Delightenment’s Story

(This story was originally posted  here.  For a much more comprehensive list of success stories, visit the TMSwiki for hundreds of success stories for numerous conditions).

I can’t thank this site [TMS help forum] enough for setting me on the road to total recovery from an awful RSI situation. About a year ago the pain in my wrists stopped going away when I wasn’t typing – I had had occasional bouts of hurting for years previous, but wrote it off. Last May it got so bad that I was typing with a pencil, buying dictation software and obsessing about the perfect posture situation.

My job was a conference planner in a stressful non-profit situation, and the conference was in August. In September I was going to start law school and spent all of last spring and summer stressed out about being prepared for that. On top of that, I was temporarily living with my parents, not involved in romance, not exercising or eating well, and generally anxious about things. But as much as I could say to myself, “my stress is a factor in making my hands hurt,” I had no idea how I could deal with that stress in a productive way.

In the fall (ie September 2007) I started to look for paths to recovery: the conference was over, life had settled down, and I thought that with a little bit of better posture and maybe some massage I could take care of the pain in a few weeks. Wrong. The pain continued no matter what I did. The traditional doctor said only, “ice it”; the hand specialist was useless; the rheumatologist told me I had loose ligaments (and charged a ridiculous amount to confirm that I didn’t have lupus!). Ok, less traditional: acupuncture felt nice but didn’t help, chiropractor didn’t help, full-body massage, physical therapy, meditation, all in vain. At one point I actually read a Sarno book and found it temporarily helpful – but it was lost in a sea of other sources.

I searched for the perfect massage therapist and went through three before finding the best, the most knowledgeable, and the most expensive in the area. He talked about torn muscles and ligaments and urged exercise and a high-protein diet – not bad advice in and of itself, but the experience with him didn’t seem to make a difference.

I explored the mind-body connection. For hours I did guided relaxation in my bed, exploring the tension in my arms with my mind, opening up my chakras. It was wonderful in its own way, but the pain didn’t go away. Natural remedies: arnica pills, turmeric, flower essences, with no demonstrable effect. Craniosacral therapy was also wonderful but not effective. A Mexican folk healer trained in kundalini yoga who spoke in Spanish about her Indian guru. I found a powerfully intuitive reiki healer who poured energy into my body until my legs started spontaneously shaking–itself a mind-blowing experience, but not one that actually dealt with the RSI issue. The reiki healer, and so many others, talked about the mind-body connection as though there were a one-to-one correspondence between parts of my body and specific feelings: “there is a lot of anger in your shoulders,” “the pain in your hands has to do with frustration about not doing ‘work,’ since work is essentially manual,” etc. It’s an extremely seductive idea, and a very common one. But ultimately it was a step in entirely the wrong direction.

Help finally came from two sources in the same week. I was on vacation in late December 2007, resolved to deal with this pain that had consumed an entire semester and threatened to control my life forever. I was poking around the internet for help when I stumbled upon the RSI support page at Harvard University, where the students had posted a short paper about John Sarno. It made a lot of sense, and I spent the next 24 hours poking around the internet for more related links: this forum, where many stories and tips were extremely helpful, the related work of Dr Brady, and many blogs and sites. The lesson, again and again, was: pay attention to your own emotions. Stop treating this as a structural issue. The pain is trying to trick you and your job is just to notice how you’re feeling. I kept an emotional diary and learned a whole new language of feeling: now I’m anxious, now I’m feeling fear, etc. Little realizations kept dawning. And I think my hands felt better: but the really good news was just around the corner.

Having tried everything I could think of, I connected with the Sarno book and found it really insightful. I started journaling a lot, printed out a Sarno worksheet I found on the web, and discovered new facets of my emotional life. And I thought I could feel some progress with my hands but it would come and go.

Now comes the second source of healing. The previous week, a friend suggested that the Alexander technique could be helpful in teaching me to move without pain, so I had made an Alexander Technique appointment that happened to take place just a few days after the Sarno discovery. I had seen that this practitioner also did something called Self-Regulation Therapy (SRT), but the plan was just to have an Alexander session. Within a few minutes, though, it was clear to her that SRT would be helpful to me, so we ended up doing that practice instead.

It turns out that SRT is a new therapy technique that, as far as I can tell, is deeply related to Sarno’s insights about emotions, the nervous system and pain. It was designed to help people process trauma: the idea is that when you undergo trauma and don’t process it, it builds up excess “activation” in your nervous system that leads to pain or other physical symptoms. There is no discussion as far as I can see of specific physical symptoms – eg no discussion of the particular sites of back pain that Sarno works on, or of RSI – but the concept seems to be roughly the same. And the big point is that practitioners who do SRT have a coherent method of actually working with the nervous system to get out that activation. It’s like keeping a journal a la Sarno: only it’s another person actually leading me through it, rather than having to rely on myself. A typical session involves a lot of body awareness: I begin to talk, and my SRT practitioner will stop me and say, “as you are saying that, what are you noticing about how you’re sitting? about your breath? about your posture?” After a little while this leads me into a relaxed mode where breathing changes somewhat. Then I keep talking–about my day, about something making me anxious, or something else– and keep noticing what happens to my body. It leads to a new awareness of my emotions; of how I tense up or move when I talk about something unpleasant, about how my breath changes, about how different modes of anxiety and calm pass through my body. There’s an element of psychotherapy, since I talk about myself and explore things that are bothering me: but it always comes back to the physical experience I’m having, the sensations and emotions that I’m feeling. And I process those emotions more and more each time.

And the big point is, that it took exactly _one hour_ of this for all my RSI symptoms to go away. I literally had one session with her in which I connected with some newly deep place inside myself, and my hands stopped hurting. Even better: the following week I had a lot of exams, and in the stressed-out period my hands started hurting again the same as before. It was two weeks before I went back for an SRT session: at which time, 10 minutes after that session, the pain went away completely again. There were some occasional pangs for a few more weeks – but I continued going to her, and the pangs eventually went away for good. I continue to go to her every week, finding that even though it’s no longer about “fixing my symptoms” I still get as much, or more, as I would from psychotherapy. And still learning an awful lot about my life and my emotions!

In the end, I can’t tell you exactly how it is that SRT helped. The work just reached down and opened up something new in my stomach and chest, allowed me to let go of something: and then all of a sudden, it was like tiny muscles in my arms suddenly let go and stopped hurting.

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