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Dr. Hanscom's Blog The Pain of Social Isolation

Discussion in 'Mindbody Blogs (was Practitioner's Corner)' started by Back In Control Blog, May 22, 2016.

  1. Back In Control Blog

    Back In Control Blog Well known member


    Almost all of my patients suffering from chronic pain are socially isolated. When you are trapped in pain you have a difficult time reaching out. Others do not necessarily want to interact with angry people. The problem becomes greatly magnified in that it has been shown that social rejection shares the same neurological circuits in the brain as chronic physical pain. Not a great situation.


    10 years in a wheelchair

    Jane, a woman in her early 60s, was exactly such a patient. She’d lived with severe scoliosis all her life. Then, in 2001, she was rear-ended while driving, and the following year, she had a bad fall while grocery shopping. By the time she came to see me, she had severe pain everywhere. She’d been using an electric wheelchair for nearly a decade. She was taking over 200 mg of morphine per day and high doses of anti-anxiety drugs.

    When I examined her, she was tilted forward and to the left, barely able to stand. Her spinal curve was severe enough that I recommended surgery but I warned her that the treatment had a high rate of complication. Because of this, it was unsafe to do the operation until her medications were stabilized, her pain significantly diminished, and she was more mobile.

    I gave her my book, Back in Control and referred her to a colleague to coordinate her care. She was not that interested and they mutually agreed to not continue care. Eight months passed and I saw her on my schedule. I was curious because I knew the size of her curve and the severity of her pain. High-dose narcotics makes it all the more difficult because they sensitize the nervous system. I did not have high expectations…

    Out of the wheelchair

    I was shocked when I walked into the room and there was no wheelchair, walker, or cane. She was standing up to greet me. She was off all of her medications, had no pain, and was working out in the gym three times per week. She was animated, smiling, and engaging. I ended up an hour behind in schedule, as I wanted to find out what had turned her life around.

    Jane admitted that she had spent the last 10 years sitting alone in her house stewing over all the wrongs that had been done to her. She only went out when necessary. After understanding the linkage between anger and the pain pathways, she decided to forgive. She forgave her ex-husband, the person driving the car that had hit her, the people involved in her legal battle, and the medical system that had not helped her. This process took several months to work through – but within weeks of doing so, her pain began to abate. She still had scoliosis but as her pain diminished, she stopped stooping over protectively to guard her back. She now could stand up straight and tall.

    Reconnecting through forgiveness

    Forgiveness researchers, such as Dr. Fred Luskin, have shown how rumination and anger influence central and autonomic nervous system function and impair functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal cortical axis (stress system). While forgiveness is seen as a coping mechanism that helps to relieve the stress of anger, it also has direct and indirect effects on health and nervous and endocrine function.

    It has been my position that anxiety-induced anger is the driver of chronic pain. The manifestations of unrelenting anger are profound and one of them is becoming socially isolated. Now you have all the time in the world to think about your pain and all the ways you have been wronged. You body is full of adrenaline, which decreases the blood supply to your brain. Indeed, it is well-documented patients’ brains shrink in the presence of chronic pain. Between the adrenaline and using just part of your brain that would make sense. Fortunately, your brain will re-expand with resolution of the pain.

    Social isolation

    Besides moving too fast our modern societal structure does not encourage us to interact with each other in a meaningful way. I read a US New and World report several years ago that the average number of close friends that person in the US had was 2.2. That means that many people have essentially no close friends.

    I am a pretty social person but when I was in the midst of my own burnout I became isolated. It wasn’t that there weren’t people around. I had so many intensely negative thoughts about myself whirling around in my head that I couldn’t believe that anyone would want to hang out with me. The loneliness was crushing. When I arrived back in Seattle in 2003, a close friend invited me over for a barbeque and I was shocked. I have not forgotten that day and it was the beginning of my re-entering life.

    People being with people

    At our five-day Omega workshop my first priority was to create a safe environment where people could be with other people and share experiences. One of the most effective ways to re-connect is play and as people began to relax and laugh their pain would disappear. Of course it returned when they returned to the real world and their triggers. But most of the participants learned the skills to consistently remain out of pain. The more satisfying aspect of the process though was that as the pain abated many re-engaged with their lives in a much more powerful way.

