Dear Awesome Woman,
I had an experience with my son recently that shows the intimate connection between suppressed emotional energy and pain as it gets expressed in the body. According to Dr. John Sarno, the mind has the habit of cutting off oxygen to different parts of the body in order to distract us from feeling our emotions. He labelled this phenomenon as TMS, or Mind-body syndrome and it results in physical symptoms.
As strange as this sounds, if you are even willing to ½ believe this philosophy by focusing on your inner emotional world when a symptom such as back or neck pain arises, then the healing will not only be faster, but you’ll get wisdom as well. By recognizing that there are emotions that want to be heard in order to teach you something, you’ll get physical relief as well as make changes that will help you navigate relationships and your world in a much healthier way.
I share the following story as an example of how beneficial and healing it is to tune into our emotions and help our loved ones do the same.
On the first day of my 13 year old son’s vacation, he woke up in terrible pain from a stiff neck. He couldn’t get up or move his head in any direction. As a sensitive child, he cried long and loudly from the pain and the frustration of being stuck in this very awkward position.
As a mom, my first reaction was complete internal panic as I tried calmly (outwardly) to access the situation in order to make sure we didn’t have an emergency on our hands. No fever and no injury quickly indicated to me that it was ‘just a stiff neck.’ Painful, awkward, but did not necessitate a rush to the doctor.
“Now what?” I asked myself. “How do I help get my son pain relief and get him up and running as quickly as possible so that he can enjoy his vacation?”
He goes to an out- of- town school (common practice in my Jewish Chassidic community) and this time at home is very precious to him because he loves to play with local friends and his very active siblings.
After having him take some deep belly breaths, getting him some ibuprofin and letting him cry it out for a bit, I asked him if anything was bothering him recently. Through his sniffling, he asked me what I meant.
“Well, did anything happen recently with your friends that made you angry or sad?” I asked.
“Mom, this is about my neck, not my feelings.” he responded with exasperation.
“ Often times our bodies will be giving us a message when there is pain. There are some emotions that need to be addressed. Perhaps something is bothering you in one of your relationships or maybe you’re worried about something?” I said.
And with that opening, he proceeded to share that two days before, his friends had been jumping on our trampoline and though he kept telling them to calm down, they ignored him. In fact one of them put a hole in the new net. He was worried that when his father would see it that he would be angry.
He also wanted some alone time to play with his brothers, but his friends always just walked into the house and pushed past him at the door even when he said that he didn’t want to play. He complained that they don’t listen to him. He also rationalized to me that it wouldn’t be nice of him to ask them to leave.
Anger, sadness, frustration over being ignored, powerlessness, guilt – a whole host of emotions were swirling in his body wanting to be heard.
From my training and experience as a Mind-body coach, steeped in Dr. Sarno’s philosophy of suppressed emotions lead to pain, I knew that tapping into this spring of emotional energy was exactly what would get my son relief and on his feet again.
I started by having him breathe deeply into his abdomen, pretending that he was filling up a helium balloon in his tummy and then releasing the air out on the exhale. This helped him to relax his body a bit.
Then I had him notice what physical sensation he noticed when he thought back to the scene of his friends ignoring him. With some gentle prompting, we labelled it anger, frustration and powerlessness. Emotions are energy- in -motion, so the key is to NOTICE and FEEL the physical sensation of whatever is happening in the body.
For my son, it was difficult for him to understand what his ‘koo-koo ‘ mom was talking about, but he played along. He noticed ‘something’ in his belly. I had him keep his attention on his stomach for a ½ a minute. Then I asked him to ‘become’ his stomach and to give me three adjectives to describe himself as his stomach. This is a metaphor/imagination tool, and though he balked, he played along.
After giving me three adjectives, I had him take another deep breath and asked him (as his stomach) what helpful message it has to share. He rolled his eyes, and then told me what ‘message’ came up for him. I explained to him that this was a message that his body and emotions were sharing and that we could be confident that as we kept listening to what they wanted to tell him, that his neck would get better, perhaps not that day, but certainly within a day or two. This was comforting to him because he knew of friends who had had stiff necks and it had taken them a full week to feel better. He wanted to be goofing around on the trampoline and flying his drone with his brothers and he didn’t want to be out of the action for that long.
We continued on to notice other physical sensations of his anger, sadness and fear. We played the metaphor/imagination game some more by speaking to his neck and stomach. This was a process we did throughout the day as he rested, cried, took ibuprofin and put a heating pad on his neck.
Though we addressed the pain and the physicality of the stiff neck, I made sure to emphasize to him that we were allowing for all his emotions and hearing whatever messages that they wanted to share with us. I spoke about how important it is to honor our feelings and to set boundaries with people. I also said that it’s not healthy to tell ourselves that ‘it’s not nice to …..” Being kind to others is important, but if someone ignores what you are asking them to do or not do, then we need to be assertive and let our needs be known. I shared that even if that feels uncomfortable to him, that we will work on that together. I told him that I will help him be assertive and speak to his friends and that the most important thing for him is to notice and be honest with himself when he is feeling angry, including when he feels that towards me.
He slept great that night with much more flexibility in his neck. The next day, he felt better, though still in pain and we continued the emotional processing and physical care. By day three, the stiff neck was completely gone and he was his happy, rambunctious teenage self, able to goof around with his siblings.
Whoo – hoo!
With his friends, we addressed with them the things that had been bothering my son and set boundaries and guidelines for treating him respectfully.
So many lessons were learnt for myself and my son from this seemingly glitz in my son’s vacation plans. I really saw the power of recognizing Mind-body syndrome for what it is and we both recognized how crucial it is to address our emotional inner world.
A few days later, when my son had an unpleasant interaction with his friend, he shared with me immediately what happened and we took the time to address his feelings and body sensations. He said to me “Mom, I don’t want to get another stiff neck. “
As I comforted him, we dived into his body, like Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus, and addressed the REAL source of his pain.