Mechanistic Approaches to Pain and Fertility

Mechanistic Approaches to Pain and Fertility

A couple of years ago when I was doing research for our Dr. Sarno documentary I came across a blog post by Will Sacks. In this piece he talks about his ups and downs with back pain, surgery, and eventually finding Dr. Sarno’s “Healing Back Pain”.  At the end of his intense tale he writes:

Despite the fact that we have all experienced the mind’s effects on the body, a sad statistic that Dr. Sarno presents in his book is that of people with TMS who are presented with the diagnosis, 80% will reject TMS and remain untreated and in pain.  It’s sad that our social stigma against psychosomatic illness means some people are unwilling to accept the medicine that will get them well. I hope this site changes that.

All healthcare practitioners will agree that to offer the right treatment, the first step is a correct diagnosis.  Without a correct diagnosis, successful treatment is unlikely. Some people don’t want to accept the diagnosis of TMS because they think it means they are crazy. The faster we dispel this myth, and show that psychosomatic illness is all around us, the sooner these people will feel comfortable exploring the real cause of their pain, and have a chance at a pain-free life.

I reached out to Will and we played phone tag for a while. Eventually we talked for a few minutes, and then we became facebook friends. About a year later another friend of mine, Alana, the subject of a doc we are working on about donor conception issues, shared an article about a fertility app, Kindara. I clicked over and found Will Sacks discussing the app, education, and how it helps women to become more connected to their bodies’ cycles. It made a lot of sense to me that someone who had become more in touch with the connection between his emotions and his body would see the value in this method of birth control.

One of my friend Alana’s main complaints about birth control pills is that they put synthetic estrogen into the water supply. Some people believe that this is leading to more infertility in men.  As with most science, there’s a lot of debate about these studies.  There is no doubt that “the pill” has been a source of female empowerment.  However, like almost all medical interventions it comes with side effects that tend to be less promoted than the “desired” effect.  In fact when I started to read about Kindara I noticed that there is a direct connection between the mechanistic model of medicine that led to the prevalence of “the pill” and the reliance on medical interventions to deal with pain.

As Dr. Sarno points out in an early scene in our film, in the 19th century, doctors believed that all mental illness was caused by a disease of the brain.  Then Freud came along and illuminated the ways in which our repressed thoughts affect our mental, as well as our physical health.  By the mid 20th century, the mechanistic model of medicine had swung back into power, and many doctors began to attribute mental illness to a chemical imbalance.  While it is clear that chemical imbalances are connected to the symptoms of what we call mental illness it is also clear that our emotions can cause some of these imbalances.  When we pay attention to, and accept our emotions and our thoughts, we have the power to connect those thoughts to physical symptoms.  As with Dr. Sarno’s pain patients, simply recognizing the connection is often enough to change the negative results.  There is a great deal of power in our mind body connection, both negative and positive.

As Ashok Gupta points out, when we have pain, if we view it as a message from our body, it can help us to connect with what we might be repressing.  If instead we fear the pain, it’s like doubling down on repression, and it’s more likely to continue.  This is at the heart of the mindfulness medication craze that is starting to sweep the nation.

Ashok Gupta on Being Mindful from rumur on Vimeo.

Being mindful about one’s body cycles is at the heart of the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) as well.  Some people fear that FAM is less reliable than the pill.  However, there’s a lot of data contrary to that idea.  On the Kindara blog Lauren Risberg recently wrote about this data:

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the Fertility Awareness Method is a very effective method of birth control.  When practiced perfectly, FAM is over 99% effective – the same as the hormonal contraceptive pill.  I won’t belabor this point too much because this is something that has been discussed several times on this blog alone, and it has been studied extensively in scientific literature (for more scientific evidence, please see here, here, and here).

Clearly, this method takes a lot more mindfulness than popping a pill each morning (though I know that several people I dated often had a lot of trouble remembering to take the pill..).  However, the upside is quite high.  Paying attention to our bodies is a big part of being mindful and there are more studies emerging every day that connect mindfulness to well being.  In addition, while many medical studies indicate that there are health benefits of taking the pill, it also entails the danger of adverse side effects.

To be clear, I am not arguing that women should not take the pill, nor am I arguing that anyone should tell women what to do with their bodies.  However, I am pointing out that there is a lot of value in questioning the medical community when it comes to intervening in our bodies’ natural processes like fertility and healing.  There is a great deal of science now that supports the idea that our emotions affect our health and our well being.  When we are more aware of how our bodies are reacting to our emotions we have the opportunity to understand ourselves on a deeper level, and this leads to greater well being.

Eschewing technological interventions, like pain pills or birth control pills, may seem like the actions of a luddite.  However, we can use technology like FMRI machines and scientific studies to illuminate how our minds and self awareness can be as effective as these interventions.  Mindfulness also has a lot less side effects.  In this other clip from “All The Rage” Gabor Mate explains that we have the science to understand these issues.  We simply haven’t connected the dots.

  • Alana Newman
    Posted at 10:56h, 19 October Reply

    Oh man Michael I’m so glad you are doing this doc. Thanks for including me in the blog post—I use kindara every day and am devouring a Fertility Awareness Method book.
    The medical industry makes so much money off of people NOT being aware of their bodies. As for fertility specifically the FAM book says that many doctors believe that the average woman is too stupid to understand her body’s fertility cycle and chart. Yet we let 16 year-olds of all IQ levels drive killing machines known as cars wherever they go. Not sure why it is so scary for them to steer their body in a way where if they mess up it creates life rather than kills.
    The Pill is so much more evil than I ever could have imagined 3 years ago, before I ever gave it thought. I recently read a book called Abortion: The Ultimate Exploitation of Women which goes into how hormonal contraception and abortions were in fact originally rejected and despised by founding feminists, but playboys like one of the Rockefeller sons and a host of other extremely wealthy men who desired consequence free sex funded the technology and the campaign to change people’s minds and hired female spokespersons so it seemed like a “pro-woman” initiative. Its all so men can have as much sex as they want without having to take responsibility, without marrying.
    While there are some goods, like increased education levels—I think what the pill has ultimately achieved is a very very lonely culture.
    I love FAM though. Thank you Will Sacks for the app. It takes the fear out of sex but ADDS intimacy.
    It enhances our commitment to each other as a couple when the power of our fertility is right there in our face. It heightens your senses just like if you were to hold a gun with real bullets vs. blanks.

  • Will Sacks
    Posted at 23:01h, 23 October Reply

    Thanks Michael for writing this. I hadn’t fully connected my experience with Dr. Sarno to the founding of Kindara and reading this helped knit it together in my mind. I agree mindfulness and personal responsibility is the next major step forward for our medical system. In 50 years these two acts will have transformed medicine and we’ll look back in disbelief at how medicine and healthcare are being practiced today.

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