Is Your Running Injury All in Your Head?

Have you ever had a running injury that wouldn’t heal, that defied diagnosis and treatment and seemed incurable… and then when a source of stress in your life eased, suddenly your pain was gone?

This experience is so common – and not just for runners – that a man named John Sarno wrote a book about it called Healing Back Pain. His theory is that when we’re stressed by something in our lives we sometimes develop a physical pain or problem to distract ourselves from this life stress. It’s a kind of coping mechanism.

The gist of his book, a bestseller, is that once you know and truly believe that your pain isn’t the sign of something really wrong, but just a distraction, it will go away.

This works for a lot of people – hence the book sales! Sarno even founded a center in New York City offering psychotherapy to people with back pain for cases where simply reading the book was not enough.

My feeling is that a deeper understanding of pain and what causes us to feel it suggests a more nuanced explanation for why some people’s pain will go away with this strategy, and I’d refer you to the work of Todd Hargrove for more about that.

But to me, the chief downside of the Sarno approach to pain is that you miss out on a very important opportunity for learning.

The pain you may have in your body when you feel emotional stress is never arbitrary. It’s in a place where you’re vulnerable, created by an increase of muscular tension that intensifies your movement habits until they create enough stress somewhere that it alarms your nervous system and results in pain.

And when you feel that pain you do the thing that makes you feel safest: stick to your habits, your tried-and-true ways of moving. However, since they’re what’s causing the pain, it gets worse. And down the rabbit hole you go.

This is a huge opportunity.

The movement habits that cause your pain are likely always with you, making you a less efficient runner and a less graceful, spontaneous, creative, and satisfied person. They’re just not bad enough to demand you do something about them. But when the whole situation has spiraled out of control, suddenly your attention is demanded, you can perceive the problem, and it’s worth it to you to do something about it.

What you can learn about your movement habits in this situation is significant and can make a difference in your quality of life for many years to come.

And here’s the best part: your habits of movement and habits of thought are connected. You have only one brain, and it is busy moving and feeling and thinking all at once. It’s a single activity.

If you lie down on the floor and do a Feldenkrais lesson, exploring how you’re moving, whether you have to move that way or can find other options, and whether perhaps other ways of moving might be more comfortable and easier, then when you stand back up you’ll likely find yourself moving more comfortably, your pain reduced. At that point you’ll also notice you’re thinking and feeling differently, and have new options in the other arenas of your life as well. And that life stress… well, somehow you find you have new resources for addressing it.

When I had Achilles tendonitis as a young dancer, I tried Sarno’s approach because someone in my ballet class said it would work. It didn’t work for me, though. Then I had Feldenkrais lessons and not only did they work, they also made me a much better dancer than I was before and, even more than that, I felt as if the sun came out for the first time in my life.

Working on believing my achilles tendonitis was just a distraction and my real problems were mental and emotional could never have given me half as much, even if it had worked.

Disregarding your body will never allow you to be the best you can be, or the happiest. Every injury is in your head and every life stress is in your body. Treat yourself as a whole being, and treat injury as the huge opportunity for learning it really is.

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