Can Bottling Up Your Emotions Hurt Your Back?

Do you have chronic backache that makes routine chores seem like personal Everests? What if that perpetual backache isn’t the result of physical strain but an outcome of emotional strain? Having a “stiff upper lip” or “keeping your cool” may be your way of being more pleasant. But this effort to be socially acceptable and to keep your emotions bottled up could be causing you not just emotional but physical pain too.

Back Pain And Emotions: Missing The Obvious?

According to the theory of tension myositis syndrome (TMS), proposed by Dr. John Sarno, MD, a combination of emotional and psychological factors can bring on changes to the body that trigger back pain. He says we scarcely look for a solution to the physical problem in our emotions. In fact, in a bid to “heal” ourselves, we give up activity and “rest” the back, making the muscles weaker and enhancing fear of pain. This in turn worsens the pain. According to Sarno, if you try and suppress emotions like rage or anger by shoving them out of your mind, they manifest as unconscious tension. He believes that this resultant tension alters your nervous system, even constricting your blood vessels. The oxygen supply to your muscles, nerves, and other soft tissues in your back drops, resulting in that debilitating back pain.1


Chartered physiotherapist Nick Sinfield also made waves with his book Now I Can Bend My Back!, which established a connect between emotional suppression and back pain. He says anxiety or stress suppression causes tension related pain (TRP) that can change how your muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments are aligned, causing the oxygen restriction that Sarno also speaks of. Lactic acid buildup then causes spasms and that all-too-familiar pain in the back.

Studies have found that some kinds of psychiatric issues, including anxiety disorders and substance abuse, occur before chronic lower back pain. Equally, major depression could bring on aches and pains, including chronic backache. With the mind and body intrinsically linked, it seems that your bad back could be the result of your holding back on your fears, concerns, or anger and, in the bargain, making yourself anxious. Over time, this may result in chronic lower back pain. If staying in good emotional health isn’t reason enough to get your anxiety treated, the physical pain of a backache should prompt you to take action.2


Healing Yourself

Assuming back pain results from a combination of physical causes like weak muscles or nerve irritation; emotional issues like anxiety, anger, stress, depression or other suppressed feelings; psychological issues like pessimism, feeling hopelessness; and external environmental triggers like major life crises(financial, work-related, or personal), treatment too takes these head on. Rather than treating only the physical aspects, TRP and other related theories that recognize emotion-driven and psychological factors also require you to treat those causes.

Rule Out Or Treat Physical Causes

Before you explore the emotional causes for your backache, it is vital to first rule out actual structural causes for your back pain. Some amount of structural wear and tear is normal for anyone in their late 20s and beyond. However, this on its own is usually not enough to result in major issues. In many cases, it could be tension and bottled-up emotions that aggravate the pain. If there are structural issues, these will need to be addressed first.3


Learn To Let Off Steam

Holding back and not expressing anger can be especially detrimental. Studies have found that not verbally or physically expressing your anger is associated with a more severe pain.4 Other studies suggest that bottling up anger when irked may boost your perceived pain later on. It increases your sensitivity to pain many times over by enhancing the most frustrating and irritating aspects of the pain sensation.5

Explore Alternative Therapy

Practice yoga or meditation to relieve stress, anxiety, and other tension. Asanas like the locust pose or the cobra pose can also strengthen the back. One study found spinal flexibility and pain of test subjects with chronic back pain improved after a week-long program that combined yoga asanas (physical postures), meditation, and pranayama (breathing techniques).6


Use A Holistic Approach

Sinfield’s approach uses low-intensity CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) alongside breathing and relaxation therapy, and exercises designed to stretch and strengthen your back. There is also an emphasis on proper posture to supplement the emotional healing.7 If your back pain is the result of an underlying psychological issue like depression, you will need to treat that first.

Besides all these, you should try and get physically active. For back pain that has underlying physical causes, start exercising under the guidance of a physiotherapist.