Doctors have long struggled to understand the underlying cause of chronic pain that isn't a result of a physical injury, which affects over 25 million Americans every day. Now, one doctor is asking: Can chronic pain be treated with talk therapy? A new study published in The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain suggests that a treatment called EAET, or Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy, can help people with chronic pain heal by allowing them to act out unexpressed emotions related to trauma in a therapeutic setting.
When Lady Gaga revealed her struggles with fibromyalgia in the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, she brought awareness to an often misunderstood illness that causes widespread body pain. Chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia or migraines disproportionately affect women, and because doctors often can't find a physical cause for the pain, many patients are told it's all in their heads.
I suffer from chronic migraines and chronic neck and shoulder pain, and I have several family members who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It can be extremely frustrating when there doesn't seem to be any help for conditions doctors can't see, and might not understand. New evidence suggests that this very real physical pain might have roots in emotional trauma. And, to heal your body you must also heal your mind.
Emotional Therapy For Physical Pain
Dr. Howard Schubiner, founder and director of the Mind-Body Medicine Center at Providence Hospital, published a new study in Pain, The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, that found that the pain really might be all in your head — because it actually starts in your brain. "We know there are two things that trigger pain neuropathways. One is tissue damage and the other is emotions that activate the exact same pain processes in the brain as physical injury," he told Elizabeth Licorish for the PhillyVoice.
This means that the pain is not imagined, as many patients have been told after doctors failed to find a physical cause. Despite women reporting and seeking treatment for pain more often than men, studies have found that women are taken less seriously in medical settings, and their pain is treated less aggressively. For those who have chronic pain that doctors are unable to identify a medical cause for, EAET offers hope. The treatment sounds a little like seeing a therapist, but it's much more interactive. Using something called Corrective Emotional Experiences, the treatment can help identify the root causes of emotional traumas that might be manifesting as physical symptoms.
"We’re basically working with the emotions of anger, guilt, sadness, compassion, and, of course, fear," Dr. Schubiner told the PhillyVoice. "Often, these emotions are not recognized, acknowledged, expressed, or processed. So we give patients exercises to do just that. Patients may need to scream at their boss or even imagine throwing him out of a window. Victims of sexual assault might express the desire to castrate their rapists and send them to jail where they themselves are assaulted."
The concept sounds similar to rage rooms, which have popped up in recent years and allow people to express their anger by smashing things in a safe, controlled environment. However, EAET takes it one step further by addressing specific traumas and developing exercises to help patients release unexpressed emotions about those situations.
How The Mind Affects The Body
Donna Lancaster, co-founder of healing center The Bridge in the UK, called this process an "emotional detox" in a recent article by the Daily Mail. Lancaster explained that emotionally detoxing is different than traditional therapy because it allows people to process emotions throughout their entire bodies versus just in their minds.
"When we shut down from unprocessed emotions, we suppress everything," Lancaster told Jane Alexander in the Daily Mail. "You can't be selective. If you suppress fear, anger and grief, you also suppress passion, joy, peace. It's exhausting carrying a pain backpack."
If you've tried every drug and alternative treatment and you're still in pain, examining how trauma stored in your body might be keeping you sick is worth an exploration. Personally, I've gravitated toward alternative treatments like a wearable device called Quell that stimulates sensory nerves to block pain receptors, and CBD creams. While these options help me experience less pain, they don't eliminate it completely.
People who have suppressed emotions often distract themselves with drugs, alcohol, food, and even work. In a 2014 interview with Howard Stern, Lady Gaga discussed being raped at age 19 by a music producer. "I was so traumatized by it I just had to keep going," she said. "I wasn't even willing to admit that anything had even happened. And, then I was like ... all this drinking, all this nonsense, you have to go to the source otherwise it just won't go away."
In subsequent interviews, she talks about re-experiencing the trauma in her body, which has manifested as global pain that permeates her entire body, and has since been diagnosed as fibromyalgia. While some pain can be attributed to injury, like Gaga's broken hip, once that injury is healed the pain should go away. It's the same with unexpressed emotions. Once the trauma is released, the body can begin to heal as well.
"To be good people, we suppress our emotions. We’re taught to think that anger is bad, but it’s actually a very healthy protective mechanism,” Dr. Schubiner said in the PhillyVoice. "It’s only bad to act out of anger in real life. But it’s actually therapeutic to allow those feelings to be experienced and processed." Basically, by turning unexpressed emotions inward, they have nowhere to go and begin to attack the body physically. "People who have had difficult experiences in their lives often have learned that they can’t be, or shouldn’t be, or don’t know how to be compassionate toward themselves."
Personally, unexpressed emotions building up in your system like toxic waste is something I can relate to. I know I have a lot of unexpressed emotions related to multiple traumatic experiences. And, I tend to get more migraines and more neck and shoulder spasms when I feel like those experiences are backing up on me. One of the reasons that it's so hard to express these emotions is because I feel guilty. This, as Licorish wrote in the PhillyVoice, is totally normal.
"Guilt often goes hand-in-hand with anger in chronic pain patients, because much of the anger they experience is toward people they love, such as a parent or a child. There is a kind of chronic pain personality type, too. People predisposed to suffer chronic pain tend to be sensitive perfectionists who are often high achievers, like Lady Gaga. Because they are overly preoccupied with other people’s feelings and perceptions, they often neglect their own emotional health."
If you suffer from chronic pain, learning to be compassionate toward yourself, and letting go of your emotional toxic waste, could offer some relief — both physically and emotionally. While this approach is new in the medical field, emotional detox workshops are widely available. Purging your body of trauma makes a whole lot of sense, and 34.8 percent of EAET patients in the study found relief from their physical pain, Fibromyalgia News Today reported.
This is good news for chronic pain sufferers, and could provide a viable alternative therapy, especially if you've tried everything else without success.