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The Day I Taught My Son To Save Himself

When I finally realized that my back pain was a result of mind/body illness (TMS) and not a structural abnormality, I began to reflect on my lifetime of maladies. The stomach issues as a child, the headaches throughout my teens and 20’s, the eczema, dizziness, and insomnia that plagued me on and off since forever. I realized all at once that perhaps all of these symptoms, however real and life altering for me, might be rising from the same space: a brain and nervous system in sustained, heightened fight or flight, diverting me from the emotions I knew not how to feel and the fear of being ill. Hmmm. Very interesting.

Once I embraced the possibility of this scenario, things began to change quickly for me. Each time I was stricken by a horrible headache or thrown for a wave by a dizzy spell I thought, “I’m ok. This is just an overwhelming moment in my life and I’m obviously feeling things in my body as well as my heart. There is nothing to be afraid of, and no medicine I need to take to fix this. Let me just acknowledge the reality of the moment, emotionally mentally and physically, and see what happens.”

Inevitably, in every single situation, the pain or symptom faded away. Sometimes it took a few days of journaling and deep introspection, and sometimes I attended to it a few minutes later and it was gone — simply from the acknowledgment of its genesis. But there were no exceptions to the eventual result: I was no longer the victim of chronic pain and conditions. I was no longer afraid.

The story I am here to tell today, however, is not about me alone. It is about my son, Oliver. Similar to me, Oliver is built anxious, vigilant, sensitive, smart. He sees everything around him, and makes meaning out of things he cannot control. This leads to fear and more fear, even when he doesn’t know it. When Oliver was about 4 years old he began to have severe stomach attacks. They would come on from nowhere, and leave just as unpredictably. These were not mild “Mom I don’t feel good” stomach aches. These were screaming, end up in the ER situations. For a while, we did the pediatrician, every test, and even the hospital when necessary. He was scanned, poked, prodded, medicated, and finally (as happens with most chronic illness) dismissed as a hopeless case. 

“We don’t know what’s wrong with him," they said. 

You might think that a mind/body guru like myself would rush right to the solution as I see it. Yet remember that I am, like you, the product of a lifetime of the medical model. And certainly when it came to my precious child, I was not willing to leave anything to chance. But, once we exhausted all that modern medicine had to test, I relented. 

“Fuck.” I thought. My anxious kid has TMS. How the hell do you explain this stuff to a kid?

This brings us to Halloween, Oliver’s 8th year. We had been invited to a Halloween party at a friend’s house. His 4 sibs threw on their costumes and got into the car. Oliver declared that he was not going to wear a costume. I saw no problem with this — he had always experienced anxiety around Halloween for fear of scary masks and pop-up spiders. He wasn’t a fan. I respected his choice, and we piled into the minivan for the 30 minute drive.

About 5 minutes in, it began. “Mommy, my stomach hurts.” About 15 minutes in, the screaming and crying began. By minute 20 there was sheer terror. I let him unbuckle his seatbelt and lay down on the floor of the van, writhing in agony. 

As we pulled up to the house for the party, Oliver moaning in a ball on the floor of the car, I did something that even surprised myself. I said, “OK, everyone out! Oliver and I are going somewhere.” The kids happily ran into the party, and I’m sure Oliver thought that we were once again on the way to the ER. I peeled out of the community and onto the main road. I knew about 5 minutes away was a fancy, brightly lit drug store. I pulled into the parking lot.

“Get out.” I said sternly. He peeked his little head up to look out the window.

“Where are we?” he croaked.

“Get out.” I said.

He stumbled out of the car, doubled over, clutching his stomach in pain. I walked ahead of him, glancing behind me to make sure there were no cars in the parking lot. He struggled to keep up with me, confused as to my stern attitude and what we were doing. “Do I need medicine?” he asked quietly. Oliver hated medicine and often threw up from the taste. 

We entered the florescent lobby of the store. It was almost 8pm and we were the only ones in there, save the bored employee behind the register. Oliver hobbled behind me, crying silently. I searched the shelves for the most expensive, extravagant, shocking purchase I could find. My eyes landed on the Deluxe Box Set of Pokeman cards. It was 50 dollars. I yanked it off the display.

“I’m buying this for you!” I almost shouted.

“WHAT…Why? What…?” he stammered. But I noticed, he straightened up just a tiny bit from the shock. Oliver was the kind of child who didn’t take anything for granted and was way more concerned about money than made sense. “It’s fifty dollars,” he managed.

“I know,” I said without emotion. “I’m buying it for you. Now, follow me.”

