This Mind-Body Reaction Blew My Mind

Confessions of a chronic pain recovery therapist

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I recently returned from attending a retreat in Sedona. And I had a pretty wild experience there that I thought I’d share, because it’s so relevant to the chronic pain recovery journey.

One of the activities at this retreat was a session with a local healer who guided us each through an emotional release. For me, the emotion that came up during the session was anger. The healer invited me to let the anger come out of my body through whatever noise my body wanted to make — a primal scream — and the release that I experienced was intense. Like, really intense! So intense, in fact, that my body continued to react to it long after the session was over.

That evening, I encountered what felt like a full-body allergic reaction. First, I started to experience pelvic discomfort that progressed into a urinary tract infection (UTI), with the symptoms of sharp, persistent urgency to pee. Since this used to be a fairly common stress response for my body, I still carry UTI medication with me whenever I travel, so thankfully, I was able to take it right away, which helped.

That was just the beginning, though. Next, my scalp and the palms of my hands and feet suddenly started itching like they were on fire. This is another mind-body symptom that I’ve experienced before, so I wasn’t frightened. But it was consuming and made it hard to fall asleep.

As I ran through my mental rolodex of mind-body techniques that had helped me in the past, the itching finally started to soften when I said to myself: “I think that this is my fear of my anger.” As I said it over and over again to myself, the sensations gradually cooled off just enough for me to fall asleep.

The experience wasn’t over yet, though, as when I awakened and went to the bathroom to wash up, I noticed in the mirror that there was a rash on my stomach and my entire face — including my ears — was swollen! In fact, my ears felt like when the pressure changes on an airplane because of the swelling. This was a symptom I’d never experienced before, and it felt totally bizarre.

Within a couple of hours, however, the rash and the face-and-ear swelling were gone. The storm was over. And while this odyssey of symptoms was a bit surprising and unsettling, it made sense to me.

This is how I framed it:

Sometimes, symptoms are triggered by suppressing our emotions. As we suppress, tension builds inside of us, and eventually explodes into symptoms.

Other times, symptoms are triggered by pushing ourselves to release emotions too quickly or all at once. When we push our emotions to release, rather than allowing them to release, the release can be overwhelming and even painful. Not to be crude, but it’s similar to moving your bowels: When you’ve been constipated for a while, you don’t want to push too hard or too fast. Better to soften things up first, if you know what I mean. 😂

If any of this resonates with you, I’m going to share what helped me move through this experience, in case it’s helpful for you too!

First, during the height of the flare-up, I reminded myself to stick with simple soothing strategies. I teach about this in my mini-course Rx For Flare-Ups: when symptoms are high, stick to simple soothing techniques. A few that helped me this time were naming my emotions, giving myself messages of love and safety, and reaching out to a trusted friend.

Then, in the aftermath of the flare-up when I got back home, I did some self-compassion journaling. This is one of the tools I teach in Rx For Flare-Ups to use when symptom levels are low to moderate. This style of journaling helped me to release some more emotion in a gentler, safer-feeling way.

Finally, I certainly had the impulse to get mad at myself for “letting this happen to me,” because as a therapist and chronic pain recovery coach, “I should know better.” But I’ve also learned that this is just the kind of perfectionism that feeds into symptoms! So, although it wasn’t necessarily easy or automatic, I encouraged myself to forgive myself and acknowledge that I’m human. 😍

I hope you got some takeaways from this story that you can use in your own journey. Flare-ups happen to all of us! Sometimes they happen in familiar ways, and other times in ways that take us by surprise.

Aiming for a life that’s free of flare-ups is an unrealistic goal, in my opinion. But having a set of tools to guide us through the storm can help us get through it with more self-compassion and resilience. Our bodies need our love and acceptance — especially when they’re freaking out in the middle of the desert! 😅🌵

With love, compassion and steady encouragement,

💖 Anna

➡️ If you need support with chronic pain and anxiety, take my FREE QUIZ called Why the *bleep* am I still in pain?! so I can help you get some clarity.

And follow me on instagram for healing tips, inspiration and encouragement.

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