When a trauma occurs to the physical body, such as a bone break or muscle tear, the recovery process may involve several stages. The bone may need to be set properly with plates, rods, or screws. The muscle may require the use of tendons from a different part of the body to reattach the fibers. And of course, both these procedures involve further complications due to the need for bypassing skin, other muscles/bones, and nerve connections to get to the exact location of the original trauma. And the pain after these surgeries can feel just as intense, if not sometimes worse than the original injury.
After surgery may come a progressive regiment of resistance training, mobility and flexibility work, and the strengthening of the areas that surround the damage. Remember the children’s educational song “The Skeleton Dance”, where they go through all the parts of the body that are connected? This is the basis for how we function as a coherent system. A simple example of the interconnectedness of the human body can be demonstrated by the way a chiropractor helps to relieve low back pain. If the muscles are tense and causing discomfort, the chiropractor will often start by relieving tension in the hip flexor and glute muscle, which are both connected to the lower back. “Why would they work on those parts first if it’s the back that hurts?” Good question. By loosening these areas, the low back, although maybe chronically damaged, now has less tension on it and as a result is better able to respond to the direct application of therapeutic techniques itself.
Physical therapy and routine orthopedic treatments may cause an increase in pain for several hours or even days after. But chances are, one day you wake up and suddenly things aren’t popping, crackling, cramping, or throbbing as much. Sharp pains may start to dull. The complex musculoskeletal system is now moving with wider range of motion, stronger junction points, and less push/pull on other parts of the body already working on their intended tasks to support us. These processes guide and strengthen the body’s already innately wired ability to heal itself to minimize problems going forward.
If one ignores any number of physical injuries, the body can still heal itself. However, the surrounding areas are left to compensate for the damage on their own. Over time these areas that weren’t even damaged from the start may now have trouble with range of motion, flexibility, and strength. Every deep breath, step, or raising of the arms can come with a painful reminder of what’s happened. Now you have the original damage along with other seemingly arbitrary discomfort requiring its own tedious attention.
What is Pain?
Pain is simply the mind’s interpretation of how heavy of a threat a part of you is under, and how important it is that this area function properly to ensure your survival. And just like physical pain, the mind can be seen in an almost mirror like reflection. Throughout life, stressors cause breaks and tears in our emotional fabric. Stress makes it difficult to both know what it is that you’re feeling, why you’re feeling that way, and what to do with that energy once it’s flowing. Similarly to the musculoskeletal system, our minds are made up of parts that are always interacting with each other to create our “whole” perception of life and its meaning. Thoughts/feelings/behavioral urges are electronically tied to memories and automatically associated with each other so if one gets triggered, the other has some level of activation as well (the hip flexor becomes tense, the low back may spasm).
Because of the lack of sympathy for matters of the mind as opposed to being laid up in bed with a broken bone, human beings end up ignoring these stressors and the effect on their overall mental health. People learn to just “tough out” emotional pain, and process it without any resetting or reattaching, any rest, or any continual strengthening regiments to ensure you’re not thinking all day with a fierce mental “limp”.
Just like surgery, the beginning stages of recovery from emotional trauma involve bypassing the protective layers the mind has paved over itself to stay safe from judgment, invalidation, and neglect (having “thick skin”). If someone has a damaged knee, bumping it into a door may hurt far worse than someone without the original damage, despite hitting the door with the same force. With emotional trauma, the same events that one may brush off unphased can be absolutely infuriating or terrifying for someone else with an improperly healed and faulty emotion regulation system.
How Psychotherapy Helps the Trauma Healing Process
Physical therapists may recommend someone routinely engage in strength and flexibility training outside of the appointments throughout their daily lives, without an expiration date on the prescription. Again, what one works on in psychotherapy, must be employed in other parts of their lives so those ways of thinking, feeling, and interacting become habitual and lose the “limp”.
So often, individuals come to psychotherapy with a goal of working on 1 emotion and get attached to the idea that if they don’t discuss it, it’s not improving. Our emotions rarely exist in a vacuum, especially anger. Anger surfaces when cocktails of fear, sadness, shame, and guilt arise because of the perceived potential for social isolation, in varying degrees depending on the severity of harm done to one another. One might say “I’m not here to talk about my guilt, I’ve accepted that! I want to stop being so angry!” completely unaware that targeting guilt loosens the perception that the person is going to experience a drop in social status, therefore not needing to defend themselves as much with ferociously charged anger.
Psychotherapy can certainly lead one to the revisiting of quite difficult times and experiencing some of the sensations of that difficulty yet again. This is usually what stops people from fully engaging in the healing process, out of fear that they can’t handle the repeated reminders. With a psychotherapist, people can reopen or rebreak older emotional wounds and go through that process the physical injuries do to be reset. After the reset, and sometimes worsening pain, you can find yourself with wider range of motion of the shoulder, hip, knee, etc. (greater acceptance of the parts of your mind), bear more weight on the injury (be able to feel a rush of emotion soothe it yourself), and more freedom to mobilize without anticipation of aggravating the injury (control your mind, not let it control you).
Painting a picture of how physically and emotionally everything is connected can help you to understand that helping one part of your body (mind) can bring healing, recovery to many other parts (emotional healing).
Take a moment to let this all "set" in...
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Some of the therapies Sean practices include Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for emotion regulation Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, EMDR for Trauma and Sports Performance, Polyvagal theory for Nervous System Regulation and Mindfulness Practice.
Sean is licensed in New York and Florida and is available to take new clients.