He walked after me, a little less doubled over, clutching the Deluxe Box Set. The tears had stopped.

I turned into the candy aisle. “Eat this. Right now,” I said, throwing a pack of his favorite licorice at him.

“What… now? But we didn’t eat dinner yet,” Oliver stuttered as he picked the package up off the floor. “And you haven't paid for it…”

“I don’t care,” I said offhand, “Eat one right now.” I ripped open the plastic. Oliver was now walking totally upright and following me in shock down the aisle. I grabbed a toy car, the kind that races forward when you drag it backwards on a hard floor, and flopped onto the ground. “Pick one! Race me!”

At this point Oliver was eating the licorice. He chose a pick-up truck from the display and plopped down next to me. 

“GO!” I yelled, and we released the cars, careening down the aisle, bumping into the shelves like pinballs. 

I turned to look at my sweet baby. “How’s your stomach?” I asked with a tentative smile.

His little face formed into a combination of surprise and recognition. “It’s fine,” he said quietly. 

“Then RUN!” I shouted, and I chased him down the Greeting Card aisle. “Run!” He zigged around the dish soap display and into Tooth Care. When we got to Bath and Body we stopped to rest. He took a bite of the Twizzler. 

“Are you ready to go to the party?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Oliver. “I don’t feel sick anymore.”

We cleaned up the cars, and paid for the licorice. We never bought the Pokeman cards, Oliver thought they were too expensive. He understood on some level what I did for a living, but now he knew from the proof of his own body. He said to me, “I get it Mommy.”

Oliver is 14 now. He has never again required a doctor’s care for his stomach. When once in a blue moon he gets pain, he comes to me. “I’m having an anxiety stomach ache, Mama,” he says.

“Lay next to me,” I tell him. “Let’s talk about it.”

The Toxicity of Fear

The other day I banged my shin. I was getting into my car, and I carelessly yanked the heavy driver’s side door closed on its bony self. I was running late, and my hasty actions had consequences. As the car door connected with my shin, pain rang out which radiated into the whole leg. “OWWWWUUUCHHHH!” I whispered loudly to myself, then I said a couple things I won’t repeat here. The pain took my breath away.

But, there were places to go and people to see, so I tucked my leg into the well below the steering wheel, buckled my seatbelt, and threw the car into reverse. During the entire ride to my next meeting, my leg was screaming. I mean, physically it really hurt. What happened in my consciousness, however, was interesting. Enlightening, actually. I found myself smack in the middle of a moment of pain without fear. I was suffering, pretty acutely, with no real meaning attached. It had been an honest mistake, no one else was involved or to blame, it felt clear that I hadn’t broken anything, and I had no marathon to run the next day that I might miss. I was just in pain, plain and simple. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t overwhelming. I think that was because it was just happening, and I knew at some point it would cease to be happening. Later that day when I became engaged in other activities, I stopped noticing the ache. By the next day it was simply a black and blue mark which smarted at the touch. That’s all.

The epidemic of chronic pain in our society is not actually about pain, it’s about fear. When we hurt, no doubt it is brutal, unbearable, life-altering — for the moment. Yet, without fear pain can only be temporary. Pain becomes chronic when it is attached to meaning: How might this affect me tomorrow, the next day? How will this change my life? What does this mean about my overall health? How does this make me feel compared to other people in my life? Do I feel less than? Jealous? Inadequate? 

Whether we know it or not, when we suffer in pain these questions and many more like them are swirling around in our heads, creating and sustaining a building wave of fear. We heap meaning on our fear, and fear on our meaning, until we are suffocating underneath a mountain of projection, victimization, imagined catastrophe and self-doubt. These feelings take residence in our minds, and we are launched into a sustained “fight or flight” reaction which in itself feeds the pain cycle.

Fear is necessary for human beings. Without it, we would not be alive. Fear alerts us to danger, and allows our nervous systems to do their jobs and protect us. Unfortunately however, our primitive defense mechanisms do not discern between the fear of missing your son’s graduation and the fear of a predator in your peripheral view. Our bodies, in a state of prolonged fear, respond in the same fashion they always have. They keep us aroused and ready for survival behaviors. Unfortunately, this natural order which serves so well in times of desperation, is failing us in 21st century reality. We are paralyzed with fear, and so with pain.

