By Hope Gibbs
It became a medical controversy when Dr. John E. Sarno’s book, “The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain,” was published in 1998.
In it, the renowned physician explained the vital connection between mental and bodily health, insisting that many painful conditions—including most neck and back pain, migraine, repetitive stress injuries, whiplash, and tendonitises—are rooted in repressed emotions.
His book, which has sold more than 500,000 copies, shows how these conditions can be successfully treated without drugs, physical measures, or surgery. Does it seem to good to be true? Consider this.
The Key to Healing Yourself
In the preface to his book, Sarno explains: “Pain, disability, misinformation, and fear are a quartet of conditions that plague the Western world. Back, neck, and limb pain are rampant, and statistics indicate that the epidemic is spreading. Disability in American industry from low back pain continues to increase year by year.”
The problem, Sarno suggests, can be found in the industries that employ large numbers of people to work at computers.
“These workers are experiencing great disability and health insurance problems because of a new pain disorder known as repetitive stress injury (RSI). Millions of Americans, mostly women, suffer from a painful malady of unknown cause called fibromyalgia. While gigantic medical industries have arisen to diagnose and threat these conditions, the plague continues.”
Sarno’s Therapeutic Program
In the early 1970s, Sarno began to doubt the validity of the conventional diagnoses and treatment of the syndromes of neck, shoulder, and back pain.
“A closer look had suggested that back muscles, from the back of the head to the buttocks, were the primary tissues involved,” he writes. “This confirmed the work of all those through the years who described what they called fibromyalgia, fibrosis, or myofascial pain.”
Sarno’s study of the literature, and his growing experience working with his patients, suggested that those maladies were actually part of a disorder he came to call Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS)—a painful, but harmless change of the state of the muscles.
“Structural abnormalities are the not the source of the pain,” Sarno insists. “The pain—stiffness, burning, pressure, numbness, tingling, and weakness—are caused by mild oxygen deprivation in the muscles, nerves, or tendons involved. In itself, this is harmless.”
The Real Issue
Sarno believes the brain has seen fit to reduce the blood flow to the painful areas. The real culprit is the rage, and other powerful feelings in the unconscious. “The pain had to be created as a distraction to prevent that from happening.”
1. Knowledge is power. In most cases, Sarno notes, psychological factors were involved—life stresses, perfectionism, or childhood trauma. Given this, the goal is to thwart the brain’s strategy.
2. Repudiate the structural diagnosis for the pain. The pain will not stop unless you are able to say, “I have a normal back; I now know that the pain is due to a basically harmless condition, initiated by the brain to serve a psychological purpose, and that the structural abnormalities that have been found are normal changes associated with activity and aging.”
3. Acknowledge the psychological basis for the pain. “The brain tries desperately to divert our attention from rage in the unconscious,” Sarno writes. “This is an automatic reaction of the mind, not based on logic or reason. So we must bring reason into the process.” He suggests asking yourself, “What is the sense in producing pain to distract one’s attention from the repressed rage?” Then decide, “I would rather deal with the rage than have the pain.”
4. Accept the psychological explanation and all of its ramifications as normal for healthy people in our society. “We must say to ourselves, ‘It’s all right to be the way we are: illogical, unconsciously enraged, like a child having a temper tantrum. That’s part of being human, and it’s universal.’” Then, Sarno says, take these next steps:
- Think psychological. I tell my patients they must consciously think about repressed rage, and the reasons for it whenever they are aware of the pain. This is in contradiction to what the brain is trying to do. This effort is a counterattack, an attempt to undo the brain’s strategy. It is essential to focus on unpleasant, threatening thoughts and feelings to deny the pain its purpose.
- Talk to your brain. It sounds silly, but it’s effective. The conscious mind addresses the unconscious, the more forcefully the better. Successfully treated patients report that when they feel a twinge of pain, the kind of thing that used to be a harbinger of an attack, they talk to or shout at themselves and the pain disappears. You tell your mind that you know what it’s doing, that you know the physical pain is harmless and is a distraction from the repressed rage, and that you no longer intend to be intimidated.
- Make a written list. List all of the pressures in your life, since they all contribute to your inner rage. There are self-imposed pressures, typical of the conscientious perfectionist, and the pressures of everyday life—which also include happy things like marriage and children, since they also represent great pressure. You should also list anger left over from childhood. Here’s the goal: By consciously identifying and dealing with sources of pressure, you reduce their potential negative effect in the unconscious.
- Set aside a daily reflection or meditation period. This part of the treatment is essential for very busy people who feel they don’t have a moment to think of anything but their work during the day. This is best done in quiet and solitude, so a time must be found each day when you can sit and think about what it takes to get better.
5. The bottom line. “For some people, simply shifting attention from the physical to the psychological will do the trick,” Sarno says. “Others need more information on how the strategy works, and still others require psychotherapy.” But in every case, he is confident that knowledge is essential to the cure. “By making people aware of what is going on both physically and psychologically, we frustrate the brain’s strategy.”
Want to learn more? Click here to buy The Mindbody Prescription.