Lessons from 30 Years of Chronic Pain

Lessons learned after healing from 30 years of chronic pain and autoimmune issues.

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I suffered from physical pain and anxiety starting at the age of four.

As I got older, physical pain became more widespread and diverse, manifesting in the form of growing pains as a child, and then as I reached my teens, escalating into chronic back pain, migraines, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel and autoimmune symptoms

By the time I was 24, I was in pain management and on an opioid for pain. I was stuck in a continuous cycle of doctor visits, tests and treatments. The MRI results of my entire spine looked pretty severe. I had some bad horseback riding falls to my head, face, neck and tailbone as a young teen, so the migraines and pain in my back and neck made total sense. Some of my lab results looked equally ominous and seemed to indicate an autoimmune disease or infection, with Lyme Disease being the most likely diagnosis, despite the fact that I had not visited the area where infected ticks reside. “Autoimmune” covered the rest of my symptoms pretty well, so that was the obvious answer.

Early on in my decision to find out what was really going on and heal, I was struck by how almost all of the doctors I saw simply wanted to chase, manage and treat symptoms. None of them seemed to be all that curious about how it was that a smart, capable, very healthy-looking young woman could be suffering from SO MANY SYMPTOMS.

When the traditional medical route didn’t seem to be producing many answers, I began to widen my search for answers by also seeing holistically-minded naturopaths and functional medicine doctors. These practitioners ran even more specialized and sophisticated tests than traditional doctors, and then proceeded to load me up with hundreds of dollars in vitamin supplements. Some helped a little, but not a lot. Between moving across the country three times and having a wide ranging set of symptoms, the number of doctors that I saw over the course of a few years totaled between 30 and 40.

After about 10 years of searching, and eventually, giving up on finding the answer, the “ah ha” diagnosis fell into my lap.

As it turned out, I had all of the things named above and also none of them. That’s because my body was experiencing TMS (Tension Myositis Syndrome). TMS, caused by chronic stress and a dysregulated nervous system, is the brain’s way of storing thoughts and emotions that it doesn’t know what to do with somewhere in the body, which results in real, physical conditions.

Simply put, TMS is a mindbody condition caused by chronic stress and fear.

If we start thinking about it, we can name off lots of commonly known conditions that are caused by stress. Here is a partial list:

  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • TMJ
  • Stomachaches
  • IBS
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attacks
  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Premature aging

We also know that anxiety (which can also be brought on by stress) can produce its own list of issues:

  • Stomach pain, nausea or digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia and other sleep issues
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pounding heart or increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Muscle tension or pain

So why do we as a society (and particularly medical doctors) decide that chronic stress cannot be at the root of much of our country’s health crisis? And if stress can be reduced or eliminated using a clear, measurable framework (much of it being based in behavioral health), then is it possible for us to heal from other issues that we have been told we are stuck with?

I believe so.

As it turns out, there is a small minority of doctors who agree and treat patients using a mindbody approach that differs wildly from most of their peers. TMS was most widely researched and documented by the late Dr. John Sarno, who wrote written several books on the subject, including Healing Back Pain and The Mind Body Prescription. Dr. Sarno also is the doctor who helped famed radio show host, Howard Stern, as well as Seinfeld co-creator, Larry David, heal from back pain.

It was Healing Back Pain that really woke me up to the mindbody connection and helped me see how the mind (influenced by particular personality traits and emotions) causes the body to produce physical symptoms. The bottom line is this: at the root of much physical suffering is a sense of deep seated fear of the unknown, compounded by feelings of anger, rage and anxiety to name a few.

Some personality types are more prone to mindbody conditions and experiencers of TMS have also often been exposed to early childhood trauma, which creates measurable changes to our nervous systems that reduce nervous system elasticity and resilience, making it more challenging for individuals with trauma, to rest, reset and restore after a stressful event.

Put simply, TMS is a safety and security protection mechanism created by the mind, that manifests in the body to keep us safe.

Today, I am 99 percent symptom free from the physical issues that plagued me daily for almost my entire life. I say 99 percent because it is normal for us to feel some aches and pains — we are still human!


Now that I am freed up from distractions in my physical body, I find myself keenly aware of the next hill… the mind.

As I work through my own inner healing and learn more about creating a high performance mindset, I am continuously struck at how similar the takeaways are between healing from mindbody conditions and optimizing our mindset to create the lives of our dreams.

Whether you struggle with self-sabotage or imposter syndrome in your career, or chronic physical pain or illness, the lessons seem to be the same.

“Eventually you will see that the real cause of problems is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes the problems.” — The Untethered Soul

Now that I am living on the other side of stress induced, mindbody conditions, here are the lessons I have learned:

Embrace the pain to avoid the suffering.

The avoidance of pain (and our natural inclination) only causes more pain! When we face our pain head on and stop running from it, we can start to understand what it is trying to tell us. We often misinterpret pain and other issues as believing our bodies are “weak” or “failing us.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. As Dr. Joe Dispenza is famous for saying “Life happens FOR you, not TO you.” Said another way, our bodies are trying to tell us that we are operating out of alignment in some way and is trying to get our attention so we can operate from a place of mind-body-heart coherence. When we genuinely ask our hearts, what it has to say and relinquish control of the situation and outcome, we can begin to open ourselves up for all kinds of healing (body, mind, spirit). Check out a fantastic (non-health) podcast by People Business on embracing pain to avoid suffering here.