Happily, there is a solution; a way to inform our well-meaning brains and nervous systems that we are safe, and need no protection from the tsunami of meaning and fear that seems to be crashing on us endlessly. That way is JournalSpeak. Put simply, JournalSpeak is a language we must learn in order to give our very natural human fear and emotions a voice. No one needs to hear this voice but you in order to put your system at ease. There is no confrontation necessary, or change of situation imperative to heal.  Since the pain is necessitated by the repression of fear and emotions, failure to repress disempowers the pain response completely. This is precisely what happens when we awaken to the possibility that we are far more scared than we might have known, and have the tools to give that fear a voice and allow it to take leave.

If you are suffering in chronic pain, take a moment to consider that thousands of people just like you are no longer in the jail of daily misery which symptoms create. I know that Fibromyalgia is real, and so are migraines, back neck and shoulder pain, and so many other afflictions attached to chronic illness. Real, for the purposes of this discussion, means that you are suffering and you are hurting, just like the pain which made me sick to my stomach when I slammed my poor bony shin. The genesis of my shin pain was a car door. What if, perhaps, the genesis of your suffering (no matter how absolutely real) comes from your emotional life, not a malfunction in your physical body? Same pain, different starting point. 

You have a chance to change your life in ways you can’t yet quite imagine. In my private practice, for years and years, I have watched people formerly stuck and resigned after medication, procedures and surgery have failed them, open their minds to the emotional genesis of their pain and heal completely. Might this be the day for you? I can only speak for myself, but I hope so. 

Take the first step, here, today. I’m with you, and I know you can do it. XOOX Nicole.

Listening to the Mind to Heal the Body

This article was originally published in the Wise Brain Bulletin, a bi-monthly professional journal by the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Dr. Rick Hanson. I want to share it here so it reaches as many people as possible. It is my heartfelt wish that all who read it give themselves the gift of trying this work for themselves. The life you save is your own.

Listening to the Mind to Heal the Body

By: Nicole J. Sachs, LCSW

I have spent the better part of my life making a study of pain.  This began out of necessity, at age 19 when I was delivered a life sentence in the form of a spinal condition known as Spondylolisthesis.  The day I received the news, I was flat on my back in an orthopedic surgeon’s office, Xray slapped on the lit screen, panicked and in agony.  My diagnosis was fraught with warning: no long travel, no active sports, beware certain sleeping positions, and the most emphatic: the likelihood of carrying a baby to term without serious injury was small to none.  Having been a child who’d swaddled her baby dolls and stuffed animals with equal passion and purpose, this final piece of news hit me hard.  A life without the big and vibrant family I had envisioned?  Was this a life at all?

The spinal fusion surgery the doctors were recommending could wait they said - I was young and if I was very careful and followed their complex instructions, I might live until 40 without it.  Even so, the reality lingered in my thoughts: a body cast, a long recovery, a limited life.

A contemplative soul by nature often pondering life’s secrets and complexity, I knew inherently that perhaps this wouldn't be my fate.  I didn’t at the time, however, know quite why, or how.  A psychology student and a curious being, I opened myself to the possibility that there was more than one reason human beings experienced pain.  Exposed to Dr. John Sarno’s theories of Mind/Body medicine, I made a bold gesture: I would do a psychology experiment, on myself.

Sarno’s theories posited that we live in a mind/body system.  Although we may look damaged on Xray or MRI, these abnormalities are part of being alive, and do not account for the surge of chronic pain cases in our society.  Instead, he espoused, repressed emotions are the root of human pain.  To heal, we must consider not only our physical selves, but our emotional ones as well.  We must boldly draw back the curtains of our lives, and peek within.  We must walk into our darkest rooms, and turn on the light.

Following Sarno’s instructions, I dedicated myself to the excavation of my subconscious.  Although a frightening concept at first glance, I embraced its necessity with appropriate desperation and surrender.  If, as I contend, life is a choice between “what hurts” and “what hurts worse,” this journaling exercise was certainly a better option than a limited life of chronic pain and potentially catastrophic surgery.

In my efforts over the following months, I came to know myself on another level.  I looked at a child who didn’t feel heard; a life driven by fear and shame and overblown expectations which were, as William Shakespeare so aptly put it, “The root of all heartache.”  I sat with the sadness, the anger, the resignation and the grief.  I sat, with patience and kindness for myself, and finally arose from the effort pain-free.  Although still broken via MRI, I have traveled the world, surfed, skied and rollerbladed my way from one year to the next, and slept any way I’ve well pleased.  My beautiful babies, Isabella, Oliver and Charlotte are 15, 13 and 9.  I carried them to term, exercising until the day each was born.  I am 44 years old and have never had a surgery.

