Since coming across Dr John Sarno’s work on TMS and meeting him in 2007, his theory that chronic pain and other persistent symptoms are manifestations of unresolved emotions, has been demonstrated to me hundreds of times both in myself and my clients.  Unresolved emotions could either be old, repressed ones that have been triggered or emotions we avoid in our daily life, usually because we are too busy to even notice them.  If emotions surfacing are deemed by the unconscious mind to be a perceived ‘threat’, then symptoms can manifest automatically as a protection from these perceived threats, often without us even being aware of the thought that triggered the emotion in the first place.

Protection from ‘painful’ emotions

Many people use behaviours to help ‘numb’ these unresolved emotions because the physical symptoms we experience when they begin to surface can be so ‘painful’.  These behaviours include; addictions, such as drinking, smoking, over-eating or even being overly busy, all of which help ‘protect’ us by distracting us from having to deal with what are perceived to be really ‘dangerous’ emotions.

In fact our mindbody will do anything to protect us from having to deal with the emotional ‘pain’ related to intense, raw physical sensations related to emotions such as; grief, rage, jealousy etc.  Sadly, when unresolved and bottled up, these emotions become more toxic and damaging to us as they begin to affect our physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing.

Many people tell me that they can’t believe their severe, persistent, debilitating pain could possibly be stress-induced, in other words – it must be REAL!  It is very real and driven by the brain and nervous system, but in my experience often the bigger the perceived threat the more intense the unresolved emotions and the more pain is required to distract the individual from them.

Thankfully, once we become aware of this and we begin to allow ourselves to acknowledge and process these emotions we can then help reverse any physical or mental health symptoms that have manifested as part of the protective response.

Symptom recurrence

What I find interesting though is how many people tell me that although their pain resolved, they feel that are only 95% better.  This is because every now and again the symptom either recurs or they develop another symptom.  The difference this time though is that usually with the knowledge they now have, they are able to recognise the underlying emotional turmoil that has triggered the symptom, process it and the symptom resolves pretty quickly.

If the pain persists, this can be because:

  • they have become stuck ‘trying’ to find something they believe must still be in their ‘reservoir of rage’
  • they have become anxious and by TRYING hard to ‘get rid of the pain’ they are actually creating resistance which ‘fuels’ the pain and it becomes a vicious cycle
  • they don’t notice just how much self-induced stress they are creating in their daily life (through busyness, personality traits plus learned beliefs and behaviours) which is also fueling the pain.

It is only natural for people who have recently recovered to automatically think physically and also worry whether they have done something physically wrong.  Remember though that the learned nerve pathways from previous symptoms might have laid dormant for weeks, months or years, but they can be triggered if our life is out of balance, we aren’t looking after ourselves and if we aren’t coping well with things in our life.

Ruling out tissue trauma

Obviously we need to be sure that there isn’t true physical trauma, demonstrated by pain coming on at the actual time of the injury and signs of acute inflammation – heat, redness and swelling in the area of the pain.  More often than not though it is clear that the pain is stress-induced because there is no sign of acute inflammation and the symptom came on after an activity (not during it), on waking or on doing something completely innocuous etc.  Often even normal post-exercise ache is also misinterpreted as tissue trauma, rather than what most people would expect after doing more than they usually would, during a session at the gym for example.

Initially it is good to check everything out and to consider whether the pain is due to a physical cause.  However, fear exacerbates pain, so it’s worth noting down any current concerns or issues in your life and related to the symptom onset. Identifying these and acknowledging how you feel about them can help, along with rationalising any fears.  This might include noting down the facts related to the onset of the symptom and any anomalies you notice as well as reinforcing your understanding of TMS/PPD etc.

Taking time to acknowledge what was going on and how we FEEL is important, maybe through journaling/expressive writing.  In fact tuning in to how we feel on a regular basis can help us deal with uncomfortable emotions on a daily basis, rather than allowing them to remain unresolved and build up.  Even if we feel we have a physical injury, acknowledging and processing how we feel can still help because studies have shown that fear, over-analysing, catastrophising etc will exacerbate pain.

Mindbody conversations

I would suggest though that having occasional stress-induced symptoms is just part of life, with the symptoms merely being a signal from within telling us that there is something going on that we actually could benefit from addressing.  More often than not symptoms are merely the language of the body and by listening to these signals we can learn to deal better with whatever is going on in our lives, preferably when we are being ‘whispered’ at because otherwise we might ended up being ‘shouted’ at with the onset of more severe pain!

Quite honestly, despite listening to my body and focusing on self-care, occasionally I experience the odd stress-induced symptom.  By listening to the message and responding accordingly though, they usually resolve pretty quickly, whether that’s in minutes, hours or occasionally a couple of days, depending on what’s going on.  I explain more in this blog about the ‘messages’ I have had to deal with over the past few months while caring for a Mother in Law with dementia.


Georgie Oldfield MCSP
Physiotherapist & Founder of SIRPA