The Repression Conundrum

**** I have updated this several times.  I kind of dashed it off originally, and wanted to expand it. ****

For many people the idea that their emotions are causative in terms of their pain or illness is unfathomable.  However to me it’s crystal clear that this is the case.   This is not to say that all pain is emotional pain.  At the beginning of our work in progress film, “All The Rage” (formerly “Story of Pain”), Dr. Sarno is asked by a patient if perhaps their torn achillies tendon might be psychosomatic.  He responds very bluntly, that a torn achilles tendon is a torn achilles.  However, he points out, if the pain persists well beyond the expected time for healing, emotions might be involved.  What does your experience tell you?   I have broken bones.  I know what that pain feels like.  I have had a razor plunged into a raging MRSA infection.  I screamed so loudly that my hosptial roommate requested to be moved.  That pain was more real than anything I have experienced in my life.  I don’t think that it, the pain, began with my emotions.  However, looking back, I realize that I got the infection shortly after my wife had a miscarriage.  I was devastated.  I believe that my grief, and the way that I processed it (ie not very well), likely contributed to my getting the MRSA.  In other words, the relationship between the mind is complex and confounding.  There are no simple and clear answers to why we get sick, why we hurt, and how we heal.  However, I believe that manner in which we deal with our emotions plays a powerful role in our well being.

Dealing with the repression of our emotions is a tricky, frustrating, business. Over the years I have had a couple of debilitating experiences with back/ leg pain.  Now most of my tension settles in my left foot.  As I have steadily healed from my previous bout of back pain three years ago, my foot has been kind of barometer of my stress level.  This week it flared up in a big way. It gripped tightly and made it difficult for me to sleep. When it acts up like this, it isn’t so much a debilitating pain as a nagging annoyance. The pain is real, and it creates fear; fear that it will get worse and fear that it won’t get better. Knowing that it is caused by a combination of emotions and “habit” mitigates the fear a great deal, and usually I can figure out what it is that I’m repressing and my situation improves.   (UPDATE: my friend Amber made the following comment that clearly illustrates how this works- “The thing is that the pain itself is not psychological rather that it is triggered by a negative psychological state, stress raises your cortisol levels and a series of unfavorable reactions proceed from there. The emotional stress is literally breaking down your body in various ways. Repression exists because our experience of hard emotional things triggers our bodies first then this triggers the brain to shut down, “force quit” so called applications up in there like the memory etc. It was spurred by elevated heart beat, adrenaline and so on, what you can’t take on emotionally your body takes on instead. Only your body and mind work this out amongst themselves until you start tuning and and start to make conscious choices to take control… Which of course you can. Like choosing not to get angry, which is a choice, meditation, exercise regularly and so on”).

What was hard for me this week is that I wasn’t immediately conscious of why it was happening. It wasn’t even a particularly stressful week. It’s Saturday morning now, and the foot is much better. In retrospect, it probably had more to do with self-imposed pressures than I realized. I was working on a grant application for a film that I haven’t had time to work on. I imagine that this, and a couple of other issues related to getting things done, played into it. The part of me that holds myself to unreasonable standards sometimes gets the better of me.

When I woke up this morning I checked twitter for Dr. Sarno. One of the tweets was from a woman who has had fibromyalgia for 20 years.
I completely understand where this woman is coming from. She has suffered from these pain issues for over 20 years. The longer one deals with them, the more real they are. Often times when we are told that our pain or illness might have a psychological basis we feel like the person is saying it’s “all in our head”.  This is not the case at all.  I know only too well, as does Dr. Sarno, that the pain and illness is real. However, I also know from my own experience that often times my pain begins because of my unconscious repression of my emotions. The tricky and frustrating part, as mentioned above, is that knowing this isn’t a simple and magic cure. However, without recognizing this, I also know that I have no hope of getting over it.  I have talked with many (hundreds?) of people who suffered with debilitating pain for years who were able to heal themselves after recognizing the connection between their pain and their emotions.

This woman is very angry with Dr. Sarno, yet it’s clear from her other tweets a couple of hours later that the medical system has not been able to cure her fibromyalgia. She talks about having it for 20 years. The other thing her tweets illuminate is that the fibromyalgia flares up when she is angry or upset. An hour after her Dr. Sarno tweet she fired off two missives about how angry she was about her friends. A few minutes later she discussed needing more powerful drugs to deal with her fibro. (in the twitter feed the most recent it first so they need to be read backwards)

Again, this is not to say that the woman has no reason to be upset, nor that the physical pain that she is feeling is not REAL and frustrating. It’s also clear that she is well aware of being angry. However, part of the anger is likely masking other feelings that part of her doesn’t feel like it’s ok to feel or express. I’m not a psychologist, or a doctor. I’m an artist and a storyteller, and to me these tweets tell a story. I feel a great deal of empathy for her because not only have I been there, I am there. I still struggle with understanding what’s going on with my own pain. However, I didn’t respond to this tweet, because it’s also clear that she doesn’t want to hear it.

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