    As Dr. Fred Luskin, my wife and I presented our material throughout the week, I realized that we did not have to do much. It was the participants being with other people that created healing. It was remarkable. Dr. Louis Cozellino out of Pepperdine wrote an exhaustive review on The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. He points out that humans evolved by interacting with other humans. Therefore, the consequences of becoming isolated are consistent and often severe. Studies out of Australia have shown that there are damaging mental health effects when workers become disabled and out of the workflow of the day. Sitting around the house without a sense of purpose is not a great way to thrive.

    One of the first Omega participants sent me this video link. She experienced profound healing after being in pain for over 35 years and has been a true inspiration. TED talk: Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war

    Jane was in a wheelchair for over 10 years, on high dose narcotics with a severe spinal deformity. It was only by her working past her anger, getting out of the house and back with her friends did she heal. No medical treatment can replicate the power of the body to heal itself. Anger disconnects – play connects.


    Peggy and Tassie Devil like this.
  2. Lavender

    Lavender Well known member

    Thank you Dr. Hanscom. This post really resonated with me as this condition has caused me to be pretty much isolated for 5 years. The trouble is that in my case, the back/leg pain prevents me from walking and standing so I have no independence. I would love to merely experience a trip into a store on my own to browse or make a purchase. However, yes, when I do manage to get out somehow, it gives my mind a little vacation from thinking about the pain. And yes, friends have dropped off, but who can blame them? I truly do understand that we’ve nothing in common anymore and I don’t want to burden others with my explanations of why I cannot join them in their normal activities.

    As to forgiveness, I am reminded of the saying, “Unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping that the other person will die.”

    It is a decision, a choice. and oftentimes our feelings do not line up with that decision, especially if the person in mind continues their behavior towards us. Also, I think it helps to realize that re-establishing a relationship with that person (who may be toxic) is not a criteria. The bitterness within us turns towards our body systems. It may take time, affirmations, and frequent repetition to truly forgive, but since it is a significant factor in causing pain to linger, it’s worth doing.
  3. Tassie Devil

    Tassie Devil Peer Supporter

    This story touched me personally as I have a very dear friend whose unresolved anger has caused him to become very very seriously ill, yet he simply closes his mind to any offers of Dr Sarno's books or teachings even though I myself have overcome chronic pain (since 7th April this year) via the SEP and books and I believe sincerely he could receive much relief, but he will continue suffering without any help. Isolation, pain, anger, resentment and drugs are his constant companions and I am so pleased to read on this forum of those who are open enough to change their lives for the better. We cannot tread in others's shoes I know so can't feel their immense pain and suffering, but we can try to share our understanding of such a powerful "tool".
    Lavender likes this.
  4. Mara

    Mara Peer Supporter

    Good article. I was just posting on another board about how I think working all by myself from home made me feel disconnected and lonely. I think these feelings were a breeding ground for TMS, which was later triggered by "whiplash" from a minor car accident.

    I still work from home, but my husband's job now allows him to work from home too. (It wasn't at my request, but a coincidence involving a change in job duties.)

    Even with him around, I still have to get out of the house and be "out and about" at least once a day, because I seem to need a little of that even though I am introverted. Fortunately I can do some of my writing and editing in coffee shops, as long as they don't get too loud.

    I've built up some community during the day by going to lunchtime AlAnon meetings (my father was an alcoholic) and sometimes going to daily 1/2 hr church services. (I'm Catholic and they have Mass in early morning on weekdays, before the work day gets going.)

    Regardless of anyone's spirituality or interests, the key is to find other people who have flexible schedules during the day. As much as I love my husband, he is busy working in front of his computer, and it's not his job to have long conversations with me when he's doing really stressful mental work. Plus, women like to talk to other women sometimes!

    More ideas for work-at-home people: the gym, meetup.com groups (I found a morning writer's group that way) and co-working places, if your town or city has one. (They can seem expensive, but if you are always in coffee shops getting drinks and snacks for the free WiFi, that costs money too.)

    In general, our society is not made for good community, at least not where I have lived. And I've lived in places from the suburbs to Manhattan to small towns. The closest I came to a community feeling was in a medium-sized town, which I left when I got married. My husband and I are now planning to move back there later this year.

    I think social connections, and liking where you live, are both really important. Sure, there are the hidden stressors that contribute to TMS too, but not having enough friends or stimulation just gives the pain more of a center stage.

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