As a psychotherapist who’s dedicated my private practice for years solely to the cure of chronic pain as I experienced myself, I have learned that in order to broach the pandemic of chronic illness we must first consider a most important query: Where does pain live?  Is pain in our bodies?  When we suffer from Irritable Bowel Disease, does it exist within the stomach?  Is fibromyalgia located in the nerves that run up and down our arms and legs -  does pain live there?  Do muscle groups, as they ache and spasm, carry the pain within them, isolated?  How about the pain of the heart… where does that live?  Do we not ache from loss in our physical bodies, our stomachs sick with the receipt of bad news, our skin awash with hives upon certain panic?  We certainly feel pain in our bodies, but as modern medicine has shown us through the uncertain results of surgery and the epic disaster of opiate pain medications, perhaps we must search further for relief.

I have come to know with confidence through years of watching the most severe cases of pain and conditions resolve completely, that we have the power to rid ourselves of the symptoms associated with many and varied diagnoses through properly guided introspection, and simple unearthing of the matters in our lives which have been repressed out of necessity.  There is no need to actually resolve any issue one is experiencing.  It needs only to be genuinely known.

In order for you to embrace the concept of mind/body healing in full, allow me to explain how and why we channel emotional pain into physical suffering.  Each of us has certain givens that we are taught from birth, by both our families and by society at large.  We are taught to be good. We are taught to be polite.  We are taught to “suck it up,” and be the person, or friend, or parent, or partner we are supposed to be.  And we learn.  You learn. You pride yourself on being a good person – pulling your weight, being fair, letting things go, having patience.  Right?  That’s you. Or maybe on your best day that’s you.

The problem with this very expected societal given is that you may not allow yourself to feel what is a very normal response to whatever difficult situation you have going on in your life, or your upsetting or conflictual memories from childhood, or your own inner critic created long ago who sits in constant judgment of your behavior.  Emotionally, you don’t feel patient, or kind, or understanding, or loving. You don’t want to “let it go.”  Inside, you are only 5-years-old. Think about a 5-year-old you know.  She has no interest in being polite, or thoughtful, or humble when she is upset.  She just wants to scream until she gets what she wants.  She wants you to know exactly how she thinks and feels, and she is certain that she is right.

The problem here is that you are not actually 5-years-old, and that tantruming part of your mind is very inconvenient to the effort of getting through your day, being kind to your family and friends, and managing your life.

So, you have a reflex.  It’s as natural a reflex as your leg popping up when the doctor taps your knee.

Without any conscious effort on your part, you push down feelings of anger or resentment because you know those feelings aren’t “nice.”  They aren’t acceptable.  The moment you even begin to feel them, you become stressed, and your mind is in motion explaining to you all the reasons that thinking these dark thoughts will get you nowhere.  So, you push them away.  You shove them down.

Here’s what happens: These unfelt emotions build up, and the feelings reach critical mass, and finally refuse to be held down anymore.  They start to rise to your consciousness, and threaten to inform you exactly how angry you are, or sad you feel, or ashamed you are. 

Your brain says, “No!  That’s not acceptable to feel those dark things.  It does not assist in your survival!”

Remember, in some ways our brains are still primitive, operating in the same fight or flight techniques since the dawn of man.  If the brain does not find something adaptive or imperative, it will do its best to protect us.  Although feelings are actually safe to feel when given a voice in an appropriate manner, our minds do not understand this as of yet.  When these feelings of anger, sadness, shame, embarrassment, regret, and fear threaten to rise into our conscious thoughts, the brain’s reaction is the same as if it is telling you to run from a woolly mammoth. You see, it thinks it is protecting you. 

As the brain has this reaction in your subconscious, some place in your body seizes up, knots up, cramps up.  Just like the headache you get when you’re stressed out, or the stomach ache you get when you’re about to give a big speech, or the hives you break into when you’re on the spot, your body is responding to frustration - a bigger frustration than you can even conceive at the moment.  The pain appears somewhere in your body, and all of a sudden… The brain has done its job.  It’s distracted you from the thoughts or feelings you didn’t want to have.  They are naturally pushed back down as you have more important things to attend to, like making doctor’s appointments, researching alternative treatments, picking up medication, and fearing surgery.

So now, you are “safe.”  You are back in the driver’s seat.  You cancel your plans because you’re too uncomfortable to join the group.  You lament tearfully to friends and family over the limits of your life.  Although you can’t possibly know this at the moment, your system has calmed down amidst this unfortunate existence, and feels more comfortable keeping you right there.

