Mind/Body Medicine: Healing Pain

The cure for the pain is in the pain.”

~Jellaludin Rumi

We’re a culture that medicates our pain. We medicate our physical pain with medicine. We medicate our emotional pain with medicine. And that medicine may not necessarily be of the pharmaceutical sort. It could be workaholism. It could be other “medicines” that distract us from sensations and feelings, like food, substances, relationships. Even addiction to yoga. (I’ve been there.)

But in medicating our various pains, we make it impossible to ever heal them.

As Rumi, the Sufi mystic poet offered, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.”

All physical pain has an emotional component. Addressing this emotional component can relieve and even heal our physical pain. And emotional pain, while profoundly real for all of us, finds its cause in our misunderstanding and misuse of the mind.

These notions are firmly rooted in the ancient global healing traditions, find concurrence in the lineage of contemporary Western medicine, and now find firm footing in the wide body of scientific research supporting the veracity of thoughts and feelings as potent mediators of health outcomes.

Every non-Western healing system understands the ineffable oneness of mind and body, the intimate relationship between thoughts and feelings and physical health.

In the traditions of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, for example, emotions and bodily symptoms are linked. Chinese medicine considers there to be seven emotions: joy, anger, sadness, grief, anxiety, fright and terror. Disease results if any one of these is in excess. Sadness and grief are linked to the lung; anger, frustration and irritability, to the liver; worry, fear and rumination, to the kidney. Of all of these emotions, anger is thought to be a primary cause of disease. Cancers and tumors are thought to be caused by repressed anger.

In Ayurveda, disease is caused by ama, or toxicity. Repressed emotions can generate ama. Similar relationships are seen between specific feelings and the physical body. Here again, anger is a powerful player – it can cause inflammation of any kind, and will eventually lead to disease.

Even the forefathers of Western medicine believed this – that our thoughts, attitudes and feelings impact our health. Hippocrates spoke of the links between mind, body and soul; and of the importance of treating the person who has the disease, not the disease that person has.

As a practitioner, I have witnessed these relationships in my work. As a physician who has also been a patient, I’ve experienced them personally.

Mindbody medicine is now lending credence to these ancient constructs, and in particular, in the arena of pain. Brain imaging studies have shown that perceptions of anger, anxiety and pain travel along the same neural pathways, and that when acute pain becomes chronic, it no longer activates a primary pain processing area, but rather, an area of the brain involved in processing emotions. And it’s been demonstrated that emotional memories can elicit physical pain: remembering an event that has caused physical pain can elicit that pain, even in the absence of the physical cause. What’s the take home: anxiety and anger can elicit and worsen physical pain, and physical pain can elicit feelings of anxiety and anger.

Clinical studies have explored these links and the efficacy of mindbody medicine practices for managing both emotions and physical pain. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation, expressive writing and somatic sensing, just to name a few, have beneficial effects on managing both uncomfortable feeling states such as anger and anxiety, as well as palliating physical pain. In other words, the cure for the pain is in the pain. Being here now, being with what is, cultivating presence – being with our pain – is the way to shift things.

However and most disappointingly, these notions and this good science have yet to trickle down into clinical practice. We have a fragmented medical system that views the parts more readily than the whole, promotes specialization over integration, and considers matters of the mind and psyche to be solely the realm of psychiatry. We physicians don’t readily read the literature of specialties and disciplines other than our own. Hence there is little cross fertilization of ideas and inquiry.

Let’s take a pause to reflect on it all – the ancient wisdom and contemporary science’s contribution. And let’s borrow from this ancient wisdom, recover the roots of our lineage, and pay heed to this current science. We can charter a powerful path to freedom from suffering, liberation from pain, and the pain, both physical and emotional, that often fuels our desires to medicate.

In posts to come, I’ll be offering you simple, do-it-yourself tools to experience this path to freedom, to liberation from pain. Pain of all sorts.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

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