The emotional link to pain within the body

As a practicing Sports Therapist and Myofascial Release practitioner, some of you will know I have a strong interest in the emotional link to pain within the body, and have spent the last 10 years reading and evaluating clients in pain and their emotions.

It’s always fascinated me how so many client’s injuries and chronic pains can shift very quickly, but then some clients; who follow the same treatment protocol, can get stuck in a loop and remain in pain. I have always voiced to my students that there has always been a margin of my clients who need more than manual treatment can offer alone. This has always driven me to deliver more therapeutic interventions rather than just the manual/exercise modalities, but has also has inspired me to educate myself further.

This may be a general statement, but for many of the UK we are not inclined to want to go in to the realms of the body mind. In fact, the possibility that there might be a body mind can interestingly trigger people into very emotional outbursts of disbelief, anger and of superstition. I really understand why, as it is a heavy subject and is far easier to dismiss than to own. It is a subject loaded with too many questions for us and can emotionally be very unsettling. When Renee Descartes founded what we know as modern medicine, he asked the Pope at that time for access to cadavers to study. He was granted permission on the understanding that his findings would be purely for documenting the body only, and that his findings should not venture into the soul, psyche or emotions. As those aspects of human were the jurisdictions of the church. Fast forward 500+ years, and that separation of study continues. Placebo is dismissed as trickery, natural medicine as ‘hocus pocus’ and any spiritual understandings of our body as absurd.

For therapists who have practiced working with bodies for a long time will have seen things we cannot explain. We’re not open to discussing them publicly for fear that our reputation will be diminished; but we all have stories of clients with outcomes that we cannot fully explain and while we don’t want to explore the body-mind link, we won’t ever fully understand the impact of trauma and what that actually means.

Trauma is a very loaded word with all kinds of implications. As such, most people would only use this word to describe something heavy for example; mass injury, abuse or violation. It is here that our understanding ends. The word is saved for the ‘big stuff’ but our childhood; without exemption, was filled with trauma. We didn’t understand why we had to share, didn’t have the concept to understand that our parents hadn’t left us forever the first time we were separated from them and didn’t know why we were being shouted at ‘for our own good’, the list is huge, not to mention the complexities of the experience of being born. We don’t ever really go there because we feel like we’re grown up now and it doesn’t affect us in anyway. We are told to soldier on in life and to not complain; but none of us are super humans and we all have challenges in life. Every one of us has had disagreements and judgements and moments of confusion and outbursts of inexplicable anger. If only we can link those ‘glitches’ with our past traumas we would be onto a route of progression in life.

Dr Bessel van der Kolk, is a leading neuro scientist and psychiatrist who has written over a hundred papers. One in particular was sent to the U.S. government to show the strong evidence he had found linking our body and mind in response to childhood trauma stating that this needed to be dealt with. Regrettably his proposal for the need for change was dismissed. The big question is why? Firstly, what if the people in charge have their own traumas and can’t go there within themselves. The people in charge of society are not exempt from their own ‘stuff’ influencing their decisions. Secondly, for this information to be taken seriously there would be a need for regulators to assess the risk of trauma in every aspect of society. Films would need to be censored, marketers would need to change their standards, ethics of research would need to be changed, every Doctor and Caregiver would need training in trauma and parents would be responsible for learning the appropriate skills, the MOD would dissolve. The list goes on. Literally everything would have to change, because everyone would be held accountable for another persons safety. A nice ideal some may say, but a logistical nightmare for sure. The judicial court system would not be able to cope.

Dr van der Kolk however, has some suggestions of how to look at trauma and how to work with people’s trauma; and as a leading Neuroscientist and Psychiatrist, his initial suggestions may come as a surprise to you. He believes movement and body work are key to shifting the trappings of trauma from the body. Allow me to explain more. 9-11 saw devastation on an epic scale, through all the death and destruction and the fear that took place. Whereas the Japanese tsunami, equally as epic on a scale of destruction, was more noticeably different on the recordings of traumatised people. The people present at the site of 9-11 saw no recorded psychological trauma whereas the Tsunami saw thousands. The suggestion as to why? All the people at 9-11 who were able to escape, did so by running on mass. The thousands of survivors of the tsunami victims; whom were recorded as traumatised, were all stuck under rubble or trees and were trapped and couldn’t move. Dr Van der Kolk believes that if the body can’t move in a traumatic situation, the trauma is trapped. Conversely if the trauma is still trapped, he compels mind therapists to get their clients moving, and manual therapists to assist their patients through their process of unlocking the body and therefore unlocking the holding patterns created in response to trauma.

Suffice to say if a client’s body is immobile, limited in range, or in pain; there could be a chance that we, as manual/exercise therapists could be relieving the body of pre-existing early trauma. Bear in mind the Golgi tendon of a muscle communicates the vital information needed for length and strength. Trauma informs the Golgi tendon organ to inform the muscle how to respond.

If this makes sense to you, and you want to venture into adding this theory to your intention without necessarily having to discuss this with clients. The main point is to be mindful of your language and to remain compassionate during your work together. Allowing clients to venture into this possible process without judgment is essential.

Noticing the words they use to describe their stress and noticing how the body tenses when they talk about experiences in their life that induce stress. Furthermore, start to feel your own body’s response to your own stresses, notice how your posture changes when you are angry, and where you feel discomfort when you are frustrated. The links between our body and mind all live within ourselves and often at times we don’t have the capacity to check in with our own body when we have an emotional response, but the answers are all there within us to be explored.
For those wanting to expand their therapeutic knowledge, we will be delivering some videos and workshops later in the year.

What an affirming two day conference one that validates a lot of what we do when we work with the body, and so great to be recognised by leading scientists in this field.