Select Page

In 2015, The Washington Post reported that “more than 25 million American adults—about 11.2 percent—reported having pain every day for the previous three months…based on data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey.”

That’s a lot of chronic pain.

I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know exactly what causes chronic pain, and of course the reasons vary from person to person, but I want to share some personal experiences about physical pain, possible causes according to research, and a potential solution to at least some of this anguish currently plaguing America.

My freshman year of college I experienced my first bout with TMJ, or lock jaw. The pain grew so intense that eating a bowl of cereal took longer than completing some of my assignments. Yawns and laughter resulted in agony. The cause? According to a campus clinician at what was referred to as the Quack Shack, stress was causing me to clench my jaw while sleeping. This made perfect sense, as I was extremely homesick my first year away and missing my boyfriend. Romantic, I know.

WebMD offers some insight into emotional stress as a cause of physical discomfort and pain: stress can cause emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms including, but not limited to, agitation; difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind; low self-esteem; avoiding responsibilities and relationships; low energy; upset stomach; aches, pains, and tense muscles; colds and infections; dry mouth; head aches; clenched jaw; forgetfulness and disorganization; inability to focus; changes in appetite; increased use of substances; nail biting and fidgeting; depression; anxiety; low sex drive; eczema.

Psychologists have been studying the connections between emotional stress and physical pain for years. Some theories seem a bit outlandish. Phil Mutz of Little Things published some research on Huffington Post that I think are worth a gander:

  • “According to self-help author and life coach Ronda Degaust, ‘The upper back has to do with feeling the lack of emotional support. You may feel unloved or you may be holding back your love from someone else.’”

  • “Dr. Laura Perry writes on her blog, ‘Trigger points in the calf muscles are also very likely to become activated by stress or emotional tension.’ In this case specifically, jealousy and resentment may be causing the emotional tension behind your calf pain.”

  • “According to Lori D’Ascenzo, Reiki practitioner and expert in kinesiology, ‘Your neck is where you hold guilt and self-recrimination.’ Pain in your neck may mean you are having trouble forgiving yourself and that you are judging yourself too harshly.”

If you’re like me, you might be a bit skeptical, particularly regarding holding jealousy in the calves, but consider my own personal experience with neck pain almost three years ago:

I was working in a cheese factory three days a week, constantly looking down. A pain developed that I associated with the repetitiveness of the job. My husband of less than a year tried rubbing it out almost daily, but to no relief. One Wednesday night, out with a friend after church, I confessed something that had been weighing on me for months. At the time, I thought I had forgiven myself and was past it, but the next day, like a miracle, the pain was gone. I continued to work in the cheese plant with no issues (other than boredom and freezing my buns off).

I don’t like that I can’t explain this; I’m a very direct, logical person. But I am convinced that confession of my guilt that night released the tension that had nearly disabled me (slight exaggeration).

I come from a very private family and a very private church. Problems and emotions are harbored, not shared. Many don’t know how to respond to others in crisis, or that there is even a problem worth a prayer. On the other hand, society has made a mess of publicity by sharing anything and everything no matter how false or inappropriate. But there is some value in sharing hardships. Not only might others learn from your troubles, but it’s simply therapeutic.

According to PsychologyToday, “There will always be problems in our lives, but sometimes we don’t have the capacity to handle them all by ourselves. Getting a 360-degree view is impossible when all you can see is what’s going wrong. And talking with another person can give you perspective.

Just know that you can minimize your problems by discussing them with those you trust. Give your pain a voice, and let someone listen.”

  • Problems with a boss? Talk it out with someone who has experience in dealing with difficult bosses and sees the situation from a different angle.

  • Financial issues? I bet you’re not alone, but how could you know since that’s a chronically avoided topic, even within the family?

  • Marital problems? Even Abraham and Sarah had their issues. Do you really think she was happy when he took her up on her offer to let him sleep with someone else?

  • Loss of child or parent? Just try holding that in for the rest of your life, and let me know how that goes.

Secrets complicate things. They lead to isolation and distance. Sharing helps lift the weight of grief, loneliness, and guilt. My husband and I experienced a particularly significant loss last December, and some of our greatest relief has come through sharing that experience and letting others help carry the pain. There are still moments of weakness, and every day is a struggle. But I cringe to think of where we might be today had we decided to keep our pain between the two of us.

Has chronic pain or any other symptom held you down? Consider talking with someone about your emotional weights. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but it could save you years of torment and thousands of dollars in medical bills and prescriptions. Sometimes the simplest answer is the cheapest (and that’s usually my favorite).

If you need an outlet but don’t know who to turn to, feel free to share in the comments section. I promise to approve only encouraging responses and insights.