If we want to heal, we need to get uncomfortable.
This post was first published on June 9, 2020 on Medium.
Across the U.S. and around the world, thousands upon thousands of demonstrators are marching in protest following the murder of George Floyd — yet another unarmed black man killed by a white police officer on American soil. We are in the midst of a social justice crisis. Or rather, we’ve been in a social justice crisis for a very, very long time. I hope what we are seeing now is a tipping point for social change.
Many white people who have long been passive while considering themselves allies to the racial justice movement are now taking action for the first time. And many black and brown people are asking — rightly so — “what took you so long?” How could somebody consider themselves anti-racist yet remain a passive bystander until now?
Countless chronic pain patients have been told by medical professionals that there is no cure for their pain and that they’ll have to live with it for the rest of their lives — kind of like what many have been taught about systemic injustice.
One answer is the common psychological coping tactic of avoidance, or “tuning out.” Activism carries risks. It’s messy, it engages conflict, and it can provoke retribution. Avoidance provides a way to cope with the status quo rather than taking risky action to change it.
Tuning out racial injustice is obviously much easier for white people and others with social privilege. However, the human mind is capable of some surprising gymnastics and avoidance can show up as a coping tactic in individuals of all backgrounds.
Clearly, in order to heal the problems of systemic inequality, a critical mass must stop merely coping and take risky action.
Coping vs Healing in Healthcare
As a psychotherapist who helps clients recover from chronic pain and other stress-related syndromes, I see an analogy to the coping-vs-healing dynamic in the world of chronic pain treatment. It’s more than just an analogy, really, since the prevalence of chronic pain syndromes correlates with social inequalities (Grol-Prokopczyk, 2018).
The current mainstream medical approach to chronic pain focuses on coping, not healing. Countless chronic pain patients have been told by medical professionals that there is no cure for their pain and that they’ll have to live with it for the rest of their lives — kind of like what many have been taught about systemic injustice. Treatments held up as “gold standards” for chronic pain include drugs that mask symptoms and behavioral therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that rely on coping behaviors like positive thinking rather than diagnosing and addressing the root causes of chronic pain.
The healthcare industry reaps large profits from long-term pain management treatments that offer no resolution.
That might sound fine, but what if you were to learn that there are alternate therapies designed to eliminate and heal chronic pain by identifying and addressing its underlying causes? Therapies that have been tested and proven with evidence and case studies that can be seen here and here among many other resources. These therapies are loosely grouped under the informal name tension myositis syndrome (TMS) therapy, using a term coined by Dr. John Sarno. Other names are mind-body therapy and psychophysiologic disorder (PPD) therapy. More information can be found at the Psychophysiologic Disorder Association.
Despite the mountain of research, evidence and patient success stories, therapy designed to eliminate chronic pain rather than manage it faces an uphill climb when it comes to widespread institutional acceptance.
There are many reasons for this, not least of which is: The healthcare industry reaps large profits from long-term pain management treatments that offer no resolution. If a new treatment were to reduce the number of chronic pain patients, it would threaten the economics of a medical industry that profits most when patients need ongoing services.
But that’s not the end of the story. TMS therapy has the potential to expose other kinds of systemic problems as well. That’s because, while CBT focuses on present-day symptoms, TMS therapy is designed to uncover the causes of chronic pain. And often, the cause turns out to be trauma rooted in systemic injustice, whether it’s child abuse, gender-based violence, racial discrimination, economic hardship, etc., etc., etc.
Empathy shifts to solidarity when we understand that it benefits us all to move from a culture of coping to one of activism and healing.
The more aware we become of social injustice, the greater the impetus for us to take action. And remember, activism carries risks. It’s messy, it engages conflict, and it can provoke retribution. I’ve written here about a time in the not-so-distant past when psychotherapists paid a heavy price for speaking out, and how the mental health field is still reeling from it.
Avoidance provides a way to cope with the status quo rather than taking risky action to change it. I believe this is why the coping approach continues to reign supreme in mainstream healthcare while the healing approach is a steadily growing fringe movement. I hope that one day soon we’ll reach a tipping point.
The more social privilege we have — racial, gender, economic, etc. — the easier it is to tune out and stick with the status quo. But no human is immune to pain and coping only gets us so far. Empathy shifts to solidarity when we understand that it benefits us all to move from a culture of coping to one of activism and healing.