How to Win the Pain Game

By | December 5, 2011

Do you suffer from chronic pain? So do I, along with one out of three US citizens, but only one out of eight Japanese. Why the difference? Most chronic pain is self-made, and the way we deal with it is culturally dictated. When pain persists beyond an injury’s healing phase, it no longer has a physiological basis, so drugs and physical therapy can do little or nothing to resolve it. Which of course is no news to those of you who’ve tried.

This afternoon I saw a physical therapist named Robert to get some help for my ever-present sore neck. He examined me and said my neck was fine, that my problem was all in my brain. He had my attention. As he explained why, I nodded in agreement nearly the whole time—he was describing essentially what I had come to realize about chronic emotional pain. We talked for an hour, comparing healing approaches: his to physical pain and mine to emotional pain, and we found very little difference. In fact, what I stated above about chronic physical pain relates to the emotional form as well, so please keep this in mind as we continue.

First, an explanation. Those of you who know me as a storyteller and wilderness skills instructor might be wondering why I would know anything about emotional pain. Anyone who has taught skills in a primitive living situation will tell you that they often end up doing more counseling than anything else. You can’t get very far with skills unless you can guide people through the discomfort thresholds, limiting beliefs, and dysfunctional relationship patterns that typically trip them up shortly after they step out of their comfort zones. In a primitive camp, you have to function independently and responsibly, without the crutches of accustomed routines and escapes. There’s a sign on Robert’s door, “Human primate social groomer,” that could just as easily hang on mine.

Robert and I agreed that chronic physical and emotional pains are both fundamentally incurable. I went to counselors for years before I got fed up with the endless weekly visits and decided to take responsibility for my life. There were a few times when I didn’t think I could make it to my next weekly appointment, so would give my counselor a desperate call. I know numbers of people like I was: they’ve been seeing counselors for years, with no end in sight. Many others who don’t see counselors either self-medicate or use prescription antidepressants. In the past twenty years, the use of antidepressants has increased nearly four-fold—even with teenagers. One in four women between forty and fifty-nine is on antidepressants. I’ve added psychologists and (on the recommendation of my physical therapist) most chronic pain treatment professionals to the ranks of attorneys, politicians, and clergy who enable us with crutches to keep us crippled and limping along rather than helping us take charge of our lives.

Let’s use physical pain as a metaphor for exploring this endless dependency. Most chronic pain, Robert stated, is not the result of injury but of a life where nearly everything we do is repetition-based. We train ourselves to experience an endless loop of pain the same way we train for a routine that makes today no more than a photocopy of yesterday or the day before.

Here’s how it works: when we injure ourselves, we withdraw the injured area to protect it, and pain is our reminder to keep it protected during the healing phase. The pain becomes chronic when it persists beyond the healing phase, and it can do so because it is created in the mind, not the body. This is true whether it’s a headache, back pain, or a sore neck. Nerves in the affected area do not feel pain—they only send data to the brain, which decides whether or not to push the pain button, also located in the brain. Some people with amputated limbs will tell you they still feel pain in that limb (known as phantom pain), and there are others with broken bones and other serious wounds who feel no pain at all. Drugs and therapy do no good, as there is nothing to medicate or manipulate.

Here’s where our repetition-based lives fit in, as neurons that repeatedly fire together, wire together. After my neck injury, I continually held my neck in a position that would minimize the pain, which trained my brain to push the pain button whenever I turned my neck out of that position. Now, long after my neck is healed, my brain still pushes the pain button whenever I turn my neck in a certain way, but now with no neural input from my neck. I have created a self-perpetuating cycle that may never end. The same with emotional pain: after a while those people who keep making me angry or jealous don’t have to do whatever it is that triggers me anymore: their mere appearance—or just the thought of them—causes those programmed neurons to automatically flick the pain switch. Each of us has around forty-five miles of nerves in our body, with a significant part of our circulatory system being devoted to maintaining them. No wonder we can so easily end up being controlled—even victimized—by them.

If I were living a primitive outdoor life, my movements would be continually varied, so neurons wouldn’t wire together. When my neck injury healed, the pain would naturally have left.

