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How To Overcome The Emotional Causes Of Back Pain

Jon Slavet
Written by Jon Slavet

I suffered from persistent back pain for years. It would come and go seemingly without warning. I'm the kind of person who likes to be in control, and suffering from back pain that didn't have an obvious cause was maddening.

I'm an entrepreneur, and at the time my pain was at its worst, I was running a dot-com company with my brother in San Francisco. I spent many a day in my office, flat on my back, "grinding it out". My perfectionism-prone personality and commitment to being a responsible co-founder of a venture-backed company drove me to keep working, often 80+ hours per week, even when I was in terrible pain.

I tried pretty much every “traditional” approach to curing my back short of surgery, including chiropractic, physical therapy, and anti-inflammatories. I had a full work-up done at the Stone Clinic in San Francisco, CA, one of the premier centers dedicated to spine and back health. The films showed that my back was normal. Despite having a generally healthy-looking back, I was suffering from debilitating bouts of pain.

So what could be causing it?

One day I was talking to a good friend who recommended I explore the connection between stress and pain. I proceeded to read everything I could find on the subject and began to shift my awareness in terms of what was causing my pain from a “structural” explanation to an “emotional” explanation.

I learned that life stressors (from childhood, relationships, work, and so on), combined with a Type A personality (perfectionistic, worry-prone, control-oriented), could actually trigger a mind-body reaction leading to real pain in the soft tissues of the back. We now know this as the “stress response,” whereby the brain perceives a “threat” and sends signals to our bodies that release stress hormones to get us ready to fight or flee the perceived threat.

So how did I counter the stress response and take back control of my health?

1. I wrote negatively.

It’s actually just this simple. One of my friends and advisers, the noted spine surgeon Dr. David Hanscom, promotes this technique for his patients, the thesis being that there are underlying emotional issues to most back pain.

Simply take out a piece of paper and proceed to write down every negative thought you have about yourself, and don’t hold back or edit. Once you have them all down, tear up that piece of paper and throw it away. This process gets the thoughts and emotions out of the body. Repeat every day.

2. I breathed to signal my nervous system.

Given that our breath is our constant companion, and that improper breathing can push us into the stress response, learning proper breathing is of paramount importance. A couple times a day (before a stressful event) practice breathing from your abdomen, expanding the rib cage, and then up into the chest, all through your nose. This kind of breathing sends signals to activate your parasympathetic nervous system that all is OK.

3. I excavated difficult emotions.

People prone to stress-related illness often share a common set of personality characteristics such as being perfectionistic, worry-prone and self-critical (you get the picture). This kind of personality forms in childhood, and is usually the result of difficult and repressed emotions such as unworthiness and anger. Take the time to write about the emotions you feel that may be running in the background of your mind. As a kid did you feel loved and worthy, or “not enough?”

4. I found a goal-free activity I loved.

Those of us constantly striving for achievement sometimes forget to take care of number one — ourselves. If you didn’t learn to play as a kid you probably don’t play as an adult. My friend and adviser Dr. David Clarke has written on this subject eloquently and made this a core aspect of healing 7,000 patients with stress illness over the course of his career. If you can find an activity that uses your mental and physical energy, doesn’t have a goal, and gets you “in the flow” on a weekly basis, this is gold for healing.

I hope and trust that these approaches speed you on your path to healing.

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