Monday, June 8, 2009

Pain in your back or in your heart? The impact of emotions…..

You may have picked up from reading this blog over the years that I have – occasionally - a bad back. Pain that ranges form stiffness after sitting for a while, to tightness that distorts my posture through to extreme spasms that will grip with great force and pain literally stopping me in my tracks and bringing me to me knees. Debilitating and depressing stuff for someone like me for whom exercise is fun, rewarding and an escape from life stresses.

I first remember hurting my back after deadlifting, not a maximum weight by any means, but just before I was to give up my job to return to university. Ever since the back has been there. Sometimes – for months at a time there is no pain and I’ll train, run and climb mountains – sometimes it returns with a vengeance and sees me floored, carried out of the office and taken home. Hence my interest in keeping my back healthy, in mobility, in posture….

However as I’ve also hinted here a few times, I am personally convinced that stress and emotional factors have a huge impact on my back pain. Often my back pain correlates very clearly with stressful episodes professionally or personally.

To me it makes clear sense that your emotions and mental state can have impacts on your physical body and on your health. You enter an embarrassing situation and you blush. It is the morning before an exam and you get the shits. You see something sexually arousing and get an erection. Totally abstract mental events have a very physical impact.

This is incidentally one aspect of the whole Primal Blueprint / Evolutionary Fitness approach that is under appreciated – that of mental outlook and stress. Mark Sisson in his excellent new book – the Primal Blueprint – does touch on the topic and Devany has also mentioned it. We talk about living primal – in a way that suits your genes in terms of diet and exercise, but we neglect what is going on in our heads - our psychology, our spirituality. To be honest I think our psychology can have a massive impact on our health, trumping diet and exercise.

I’ve pointed previously to the theories of John Sarno. Much back pain, he would contend, is not derived from any physical injury or abnormality. Rather it is a physical phenomenon caused by the brain - like a blush or an erection. But in the case of pain, the brain is causing the pain – probably due to restricting the blood flow to the muscles and nerves. Why? He would explain that it is a method used by the brain to distract you from really painful and frightening emotions – anger, frustration.

The brain is protecting you. When you have the pain you are not thinking about the stressful painful issues – relationships, work stress, pressure from family etc.

It might all sound a bit weird but the more I think about this and read about it the more it makes sense to me. I can see in my own life how my back plays up when other stresses are at their worst at work or in my relationships. The pain comes and goes and moves around. It will move from the back to the buttocks, from the lower back to the upper back, with no explanation. It can be terrible first thing but then improve.

OK it all sounds a bit wacky, but I’ve got an interview coming with a guy who has written a book on his experiences with this type of pain.


Anonymous said...

interesting article. ive heard of the link between emotions and physical pain before on the subject of EFT. EFT is a healing tool that theorises that alot of diseases and ailments come from unresolved emotional issues. its all a very interesting area in my opinion, i believe we are only starting to touch on the subject.

Anonymous said...

btw, heres some info on EFT..

Anonymous said...


Sarno has some good points but is not highly credible IMO. Some great authorities on pain science, including the link between pain and emotion are David Butler and Lorimer Moseley. An internet search should reveal many of their well researched and scientific materials. Explain Pain is a great book. There are some amazing pain vids here as well:

Do yourself a favor and listen to these - incredibly interesting and educational.

Methuselah said...

Makes perfect sense to me Chris - when I am stressed or angry I can feel my trapezius muscles tightening. I sometimes get a sore neck as I find myself hunching over the laptop more determinedly and grinding my jaw. So aside from the more abstract affects of emotion about which people theorise, to me there some no-brainer, direct physical mechanisms by which emotion could trigger other, perhaps latent muscular issues.

AT22 said...

Absolutely. I've experienced this recently. I'm under more than usual stress, and I've had bizzare and unexplained heartburn issues. I believe it's completely related because I've changed virtually nothing else.

Marc said...

Left you a comment several posts ago about this.

Lots of bs stress in my life between work , ex-wife, attorneys etc etc.
sometimes it all becomes a bit to much...pain follows. either flue like symptoms or leg pain or bad stomach.
I've learned trough trial and error to go back to the basics when this oocurs. I simply start becoming very aware of my breathing and more so my thoughts.
2 days of strict and constant focus seems to bring about change......
There is no doubt that our emotions are key to vitality and well being.
Looking forward to the interview.


Chris said...

Thanks Marc - your comments are helpful as always