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another.  In my work, I like to apply this law to our mind/body systems.  When we are spending a portion of our energy (often a large portion) holding down these feelings which our brains deem unacceptable, we have little room for anything else.  From the time we wake in the morning to the moment we retire at night, we have a finite amount of energy available to us.  We can use it in many ways.  When we are engaged in this struggle to not feel our feelings, however subconscious, we rob ourselves of the beautiful energy required to embrace our lives, and the joy which is our birthright as human beings.  Also, often, we live in terrible pain.

The process of recognizing and listening to our emotions gives a steam valve to this entire system, allowing feelings to safely evaporate into the air.  Even though one might worry at first that feeling potentially dark things about people and events in one’s life will hurt “worse,” it is strikingly the opposite.  Patients consistently report, alongside pain elimination, feeling unburdened, lighter, and more at peace.  Their relationships shift, as releasing repressed anger, fear and shame often renders conflict powerless.  Also, and in my experience the most joyful result, once true feelings about a person or event are unearthed and examined, the whole situation transforms.  My most painful wound, revealed during a tearful journaling session, turned out to be about me, not the other person.  The relief was palpable.  If I was actually angry at myself, that was something I had the power to change.  Through patient introspection and contemplative practice, I was able to see how I had carried perfectionism like a shield, and gently put it down.

The process by which I teach people to heal is called JournalSpeak. In short, JournalSpeak is a language we must learn in order to give our very natural human emotions a voice.  Most importantly, I teach that no one needs to hear this voice but you.  There is no confrontation necessary, or change of situation imperative to heal.  Since the pain is only necessitated by the repression of emotions, failure to repress disempowers the pain response completely.  And this is good news, because JournalSpeak is not nice, or kind, or acceptable.  It’s the 5-year-old having a breakdown, it’s winning every argument in which you’ve ever engaged, it’s telling your loved ones off in a fashion so epic it would not be mended easily.  Yet, no harm comes to anyone.  JournalSpeak lives only in your private journal or document, and once it is spoken, it can be discarded immediately.  There is no need to ever re-read this journal; this is not the kind of memory which begs a leather-bound keepsake.  JournalSpeak is simply a vehicle to peace and well-being.  It is a life raft which brings you to shore.

Polite society is the world we live in, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But the internal dialogue that is happening within us can paralyze us without an outlet.  I often present the query to my clients: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”  I ask this to awaken them to the reality that even if we don’t acknowledge our repressed emotions, they will surface somewhere.  Sometimes this is in the form of physical suffering, and sometimes it’s simply a feeling of being stuck, as if the world is for everyone else, and not for us.  It makes a sound; it crashes with passion in each falling.  You have a choice whether or not to pay attention to it, but either way it will resonate.  When we have inconvenient feelings and very natural reactions to our lives, they make a sound within our mind/body systems.  When we fail to listen and give them a moment of our attention, they build up in strength and eventually can cripple us in pain.  Learning JournalSpeak and applying it to one’s life is the antidote to the damage of this falling tree.  It allows you to safely hear the sound it is making, giving it a steam valve and releasing the need for your brain to protect you with physical pain.  Hard to believe perhaps, but true.

From wheelchair bound, to playing 18 holes of golf.  From hospitalization and hopelessness, to a life without limit.  Common people are doing the uncommon every day in my practice, and in their lives.  Pain is the great leveler - when we hurt, we hurt the same.  It creates a situation, for a moment, when we are exactly alike, no matter our story.  The mother grieving over the death of her child in a Syrian refugee camp, and the mother grieving over the death of her child in the best Manhattan hospital, feel the same pain in that moment.  The man who cannot leave his bed as his back is in agony, is the same man whether he lives in a penthouse or public housing. We are human beings, animals in nature, and when we suffer, we suffer the same. 

Pain has great power. It has greater power than any other force, because when we are in acute enough pain, we can literally do nothing else.  It grabs our attention first, before anything joyful before us; before anything that would allow us to relax and be present.  Through the simple witnessing of our own conflict and beliefs, the world opens to us; a life of consciousness is within our grasp.  The path, formerly littered with branches and obstacles, is rather a passage of curiosity and hope. 

As for me, I am overwhelmed daily with gratitude for my pain, my journey, and the bounty of my life as a result.  It is my heartfelt wish that those walking this road open their minds, find their willingness born of surrender, and embrace the healing that is possible.  As I always say, the life you save is your own.

