Q: I have suffered from back pain for years. I recently read a book, Healing Back Pain: Mind-Body Principle by John Sarno, that talks about stress and anger as a primary cause of this. Most doctors don’t know what to do with me except give me painkillers. They used to say that ulcers were caused by stress and now they have found it is mainly due to a bacteria. I don’t know what to believe anymore.
A: The body, mind, emotions, and spirit are deeply interconnected. Emotions are experienced directly in the body. All of what we think, feel, and remember lives in our bodies in various ways. Notice how your stride changes in response to your mood or any news you have received. People often report that while they are on vacation, many of their ailments decrease or even disappear. They are happier and more relaxed when they are not working, at home taking care of people, or fulfilling other responsibilities. Your may read more about this at www.wholenesstherapy.com in the section titled: “Language of the Body.”
Back pain is not as simple as unexpressed anger. There are various causes for it: problems in the spine, feet, and elsewhere; ways of moving one’s body or standing; deterioration in the bones; stress; problems with organs such as the colon; and other causes. Often chiropractic care, acupuncture, stretching, or yoga are very helpful.
If you suspect it may have a relationship to anger, then ask yourself the following questions: 1) Are you or have you been angry for a period of time? 2) How do you respond to or express your anger? Some people seethe, get quiet, and withdraw. Others get aggressive, pushy, and irritable. 3) What happens to your body when you get in touch with your anger? Does it tighten, relax, hurt? Watch a child’s body when he or she is angry and you will learn a lot about this question.
This inquiry will open up the whole complex of anger that might be under the surface. This can be a very powerful experience, so make sure you have ample time in a comfortable setting. You may need to have someone to talk with during or at least afterwards. If you feel anger rising, feel free to speak it out loudly. Some people find it useful to shout and even hit a pillow. This releases anger from the body and moves it out so you are not carrying it all inside. You may even feel shame or guilty for being angry. This is truer for women and South Asians. They are brought up to not express anger and to be more accommodating and pleasant. But certain negative experiences, such as verbal or physical violation, angry parents or siblings, deep hurt, or loss, will evoke appropriate anger. It is a way to say no firmly or to set a necessary boundary.
Anger, power, and strength are very connected. Sometimes we express our strength through anger. As you become more curious and aware of this emotion in yourself, you will be more freed to allow anger to rise when necessary and to let it go naturally as well. This is all better for your health.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393.