Is It All In Your Head?

Extending the Mind-Body Connection with Dr. Sarno

Dr. John Sarno MD was a full professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at NYU for many years. He began his career treating patients with chronic back pain. He tried all of the usual methods - physical therapy, medications including anti-inflammatories and painkillers, changes in activities from bedrest to exercise, and even referrals for surgery. Yet, he found that very few really got better.  Sarno, always ahead of his time, came to believe that the “medical pain industry provides little benefit outside of their own profits”. 

He suspected something much more was going on. Being an empathic and sensitive individual, he began to question chronic pain patients about their lives. He found that they fell into roughly 3 categories: those with an undue amount of stress in their lives, those having trouble internally dealing with their stress, and those with histories of trauma.

Common to all three categories is the finding that these patients were repressing anger. This could be anger at others, anger or frustration with their situations, or most particularly, anger at themselves for falling short in their own expectations. In other words, these were diligent, hard-working, and often perfectionistic people who would turn their anger inward against themselves.

Having been very familiar with Freud‘s theory of the unconscious, and combined with his own abilities to connect emotionally with patients, he began to advance the theory that patients were converting the fear of fully experiencing their emotions into chronic physical pain. He speculated that this was being done through the autonomic nervous system. Since the autonomic nervous system controls muscle tension as well as blood flow, he advanced the theory that the autonomic nervous system was creating physical pain in order to protect the patient from being fully aware of their emotional pain.

He was able to help his patients “open up“ and begin to experience their emotions in a safer way. This allowed their nervous systems to release the need to create chronic physical pain. He claimed a 95% success rate in relieving chronic back pain. (Of course, this was always after imaging, physical examination, and careful evaluation to rule out any other physical causes for the pain).

As we now know, the mind uses a vast repertoire of unconscious strategies to avoid feeling emotions or thoughts that it deems unacceptable. In light of this, Sarno’s speculation makes a great deal of sense.

So, how do you begin to access this mind-body connection for yourself?  Start by relaxing your self-worth and perfectionistic thoughts.  Practice breath work. Focus on feeling tension or pain in your body, breathing through it and relaxing. Use mindfulness or meditation to safely allow experiences of emotional pain to be processed.  And as Sarno observed, be open to the idea that our emotions will not always be understood by our conscious minds, but often will be expressed in physical symptoms.  

For more about this remarkable physician, read his obituary in The New York Times , or check Amazon for one of Dr. Sarno’s books including “The Mindbody Prescription”, “Healing Back Pain”, or “The Divided Mind”.  You’ll also enjoy the short film “All The Rage - Saved By Sarno” from 2017.   As always, I'm here for you.