Nicole J. Sachs, LCSW is a writer and psychotherapist who has dedicated her work and her practice to the treatment of chronic pain and conditions. She is the author of The Meaning of Truth, and the online course: FREEDOM FROM  CHRONIC PAIN. Through her personal journey, as well working with hundreds of clients, she's shaped and evolved theories which serve to teach those suffering how to heal themselves, completely, with no medication or surgery. She lives and works in coastal Delaware with her wife and their five beautiful children. Learn more about Nicole's work at

Honoring The Original Mindfulness Guru

All we hear about today is mindfulness. And meditation. Breathing, observation, awareness. There is a reason that these concepts are rising to the top of our harried, overworked, physically suffering collective consciousness. It’s because we are out of options. The pills once deemed as the standard of care by hungry pharmaceutical companies looking for an analgesic solution aren’t doing the trick we’ve been promised. Opioid addiction and overdose are threatening to end the species. We are desperate. 

Chronic pain affects more people in the U.S. today than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. It is an epidemic wildly out of control, costing the country upwards of 635 billion dollars a year.  If it’s not the backache which sends you home from work early, it’s that bout of IBS. Maybe the dreaded migraine strikes right at the worst moment. Your neck won’t turn to the left, your hip is screaming, you suffer from Fibromyalgia, your sciatica is shooting into your foot. Who could have predicted this devastation; this earth swallowing horror from which our escape is uncertain?

Dr. John Sarno. 

Dr. Sarno died in June, the day before his 94th birthday, almost 40 years after he had first predicted this catastrophic chronic pain explosion within which we now fester. For over half his life he practiced as an attending physician at the Rusk Center for Rehabilitation at NYU Medical Center, healing patients by helping them to understand that their minds were their most powerful tool in alleviating pain. Now, as we find ourselves at the point of surrender on the chronic pain battlefield, preeminent institutions like the Mayo Clinic’s Pain Rehabilitation Center are singing Dr. Sarno’s tune. Under their “Core Components of Pain Rehabilitation Center Programs,” the first bullet listed is Group Therapy stating that, “Skills such as relaxation, stress management and problem-solving are emphasized.” 

In the article The Secret Life of Pain in the New York Times on August 1st, 2017 David C. Roberts details his pain journey at Mayo as being “…treated as a malfunction in perception, whether or not an ongoing physical cause had been identified. The brain becomes addicted to dramatizing pain, and the more you feed it, the stronger the addiction.” He goes on to explain Mayo’s recommendation. “Don’t dwell on the pain, and don’t try to fix it — no props, no pills. Eventually the mind should let go.”

Here is where we could use the father of chronic pain mindfulness to sort out the details, and save our lives. Perhaps the mind should let go, but the mind doesn’t always listen to the shoulds. There is a specific science behind the reason we suffer and the ways in which to heal, and Dr. Sarno explained them in 1984 when he wrote Mind Over Back Pain, and again in The Mind/Body Prescription in 1999, and again in Healing Back Pain in 2001, and finally one more time in The Divided Mind in 2006. Society wasn’t ready to listen, and the precarious ground on which we stand (well, lay down) is the result. Luckily, it’s not too late.

Dr. Sarno was not saying that the pain is in your head any more than the Mayo Clinic is saying it now. The pain is not in your head, it is real and physical and it hurts like the scorcher it is. We certainly feel pain in our bodies, enough to land us in wheelchairs and hospitals and on disability, and begging for relief of any kind. What Dr. Sarno explained when the uproar over his theories calmed down enough for people to listen was: There is simply more than one way to reach the same conclusion. Although felt as symptoms which appear attached to certain muscle groups or bodily systems, the grips of chronic pain are in the mind, and can only be alleviated using the mechanism with which they are being sustained.

This is not to say that we do not experience pain connected to an immediate or logical injury which requires healing. The dark forest of chronic pain develops when, after a period of time or a completion of therapy indicated to relieve a particular problem, the pain sticks around. Or it moves. Or it worsens. Or perhaps it lessens just to be replaced by another syndrome. The back pain is less but now the headaches, the migraines seem manageable but now the stomach…

Dr. Sarno explained that pain is the result of the brain attempting to protect and divert us from feeling the dark, unpleasant and inconvenient emotions associated with being a human being. Once an area of weakness is uncovered, like an old sports injury or a condition one takes for granted as an achilles heel, the brain seizes on the opportunity to keep us in the physical - a safer spot, it posits, than dealing with the myriad life challenges which we feel are impossible to change or control. It is essentially a survival response, albeit a wildly misguided one. And it is the reason our society suffers with chronic conditions as never before. This makes sense, as our world is more complicated and our problems more overwhelming, and our primitive fight or flight systems are looking for a steam valve. Dealing with chronic pain is just that — as we busy ourselves with doctor’s appointments and second opinions, our systems find their way to a miserable yet stable equilibrium. If we are “handling” something we feel more powerful. 