Pain of any kind (including frustration or anger towards others) can be a distraction from your mission.

Whether your pain is physical, psychological or behavioral, the outcome is the same. Pain of any kind serves to distract you from your mission (to live the life you are truly worth of living) and gives you something to focus on other than doing the things that you are put on this planet to do. It is just one more way to give yourself something to focus on as a distraction for why you aren’t doing what you know in your heart you should be doing.

Treatments and personal development can be a distraction too.

Do you hop from coach to coach? Or course to course? Or book to book? Or doctor to doctor?

Sure. We all have our “things” and consciously learning and growing is incredibly important to reaching our potential. But don’t let learning or medical treatments serve as a replacement for taking a look at what is happening inside and then taking inspired action every day to fully live our lives.

We will never have all the training, all the knowledge, all the time, all the money or all the healing. Never. This is the condition of LIFE. YAY!

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with having our “things” distract us. This is also a normal part of being human. But once you start to know that you are doing “your thing” as a way to avoid “the one thing,” you’ll start to see it every time and then you can choose to make different choices, one choice at a time.

Our outer worlds are mirrors to what is happening on the inside.

In the book, The Great Work of Your Life, author Steven Cope describes an elephant swinging its trunk wildly through a market, creating chaos and destruction as it goes down the road. But when the elephant is given something to hold in its trunk, it proceeds calmly through the market, walking with steady confidence.

Our lives are like this too. When our outer lives feel chaotic and out of control, we are usually feeling the same internally and unconsciously replicate these feelings throughout our lives. Are you feeling aligned in your finances, your career, your marriage, your health…?

The truth is, when I was dealing with back pain, I did not feel in control of my life. It felt like I was living a life that was happening to me instead of living a life of my choosing. Back pain and chronic illness gave me something else to focus on, which then supported an unconscious belief that life was happening to me.

A smaller example of this might be with a relationship or a project at work. We often become attached to beliefs and then respond in accordance with that belief. It could be as simple as believing something negative or positive about someone and then looking for seemingly indiscernible evidence to support your belief.

What we want doesn’t always happen on our time and willing things to happen without consistent action rarely works.

It is not until we really surrender the outcome and choose to fully embrace our lives as they currently are, that things can start to shift. When we become attached to a particular outcome, we limit HOW healing or growth can happen. This is often referred to as a “fixed mindset.” When we can shift into a “growth mindset,” we can begin to open ourselves up to creative possibilities, relax and have fun. This is where the magic happens.

Decide where you are going, claim what is joyful and recognize how it makes you feel.

With long term struggles, this one can be especially difficult to do. We become accustomed to living in a way that reminds us of our pain or discomfort. Over time, these narratives actually become more deeply grooved into our brains (this is proven through neuroscience), making it more difficult to remember what it feels like to feel good. Our struggles become our reality.

Pain (as well as fear, anxiety, addition, etc.) distracts us and makes us forget where it is that we want to go. It makes us forget that we DO have choices and that we do have some say on where our ship sails.

The key is claiming where you want to go and putting consistent, daily action behind it. Claim your healing. Claim your job or promotion or achievement. Claim the relationship of your dreams. Claim it, keep it in your sights and hold a vision of it. Remind yourself of it daily.

In my own house, I have a reminder of my vision strategically placed in five different spots around my house so that I don’t forget where I’m going.

Then bring that desire into your body, reminding yourself of how you will FEEL when that thing that you want happens. How will your body feel? How will your mind feel? How will YOU feel? What are the specific emotions that you will have when the thing that you desire happens. We know that this kind of visualization exercise works — we hear of professional athletes at the height of their game using it all the time. And you can do it too.

Using the same mindset and energy that got us where we are today is not necessarily going to get us where we want to go tomorrow. If this were true, we would already be there.

Hold the vision of where you want to go.

Not in a controlling way, but in a way that keeps you mindful of all the little choices that you make throughout the day that add up to making that dream that you have a reality.

Dr. Joe Dispenza has many resources to support you in making this mindset shift part of your daily life including his book Becoming Supernatural and his meditations, including Morning and Evening Meditations.

Rinse and repeat.

Every word of this is true. I know it because I am living it. And you probably have too. And yet, we forget.

And that’s ok! The key is to catching yourself when you stumble and beginning again. You don’t have to go all the way back to the start — start again, today, where you are right now.

Often, what gets us off course are our thoughts and feelings. This is normal. But remember, thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. They are not facts and they are not reality. Remind yourself of what is factually true, not what you feel in the moment.

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” — Dr. Wayne Dyer.

Today, take one small right action, followed by one small, right action (I’ll be doing that same thing, right along side you.) You’ve got this!

Are you struggling with chronic physical symptoms and KNOW there has to be a solution? Check out the Healing Starts Here section on my blog to learn more about my story, TMS and what helped me heal.

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