However, I lead a hybrid life, where I hold my neck in the same position for periods of time, such as right now when I’m writing. According to Robert, my key to pain cessation—and perhaps yours as well—is to realize that when I hurt, it doesn’t mean I have been harmed. Knowing the pain is all in my head, rather than in my muscles (or emotions), I no longer have to let it limit what I do with my body or feelings. I can resume control of my life rather than being victimized by my pain telling me how to move or feel.

The cure is movement. Rather than reading the pain as a call to limit movement, I’ll now read it as a request to restore full movement. When I move my neck the way my brain warned against for so long by pushing the pain button, I start disconnecting the button’s neural wiring. Even though there is pain, I gently explore the formerly forbidden movement area by allowing my body to intuitively find its own way around it. My body knows what to do: it has the genetic programming from a long evolutionary history of natural movement. Robert stressed proceeding gently, as pushing too hard could cause the brain to further entrench itself in the pain pattern.

“I might not be coming back to see you,” I told Robert as I shook his hand to leave after only my second appointment. “I don’t think physical therapist is a proper title for you: I think you ought to call yourself an awareness coach.” He just smiled and pointed to the sign on the door.


abbey on December 10, 2011 at 6:26 am.

I have heard that the reason for most ailments, physical and disease-wise are the result of emotional blockage, like if you have a sore throat then you aren’t speaking the truth of your heart. So wouldn’t the best way to deal with these ailments be exploring the real root of the problem by clearing up the emotional issues?


Tamarack on December 17, 2011 at 7:48 am.

Hi Abbey,

You are echoing several others who see the importance of the emotional aspect, and I’m glad for the attention it’s getting. I think you’re right-on with seeing Truthspeaking as fundamental to healing. When we live from our hearts, I believe we have fewer injuries, as we are present and have perspective. I know that I am more accident prone when I am emotionally wrought.

Spilling my heart,



Alex on December 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm.

Neat perspective and discussion!
I’m (once again!) doing eye exercises to improve my vision. It’s actually not so much about exercising as it is about relearning how to use the eye muscles in a relaxed, natural, non-strained way. And I know that I keep emotional tension in my eyes.. not sure how to address that aspect of it yet, but I’m sure that the emotional awareness work and physical relaxation are both needed to get my frontal brain extensions deglassified.


Tamarack on December 17, 2011 at 7:49 am.

Hi Alex,

Your approach to improved vision is very close to what Robert described for moving through chronic pain. I wonder if some cases of poor vision are the result of repetitive sensory input (such as up-close focusing), similar to the repetitive input that creates the mental synapses resulting in chronic pain. I know this theory is the basis of some eye exercise programs for improving vision, but I’ve seen no research to support it. Has anyone?

Squinting to see,



julio ceasar on December 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm.

It’s possibly emotional blockages–one projects a shadow, and a battle ensues with his or her body…hence chronic pain. Shadow boxing is painful. You hold back these emotions, which is like opposing forces within the body.These blockages cause tensions and pressures in the muscle.


Tamarack on December 17, 2011 at 7:47 am.


I’m glad you brought up repressed emotions, as the muscle pain associated with them is often confused with classic chronic pain. Unexpressed emotions can tense up muscles and cause a chronic pain condition, while classic chronic pain has no direct cause. Emotionally caused muscle pain usually subsides after the blockage is removed, whereas typical chronic pain is tenacious—it likes to hang out long after the injury is healed.

Getting unblocked,



Kerstin on December 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm.

Have used the “relaxing into pain” before in my life with pains that wasn’t pains, just nervcells overreacting so when I “ignored” giving attention to them they “back formation”(spelling?). This “ignoring paing” or relaxing into it is actually neuroscience.
When I started relaxing my body this time with my pelvis and back pain and I’m became more aware of body postures I became aware of the “actual damage” or what was actually out of func because that didn’t work to relax away. Now me and my chiropractor are working with that spot. I still have a way to go but it feels good to work on this “new” spot. Through becoming more aware in my body I have become aware of another spot as well (my neck/throat is a big energy-block) that I have a lot of tension in that, at this point, doesn’t work to “relax” away either, it needs some awareness/healing first that I don’t have yet. I became aware of that blocked spot through starting to read about the chakra-system and what kind of issues you get when your throat chakra is blocked. I have a hard time finding a comfortable position in my neck even when I am aware and relaxed, there’s still something. So the journey continues. I know a person who works with releasing energy blockages and I’m thinking about going there with my throat/neck.


