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What can physical pain teach us?

Did you know that observing uncomfortable sensations from a calm place can improve mental and physical health symptoms? This is the premise of Somatic Tracking, a component of Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT) that was developed by Alan Gordon, LCSW, to help people recover from chronic conditions like back pain, vertigo, migraines and chronic fatigue. IFS is a perfect adjunct to PRT, because it helps us access this calm witnessing state that we call Self.

According to Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT)—and the work of Dr. John Sarno, Dr. Howard Schubiner and other leaders in the mind-body field—many chronic conditions are not caused by structural damage in the body. Rather, our brain perceives danger and produces pain or symptoms as a warning signal that something is wrong. When we freak out about the pain or frantically try to fix it, we confirm the brain’s danger signal and perpetuate what’s called the pain-fear cycle. By observing our sensations from a lens of safety (from Self), we teach our brain that we are not in danger and that it can turn off the pain or symptoms.

It can be hard to observe uncomfortable sensations from a calm, curious place. Parts naturally want to avoid pain or make it go away. Dr. Howard Schubiner describes our common reactions to mental and physical pain as the 6 F’s (not to be confused with the 6 F’s in IFS to get to know protectors). We can think of Dr. Schubiner’s 6 F’s as parts who fear the symptoms, focus on them, get frustrated with them, fight them, try to figure them out, or try to fix them. In IFS, these are usually manager strategies meant to protect us from pain. Unfortunately, the reactions only make symptoms worse because they tell our brain that there is a problem and to keep generating pain as an alarm. 

We can validate these parts and reassure them that we are safe, that there is nothing physically wrong with us (after a physician rules out any structural causes). Paradoxically, when the parts relax and we have less resistance to physical and mental pain, symptoms can naturally improve. Resistance locks in feelings, while compassion helps them flow through us. However, sometimes it’s not enough to calmly witness our inner experience as it ebbs and flows. Sometimes, parts are calling for our attention through the body. It would be unkind to simply observe sensations without attending to the parts behind them. We’d also miss out on valuable, even fascinating, information.

For example, my part that causes coat hanger pain (pain in the upper back and neck) before trips was concerned about not having enough clothes, thanks to minimalist parts who don’t want our luggage to be overweight. This part wanted to be involved in packing decisions to make sure I have enough to wear. Another part made my right hand hurt badly when I started decluttering for a move outside Jerusalem. The part was scared that I would forget the city and created pain reminiscent of the psalm-based lyrics, “Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,” by singer Matisyahu. Dr. Schubiner calls this “symbolic pain” and describes how the brain can produce sensations in virtually every area of the body, from mild to extreme. In other words, our parts can choose where and how they want to send us a message. 

Even when we attend to the parts behind symptoms, the pain might not go away immediately. So we can continue to compassionately observe the sensations, unblending from parts that don’t like them or want to fix them. The more we can hold our pain with agenda-less presence, the safer our brain will feel and the less likely it will continue to produce symptoms. When symptoms do flare, we can attend to the parts involved to see what’s going on and what they need from us. One might call this Self-led physical unblending.

Symptoms can also improve over the course of IFS therapy as managers relax. Perfectionist, people-pleasing and overachieving parts create a lot of tension in the body. From a PRT lens, the intensity of these parts can make the brain feel unsafe, which then activates pain as an alarm. 

A parallel IFS perspective is that hard-working managers trigger hidden polarized parts, who hijack the body with pain to try to stop the overfunctioning and overgiving. Dominated and ignored by the managers, the polarized parts generate pain as a way of saying, “No, this is too much. It has to stop.” Pain science teaches that our brain uses pain to prevent further injury, like telling us to stop running on a broken foot before we damage it even more. So too, the parts that cause pain are trying to shut down our system before it gets totally overwhelmed by extreme managers and the exiles that fuel them. 

Dr. Sarno talks about the common personality traits of people with chronic pain, like perfectionism and “goodism” (pleasing others at the expense of ourselves). He says these traits derive from unconscious feelings of inadequacy and fear of being disliked. In IFS, we would call these parts exiles holding burdens of worthlessness and abandonment. When we bring healing to these young wounded parts, the managers protecting them can let go and stop working so hard. The whole system relaxes and symptoms can subside. We can thank our parts for trying to protect us and pointing to the places in need of healing inside of us.  

By Manya Ronay, MS, CHES®

If you’re interested in learning more about IFS and PRT, check out this article co-authored by Howard Schubiner and Dick Schwartz.

If you’d like to try a free IFS Somatic Tracking meditation, check out this video.

Special thanks to Lihi Lisser and Phil de la Haye for opening my eyes to several connections between IFS and PRT.

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