“I do expressive writing to get rid of my back pain,” stated Anna simply sipping on her fresh cup of tea.
“I smoke to get rid of my asthma,” I follow cracking a smile.
Anna looked at me like something was completely wrong with me. I stopped smiling and slipped into confusion. “Aren’t we playing ‘absurd things to say’?”
Apparently we weren’t. She was dead serious and took it upon herself to enlighten me.
Back pain was a constant with Anna since I met her eight years ago standing in line at a coffee shop yelling at a dorky looking kid who cut to the front of the line to return the extra cash that the hurried barista gave him as change. I told furious Anna to let Urkel go and in exchange her coffee was on me. She looked at me perplexed, took a deep breath and then started laughing. I thought she’d tell me to fuck off. Needless to say, we became fast friends.
So what does writing have to do with releasing back pain?
Dr. David Hanscom — orthopedic surgeon whose “Back in control: A spine surgeon’s roadmap out of chronic pain” book Anna read, explained that anxiety or mental pain and chronic physical pain are processed in the same part of the brain, so in a way they are essentially the same thing. One gets fired up and it triggers the other. It becomes like a vicious circle.
It looks like in order to get rid of one of them, you have to get rid of the other. They came paired up: anxiety or chronic stress and chronic physical back pain.
Stress or burnout easily turn into anxiety which pumps more stress hormones into your system. With a body full of adrenaline every organ starts to respond in its own way. Pain is one of them. Then you have migraine, ringing in the ear, itchy scalp, skin rash, burning in the feet, PTSD, OCT, etc
So, back pain can be a side effect of anxiety or chronic stress! Alleluia, somebody finally put two and two together.
Anna tried physiotherapy, lasers, acupuncture, chiropractors, tapping and even psychotherapist ( because this girl has a temper! — not always recommended in a work environment). Since I got back from Thailand we have worked together on a comprehensive yoga therapy & intentional nutrition program to alleviate her chronic back pain. This kind of program worked for a lot of people, but not for her, not fully. Something was missing.
I told her to trust her instincts and keep playing. All my programs include yoga-eat-play, so I “prescribe” play to everyone, including Anna. Between sessions, if she heard of any new technique for back pain, she would try it playfully, so she wouldn’t get her hopes up and get disappointed in the end. She did that a lot throughout the years. This approach helped her. And that’s how she found this book and expressive writing.
What is expressive writing?
Before your smarty pants jump in and confidently assume it’s journaling, let me save you the embarrassment and tell you it is not. I made that mistake, and boy was I put back into my place.
In journaling we sit and commemorate all the happenings and feelings and contemplations for pages and pages and hours at a time. Expressive writing is quick and to the point. If you linger you not only defeat the purpose but you can exacerbate the pain and anxiety by reliving those moments or thoughts.
Expressive writing, (NOT journaling), is writing down thoughts you’re trying to suppress and therefore breaking out the cycle. This technique might help people overcome emotional inhibition says this Harvard study done by Dr.Pennebaker.
What should you write down?
The darkest thoughts that are obsessively circling your mind like a shark circles its pray. Doesn’t matter if it’s logical, irrational or downright psychopathic.
The darkest the better — just like chocolate. Just don’t dwell on them, because as with dark chocolate, at one point it turns on you, becomes unhealthy and more so it worsens the problem.
Once you write them down, you air them out and give them no power over you anymore. You destroy them.
One of the pioneer books on this expressive writing technique is Feeling good by David Burn.
Anna does this expressive writing two or three times a day for several minutes. Then she actually sets that paper on fire once she’s done to literally destroy those thoughts. Please be careful if you want to do the same, especially if you live in California. This state does not need another fire!
Before she discovered expressive writing she was using my shifting awareness tool and when her pain flared up, which was always accompanied by rage, frustration, anger or hopelessness, she would pull out her phone and watch a funny video of her kitty or breathe deeply and hum her favorite song. Enough to switch her attention, her awareness.
It wasn’t easy at the beginning, and she had to do it 30 times a day, but in time and with more of the nutrition and yoga therapy benefits kicking in, it became easier and faster to switch awareness and feel better.
Now with this expressive writing added to her routine, she only has to use the switching awareness tool maybe 10 times a day and it’s getting better and better.
Dr. Hanscom does recommend as part of his expressive writing treatment to include this shift of awareness dozens of times a day , to take out the adrenaline from the nervous system and shift into or build new neurological pathways, which become more automatic the more you do it and the body/mind will start taking those automatic pathways rather than the chronic pain ones.
Stretching & strengthening and diet are recommended by him as well. So, he pretty much completed Anna’s existing program with the expressive writing tool.
Anna is almost back pain free (she still needs to work on her sarcastic jokes though) and her yoga therapy sessions are down to one a month soon to be even less, as we only have to adapt her yoga to her newly improved body posture and new mindset.