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Listen: Heal Your Pain

Getty/Oleksandr Shchus

Your body is sending you a message—in the unfortunate language of pain.

The most powerful way that the body knows how to speak—especially when we haven’t been listening particularly well—is through pain. Each of our bodies has its own unique pain language.

It can often feel like our bodies are working against us. They aren’t! Our bodies are always trying to help us, always trying to communicate what they need. They don’t always do it very well or conveniently, but when we get better at listening we can help ourselves return to balance. When we have some tools to understand the meaning of our pain, our treatments, whether they are prescription, holistic, or both, work more effectively.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese medicine holds that emotions are held in the body. When there is an imbalance in a certain organ, that can cause an emotional response—and vice-versa. In general the organs are paired with emotions in this way:

Liver: Anger

Heart: Joy

Spleen: Anxiety

Lungs: Sadness

Kidneys: Fear

Gall bladder: Confusion/insecurity

The organs are intimately related to our emotional body, not to mention to each other and to everything else in the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctors know how to read a patient’s body to detect an imbalance, sometimes even before an illness blooms. But this knowledge can also give us a clue. If we are having health issues with a particular organ, what might that be telling us about how we are processing these emotions in our lives?

Here’s an example. Imagine that when someone is heartbroken, he feels intensely drawn to cigarettes. His lungs seem to want to be filled with something (even something poisonous), to help him feel and express his sadness. Understanding that relationship from a TCM standpoint can help him put the cigarettes down and take some deep breaths to acknowledge grief instead.

Chakra Theory

Chakra theory is a very old and very popular way of thinking about the energy body. The basic idea is that we have seven energy centers in our bodies that correspond to certain emotions and states. When we have an imbalance in one of these areas of the body, it might be corresponding to an imbalance with the corresponding energy center.

ROOT CHAKRA: Pelvic floor, legs, and feet. Sense of home, rootedness, feeling safe, financial security.

SACRAL CHAKRA: Pelvis, hips, low belly, sexual organs, large intestine. Sense of vitality, sexual energy, ability
to connect deeply with others, reproductive health, creativity, passion for life.

SOLAR PLEXUS CHAKRA: Stomach, liver, gall bladder, small intestine, kidney, and adrenal glands. Sense of self, ability to stand up for oneself, make a statement, make a decision, take a chance, self-confidence (notice the similarity here with TCM).

HEART CHAKRA: Heart and lung area. Grief, joy, sense of connection to family and community, hope (again, the lung-sadness connection remains from TCM).

THROAT CHAKRA: Throat, tongue, jaw. Ability to express and communicate thoughts, feelings, and desires. Ability to create art, to reveal it to the world. Ability to articulate internal feelings, thoughts, and desires.

THIRD EYE CHAKRA: The eyes and mind. Intuition, clear thinking, clear seeing both physically and metaphorically.

CROWN CHAKRA: Slightly above the head. Related to spirituality and connection with the divine.

The general concept with chakras is that they are energy centers that can get blocked, much like the lines of energy that can get blocked in TCM. Balancing the chakras requires a range of different actions, like physical exercise, breathwork, meditation, changing diet, and even changing our relationships.

Again, we can explore the sensations of our bodies and compare them to these emotional maps. What resonates? For example, if the jaw is chronically tight, we know that’s related to the throat chakra. So what are we not saying that’s getting stuck in the throat? What is unprocessed or unarticulated? What do we need to say, and to whom?

Modern Science

In 2013, a Finnish study mapped common emotions in the body, analyzing surveys with about 700 volunteers from Finland, Sweden, and Taiwan. The study found that most emotions are felt similarly in the body, even when those people came from different cultures.

Anger tended to be felt in the top half of the body: the chest, head, and shoulders. Sadness was felt around the heart. Anxiety was felt mostly in the stomach (the solar plexus chakra or kidney region in TCM) and happiness was felt all over the body.

This study shows that we can start to learn the language of our bodies through the sensations of our emotions—they are, after all, called feelings because we feel them.

The idea that our bodies manifest our emotional pain is well-established. In the 1990s, Kaiser Permanente joined up with the Centers for Disease Control for a major study on adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. They found that when children are exposed to certain adverse events in childhood, health outcomes later in life are drastically affected.

The ACEs the study focused on are exposure to violence, neglect, or abuse; divorce; a family member attempting suicide or dying by suicide; and having a parent in prison. The more of these that children were exposed to, the likelier they were to experience not just mental health problems but also heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Further, when children were exposed to a lot of stress during their developmental years, the proper functioning of the nervous system and the immune system was often compromised.

It’s long been understood in forms of alternative medicine that a history of trauma can show up in the body, and now scientific studies are beginning to show the truth of this. Adults recovering from ACEs greatly benefit from modalities that address the nervous system, such as yoga and therapy, alongside medication and other health interventions.

The Body as Metaphor

Many authors have explored how to understand the symptoms in the body through metaphor. The idea is that our body is essentially a manifestation of our unconscious mind. Especially when we don’t appropriately express our emotions, we have no choice but to sublimate them into the body.

Dr. Gabor Maté has written several books on this topic, including one called When the Body Says No, which is all about how trauma shows up as physical symptoms that metaphorically express the unspoken emotion. For example, a patient of Maté’s suffered from a condition called scleroderma, in which the skin and connective tissue in the body thicken and harden, making movement difficult and, in some cases, affecting internal organs. For this patient, there was a history of feeling trapped, stuck inside herself, unable to speak up about what she wanted to say.

In her book Your Body Speaks Your Mind, Deb Shapiro goes over a long list of symptoms and issues and explores how to understand them metaphorically. A sprained ankle, for example, might indicate that you feel conflicted or unsure about the direction you are going in your life (and connects to the idea of the root chakra, since issues in the lower body indicate issues around safety and home). A literal limp might be trying to help you metaphorically slow down so that you can consider where you really want to go. Even if you don’t believe a whit of body-as-metaphor, the practice of listening to your pain rather than ignoring it can be a deeply self-loving practice.

Self-Inquiry

When we have pain or illness in our bodies, we can ask ourselves a few questions that might help us understand what the body is trying to tell us. Journaling on these questions might give us some insight into where the dis-ease is coming from so that we can learn to heal ourselves (with the help of whatever medical practitioners we trust).

  • When did this condition start? What was my emotional state at the time?
  • When did I get the signal that something was feeling wrong in my body? How did I respond to that signal?
  • What does this condition allow me to do or avoid doing?
  • What is the purpose of the part of my body that is affected? Is it digesting? Protecting me from harm? Allowing me to move and walk? Giving me sexual pleasure? Allowing me to think? To express myself?
  • How does the condition present itself? For example, is it forcing me to lie down? Are the runny nose and teary eyes of a cold giving me a chance to physiologically cry without actually facing my sadness?

Looking at our physical symptoms this way certainly doesn’t replace the need for evidence-based medicine, but our pain may very well have useful messages for us. When we can begin to see our pain and illness not as annoying inconveniences but as major signals from our body that something is going on, we can slow down and find a new way to listen to ourselves.

So the next time you have a cold, instead of taking a bunch of medicine and forcing yourself to push through, what if you paused and honored your body’s deep request for rest? You may learn something very interesting about yourself as you listen to the wisdom of that runny nose.