and as a result he could not sleep, was depressed and at his wit’s end. A battery of medical tests had ruled out any physical cause. I assessed him with an anxious condition called perfectionism, caused by low self-esteem, because of which he habitually attempted make everything in his life perfect in the quest to feel better about himself. He felt —deep down inside— that if he could just get things in his life perfect, he would be redeemed from low self-worth. But, since perfection is actually impossible, he lived in the constant fear of never reaching his goal, and was terrified of being permanently left in an intolerable state of low self-esteem. This fear threatened to overwhelm his mind and even create a breakdown, which would have been disastrous, so his mind created the tinnitus to distract him. His fear of failing to be perfect would get so strong that the ringing in his ears would increase, and blot out everything else. He would become so preoccupied with his tinnitus that he would forget all about his overpowering emotions. He would instead focus on finding a medical cure for the ringing in his ears!

In therapy, I helped him to cognitively abandon the pursuit of perfection in his life, for example in the condition of his house, and instead to accept a moderate household condition. 

We reviewed the fact that there will always be imperfections and little problems in life, and the solution to these problems was often to embrace and accept imperfection, and to strive for moderate, but satisfying success, instead of an impossible state of perfection. After three months of therapy his tinnitus was 90 percent gone!

For more information about the causes and treatment of perfectionism, click here.

shirtless man with raised arms smiling

The main key to finding a relief for many disorders, including those mentioned above, is to abandon the idea that you have a physical illness, defect or damage. MRI’s may reveal pinched nerves or herniated discs, pressure on the nerves of your wrists and more, but according to Dr. Sarno, these are not the causes of pain. Pain has been proven in thousands of cases to be in the body but caused by the mind!

Very commonly, it is discovered in psychotherapy that patients are suffering from repressed rage at their parents for various, and often unavoidable, mistakes made in raising them as children. This rage threatens to burst onto the surface and overwhelm him with aggressive feelings. The mind fears a breakdown, and so creates migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and more to distract the patient and to contain the rage. 

You can find relief!

In psychotherapy we strive to first understand this whole process, then to psychotherapeutically process the repressed rage, bringing it into conscious awareness. This renders the need for distraction unnecessary, and the condition often ameliorates and disappears!

Dr Sarno calls these disorders collectively TMS, or tension myositis syndrome. Most medical doctors will not accept this diagnosis, instead hewing to the traditional, physically caused condition. Many patients however are unsatisfied with the results or with the methods of medical or surgical treatment. It has often not worked out for them, and they are left with a life of pain, distraction, and even disability from their preferred pursuits. Psychotherapy, however, can offer great relief from these symptoms, in cases where regular medical science has failed to be helpful.

For more information in detail about the steps that need to be taken in psychotherapy, click here.

Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, or download one of my informative free reports. If you are living with back pain or other seemingly incurable disorders, and would like guidance or treatment from an empathetic therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you! Or you may visit my detailed specialty page on back pain treatment and other psycho-somatic disorders, here.