Tamarack on December 17, 2011 at 7:57 am.


From what you’re describing, it sounds like your pelvic pain may be caused by a chronic injury rather than brain-pain programming. And your throat-neck issue, like Matt’s back pain, could be emotionally based. Please let us know what you discover, as it might be helpful to others with the same condition.

I wish you success in healing,



Matt Nelson on December 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm.

Hey there Tamarack. Good post. As I sit here reading with my back aching in the spot that has taught me that something emotional is going on in my life. Movement is in order. As is awareness. Thanks.


Tamarack on December 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm.


Thanks for the acknowledgment, and thanks on behalf of your back for listening to it. Robert suggested moving gently into the pain and doing it regularly. But that’s the physical component—I don’t know how often you want to visit the emotional part!

Talking back,


Tamarack on December 17, 2011 at 10:04 am.

Hello again Matt,

I have another thought on the emotional factor. It deserves the attention, as it’s a big player in the pain game, not only for you and me, but for many others. However, it’s a far more complex issue than chronic pain itself, as shown by the number of roles it can play. For you it is a cause of pain, which in turn clues you in that you have an emotional issue; whereas for me, emotional stress distracts me from taking care of my already-existing pain. Even so, movement is in order, as you state. For you it is with the emotional matter, and for me it is literally moving into the pain area in order to reprogram my pain response.

Moving through it,



Kerstin on December 5, 2011 at 4:08 pm.

For me the cure has also been about relaxation by becoming aware of when I put my body in uncomfortable positions as well as when I unintentionally tense my muscles.


Tamarack on December 7, 2011 at 9:56 am.

Hi Kerstin,

I’m glad you were able to work through your chronic pain, and hopefully you’ll be able to help others with theirs.

You bring up two of the most common reasons Robert says the mind stays programmed to push the pain button: muscle tension and awkward positions. He says they are both fear-based—they are usually done to avoid the movements that trigger pain. Like you, he says relaxation is the key, only we need to relax into the pain. It might sound a logical at first, but it makes perfect sense once you understand that most chronic pain is not a sign of injury.



Tami Zito (Peter Erickson's Mom) on December 5, 2011 at 1:32 pm.

Tamarack- I couldn’t agree with you more. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a prisoner of pain, and the doctors that keep you there. I have witnessed this first hand for many years with my son’s dad and with the addiction problems my son has. There is no hope for Pete, but I pray that my son figures it all out. I’m one of those that avoids doctors unless absolutely necessary, and I find some things just need to run their course, or alternative treatment is better. A few years ago, I was in terrible pain in my neck and shoulders, which became debilitating, and I didn’t want to seek treatment at a conventional doctor, who would have ordered MRIs that I couldn’t afford. I chose to try acupuncture, and it was very affective. Since acupuncture blocks the nerve path senders, it worked for me. There was no real injury, so was appropriate for me. This blog was a good thing for me to read right now as I struggle to understand the problems with opiate addiction in my family. Keep up the good writings. Maybe you could get Petey out there some time, and “teach” him some life lessons. Petey is a wonderful person, who is just a little lost right now. He misses Rabin, and they seem to be in different places. They are like brothers, and will be together again someday.


Tamarack on December 7, 2011 at 9:58 am.

Greetings Tami,

I appreciate your kind words, and it’s especially good to hear your personal story of success with chronic pain. And then you have another level of infliction in your family—the pain of addiction. I’d like to better understand how the two overlap—and I’d especially like the prescribers of pain pills to get it—as I know how easily a misdiagnosis and an open-ended prescription can lead to drug dependency. The physical therapist I saw said that 90% of the medical profession still believes chronic pain is caused by a chronic injury. This keeps the drug industry happy, of course, so I don’t expect they are in any hurry to support an educational campaign to rectify the situation.

Petey is welcome here any time, and Rabin and I will encourage him to come. He has a good life ahead of him, and we’ll do our best to support his healing and coming-of-age.

A hug to you,



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