The mindfulness mantra when it comes to chronic pain is missing a piece, and Dr. Sarno’s theories are holding it if we are finally ready to take a look. If we are simply willing to systematically take a look at our most difficult feelings, those of anger, rage, fear, terror, shame, despair, and regret among others, we can release our brain’s reflexive function of protecting us with physical pain. The work is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes an open mind, dedication, and bravery. This is no pill, or even a surgery where you can give away your power and wake up 5 hours later on the perceived road to transformation. This is a process which is as hard as it is rewarding. The results are the definition of the modern miracle.

Yes to mindfulness. Yes to breath work. Yes to yoga and meditation and affirmations and group therapy.  Yes, a thousand times yes. But without the integral piece of learning the language of communication between mind and body, all of these lovely modalities will have limited efficacy. Sarno’s theories and those which have been built upon them serve as a vehicle to relief. If we are to slay the Goliath of drug dependance and the panic of pain, this is the very David we need.

It is widely held that Dr. Sarno died never knowing the power of his legacy. The same is said of Hamilton. And Van Gogh, and Bach, and Thoreau. Time will tell. History will write the story of a society saved by the uncommon wisdom of a soft spoken man who once taught us how to properly feel.


Nicole J. Sachs, LCSW is a speaker, writer and psychotherapist who has dedicated her work and her practice to the treatment of chronic pain and conditions. She is the author of The Meaning of Truth, and the online course: FREEDOM FROM CHRONIC PAIN. Through her personal journey, as well working with hundreds of clients, she's shaped and evolved theories which serve to teach those suffering how to heal themselves, completely, with no medication or surgery. She lives and works in coastal Delaware with her wife and their five beautiful children.

An Open Letter to Lady Gaga: Let me help you.

Dear Lady Gaga,

You are hurting, and I can help you.

Your first reaction may be to dismiss this out of hand. But I know I can help you, and knowing something is a powerful thing. It changes lives and it inspires humanity. You know a lot about knowing who you are, and what you believe. I am like you, and I know that I can help you leave your chronic pain behind. Please let me.

I have been following your chronic pain journey on social media, and sending you love and light every day. Today I decided that love and light weren’t enough. If I am to practice that which I preach, I must speak out and give the universe a chance to deliver this message to you. 

Your pain is real. Your agony is real. It is physical, and it is excruciating. I know this to be true, personally. But if you are hurting enough to surrender for a moment and try anything, perhaps I can crack the shell of your mind to let in this pinprick of light: 

Although physical pain is felt in our bodies, there is more than one way to reach the same conclusion. 

I practice from a mind/body perspective, and my clients get well. Not better, well. And if you take the hand I am reaching in your direction, I will prove this to you.

I have a client who was hospitalized for over a year, nationally and internationally, with pain so severe she was suicidal. She is now pain free and just graduated from veterinary school. She will talk to you. I have a client who went to her son’s wedding in a wheelchair last year. Today she swims and plays 18 holes of golf on any given day. She will tell you her story. I, myself, was wracked with pain so severe and a diagnosis so grave, that I was told I would never have biological children. They are now 15, 13 and 9. 

I know you have fabulous doctors and people who love and support you. I know you have the best that medicine has to offer, and I would never deign to suggest that I know more than anyone who is assisting in your care. I just know different. I know something that saved my own life when nothing else could, and led me to devote the rest of it to guiding others on the healing journey that has transformed people from all walks of life. 

I send this into the universe with an open hand, and an open heart. I send it to you, and I hope that our paths are meant to cross. You are far too beautiful a force to be stuck in this confusion. Let me help you to make things clear. You don’t have to believe me yet, you just need to say yes. Everything good begins with a yes.

With love,

Nicole Sachs, LCSW

The MindScience of JournalSpeak

I wrote this the other day in order to get my thoughts in one place about the scientific slant on a very confusing phenomenon of the human body. I have done this work alongside people from all walks of life for many years, and in every person, every time... this is the way it works. Take a moment to reflect on your own life as you read this. It could be the moment you make a decision to do the work, and change your life. 


If the purpose of pain is to deter me from thinking my unthinkable things, then simply allowing myself to think of the unthinkable things disables this natural protective mechanism. In the process however, something happens which is very natural. I begin to think that thinking these things will hurt me "worse." It is part of the science. The brain wants me to stop thinking about them in order shield me from their deathly qualities, in its estimation. The problem is that if I stop there and cease to think about the things, then my brain’s last vestige of this protective mechanism wins, and the feelings are repressed once again. Then pain and more pain.

