Pain(t) me Wrong

Turn your wounds into wisdom.”

Oprah Winfrey

“It makes me so mad when they blame my pain on my past,” said Sally, manning the advice desk at our local pain clinic . “Why add that to my daily burden?”

The “experts” have just again said chronic pain is the result our “thoughts, feelings, and resulting behaviors.” Which feels like blame the patient: if I could crack jokes and be life and soul of the party, then my pain would go away. This is an absurd oversimplification.

Yes, my attitude has a huge effect on how I handle pain. In fact, one of pain's great gifts has been to teach me not to waste energy on rumination, looking over my shoulder or comparing myself with those luckier than me. Learning to manage my mood has been a great bonus. It is a daily determination, like charting a course when sailing.

Pain takes up brain space and energy; I can't handle evil, murder and hatred on top. So pain has, oddly, meant I live in a kind space, what I call “the beloved.” As my daughter said to me last summer, when my back was pushed to its limits with grandchildren, “You are in a good place, Mum.”

The experts point out that “childhood physical and sexual abuse and painful losses” are risk factors for chronic pain. Apply cognitive behavioural therapy! Am sure it helps: forgiving and letting go help anyone. It's one of the lessons back pain taught me, though I don't think my past caused the pain. Simply, I hadn't the room in my head for both past and present pain.

No, there's a simple, humane explanation why so many of us had trauma and now have back pain. Stress travels the same pathways up the spine as pain, so does digestive distress. When my digestion, crippled by 25 years of non-diagnosis of celiac disease, plays up, my back is always worse.

As for childhood, any situation where you live in constant stress and fear sensitizes the stress pathways. By age 18, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. My stress pathways were trigger happy and hypervigilant. Just ready to take over when pain was added to the mix.

Yes, our pasts are involved, because our brains are changed by stress, making our neuronal pathways sitting ducks for later pain. And, yes, learning to rewire those circuits really helps. But the implication that we are somehow causing our chronic pain is hurtful. It makes us out as inadequate and broken.

So let's look at chronic pain sufferers not as causing their pain, but as growing through it. I don't have a lousy life because of my pain. No, because of my pain I have learned to live a purposeful, authentic and kind life.


The stress-related back pain diagnosis is a “psychosomatic” or “psycho-physiological” one. A psycho-physiological illness is any illness in which physical symptoms are thought to be the direct result of psychological or emotional factors. This diagnosis means that psychological factors either initiated or are maintaining the back pain, or both.

Dr. John Sarno


About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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