But, if I show up every day, like a warrior, and think of them again, and write of them again, and sit with them again, I am training this primitive brain. I am evolving right there in my own time and space. I am showing it, intrepidly, over and over again, that I don't need this pain in order to protect me from my feelings. I can sit with my emotions, and I am brave, and I can feel what I need to feel as many times as I need to feel it for my brain to be convinced that I need no more protection against it.

The thoughts that lead me away from my JournalSpeak can feel so logical. The brain is cunning and powerful. It uses my voice. These are “my” thoughts. They say, You should be embarrassed you’re still thinking these things. They say, You will launch yourself right into negativity and symptoms if you think this way. These messages sound right to me, because my brain loves me and values my survival, and is nurturing me into a “safe” space, which is the space of obsessing about my symptoms, and my failure at getting rid of them, and perhaps another doctor visit to make sure I'm okay. My brain loves me, and is doing it’s very first important job the best way it knows how: It is keeping me alive. Or so it thinks.

My brain needs a renovation. It is operating with primitive tools. It doesn't realize that I can feel these things 100 times, and I am strong, and I can do it. It is my responsibility to teach it this, because my brain is in control of my body and the way it feels. If you cut off my head, I will feel nothing even if there is a bulging disk in my back. My brain is completely and utterly the ruler of my feelings and sensations. 

Yet, I have control of something much more compelling. I have control of my mind. My mind is infinite and as powerful as anything in the universe. And my mind says that my brain loves me, but it needs training and if I value feeling good and at peace, it is my job to retrain my brain to react properly to the proper stimuli.

For example, if there is a predator chasing me, then my brain is right on. The stimuli of being chased and having my life in literal danger is the correct one for my brain to respond to. Go brain! Nice work. Thank you for making me run a little faster, and think a little quicker, and respond with acute accuracy. Thank you because now I am alive, and perhaps without your quick thinking I would be dead.

There are places, however, where you need a little updating. I don't need you to react in that fight or flight fashion because of my feelings. You don't need to protect me because I am scared about my decisions being judged by others, or my personal relationships not being what I’d hoped for, or my children’s uncertain happiness, or the way my parents treated me as a child and the patterns I’ve developed as a result. It is my job to show you the difference. The way I can do that is by telling you, over and over, what I really feel. Then, little by little, you will realize that you need not run with agility away from these thoughts, or freeze in the high grass so they might not notice me, or fight with the power of 100 men. My JournalSpeak is the vehicle which will carry me to true safety.

You, my dear brain, will realize by and by, that I am thinking these thoughts and having these feelings yet I am not in danger. They are just thoughts and feelings. I am still here. Nothing has swallowed me whole because I regret my decisions, or I haven't spoken up for myself, or I lied about something, or I’ve gotten myself in over my head. It might not feel good, but it’s not going to injure me, so you can stop protecting me by giving me something “real” to focus on. 

You know what, big guy? I’m ok. Yet, I know just telling you that isn't enough. I need to tell you every day, again and again, by sharing with you my dirty, ugly, unpleasant, shameful, embarrassing, terrifying, enraging thoughts. And thereby proving to you by feeling them and knowing them, that I won’t die. You will learn eventually, and stop sending signals to my body that I need pain to distract me.

I need to keep telling you, with faith that everything which I say will eventually lose its charge. By speaking my truth over and over enough, it will not hold the power it once held. I must have faith in this, but I must have equal acceptance that when one thing loses it’s charge, another seemingly new one will take its place with a similar charge. And then I will think, speak and write about that one. I need only communicate to myself, but I must communicate. I cannot stand quietly by, because if I do, my primitive brain will take the baton and protect me however it sees fit. And that is no longer acceptable to me. I choose to feel, rather than to live in pain. As I take on this way of life, things will cease to frighten me, because I’ll know that life is just like that. Every day there may be something unpleasant I must think and feel, but it will not kill me.

My life will be my own. My pain will flow through me as it must, but it will not own me. I will live a life of truth and choice. I will evolve to the greatest version of myself, and I will be free.

The Night Of is more than just good TV, It could change your life.

I’m telling you that an emotional exercise can cure a physical symptom.  I’m telling you that a pain or affliction which has owned you for years can be completely resolved by following a simple program of self-discovery. I’m suggesting a profound shift in the way you think about your physical pain and symptoms… or am I?