By Lorraine Faehndrich
Persistent pelvic pain can, and often does, have an emotional component. The pelvis is a part of the body that for many reasons tends to hold emotion, and when that emotional component is addressed alongside the physical components of pelvic pain it can be an effective combination.
If you’re suffering with pelvic pain, or you work with patients who are, you are very likely already aware of the connection between mental and emotional stress and physical tension and pain. Most of us have experienced that connection in one way or another in our lives. Whether through an occasional tension headache or backache, or just increased tension in the places we tend to carry it (neck, shoulders, low back, etc).
When I say that pelvic pain can have an emotional component, I’m not referring to some abstract connection between the mind and the body, and I don’t mean that the pain isn’t real physical pain, or that pelvic pain sufferers are to blame for their pain. There is actually a very real physiological connection between emotional energy and the muscles, nerves and fascia in the body.
How Emotions Can Contribute to Chronic Pain
Emotions are energy that is meant to move through our body in response to events in our lives. In this way, they help us process, learn from, integrate, and let go of our experiences.
When emotions are flowing in this way, they not only help us move through stressful experiences more easily, they contribute to our health and wellbeing, and they don’t create physical tension or chronic pain.
Problems arise when our emotions are suppressed. This can happen when the brain learns (usually through negative or traumatic early experiences) that certain emotions are a threat to our wellbeing. When that happens, our brain and body will protect us from those emotions by unconsciously suppressing them, and they do that by stopping emotional flow.
There are two primary ways the body can stop the flow of emotional energy.
- Tensed and contracted muscles: Muscles can tense in response to certain emotions to stop their flow. In this way they protect us from feeling the emotions that our brain has learned are threatening to us in some way. For example, it’s common for men to learn that it’s inappropriate to cry, or women to learn that they shouldn’t express anger. Those emotions then get “buried” or suppressed in the body. Chronically contracted muscles can hold back that emotional energy, over time impacting circulation, nerves, fascia, and surrounding tissue. The neck, shoulders, jaw, back and pelvis are common places to hold emotion in the body, and the muscles there can be contracted for years before we end up with chronic pain. (Our bodies are actually pretty resilient that way.)
- Restricted breathing: Similar to contracted muscles, shallow breathing or holding the breath between the in-breath and out-breath, inhibits the flow of emotional energy. If you have a hard time taking a full deep breath, this can be why.
Both of these mechanisms are unconscious. We’re not aware of the emotions themselves, nor that we are suppressing them, until we bring our conscious attention to our body and begin to observe what’s going on.
To give you an idea of the impact that these patterns can have over time, you can do a little experiment. Contract your bicep – nothing too intense, just gently engage the muscle. Now imagine keeping it contracted like that for a full 24 hours. Now imagine multiplying that by weeks, months, or years. At some point, this is going to get uncomfortable, and eventually it will be painful. And the pain is not going to stop until you relax your muscle. Now, if you’re consciously engaging your muscle it’s not so hard to stop. Or if it’s engaged because of a physical issue, a physical therapist can help you retrain and relax your muscle.
But, if your bicep were contracted in order to hold back emotional energy that your brain is protecting you from feeling, the only way to permanently relax it would be to learn how to allow that emotional energy to flow. Otherwise, no matter what you do physically to relax and strengthen the muscle, that protective pattern is going to keep kicking in.
In other words, in order to relieve the pain, you need to re-learn how to be with your emotions – and more than that, how to show your brain that that is actually a safe thing to do.
Chronic tension in the pelvis can be part of a long-term habitual and unconscious pattern of blocking emotional flow in the body, and the first step of unraveling it is awareness.
How pelvic floor physical therapy and mind body healing can work together to relieve pelvic pain
As a mind body coach my goal is to help my clients become aware of their unconscious protective patterns (mental and physical), so they can learn how to consciously choose to feel their emotions and allow them to flow. When the brain no longer perceives emotions as a threat, because it has been retrained to recognize that they are actually safe to feel, the muscles can relax.
(Remember, flowing emotions don’t cause chronic pain, suppressed emotions do.)
Depending on the level of negative early experiences or trauma a person has been through this can take varying degrees of time and support. But it all begins with awareness, re-connecting to the body, and a willingness to be present with sensations – a little at a time, in a way that feels safe and supported.
And what I have seen is that physical therapy can help tremendously with this process! Especially if the physical therapist is aware of the potential emotional component of the physical pain, and actively creates an environment where it is safe to allow emotions.
Creating a Safe Space for Emotions
If emotions start to move, or release, as a result of physical therapy, it is a great opportunity to learn how to be present with the sensations of those emotions and process them in new and healthy ways.
When the patient and practitioner work together to create a safe environment, emotional energy can flow and contribute to the healing process. On the other hand if the environment feels unsafe, emotions can be suppressed and can hinder the healing process.
How to Allow Emotions to Flow
If you are already working with a pelvic floor physical therapist, and you suspect there may be a mind body component to your pain, here are some tips for working with that during your sessions and during any home practice that you’re doing – like stretching, using dilators, massage, etc.
- Intend: Set your intention to allow and be present with the sensations of your emotions in your body as they arise. Simply being aware that emotions may come up and at the same time willing to feel them is a huge step in the right direction. When you have that intention, you’ll naturally be more aware and welcoming of any emotional sensations that do arise.
- Breathe: During your sessions (and during any home practice) maintain a gentle continuous breath into your low belly. You don’t have to do this perfectly at all! The idea is to stay present in your body and allow any emotions that may come up to flow. If you notice you’re holding your breath or your breathing has gotten shallow again, simply bring your breath gently down into your low belly.
- Track Sensations: Keep your conscious attention on the sensations in your body paying particular attention to sensations that seem connected to emotions. If you notice any emotional sensations like heaviness, dense or sinking feelings, tightening in your chest or belly, tingling or swirling, hot or cold; or you feel tears or anger swelling up, be curious about the sensations, allow them, and keep breathing. You don’t need to understand why you’re having the emotions. For now, just being willing to be present with the sensations of them is more than enough.
- Maintain Good Communication: Don’t push through anything that feels uncomfortable. Stay in communication with your PT. If anything hurts, feels uncomfortable or overwhelming – physically or emotionally, let your therapist know. Learning how to honor your body and go at it’s pace can go a long way to creating the safety you need to be able to feel on an emotional level.
- Get Support: Consider getting support from a mind body coach or therapist who can teach you how to start feeling emotions in your body as they surface. A mind body practitioner can help you process emotions in new healthy ways that won’t contribute to physical tension and pain.
Because of the nature of pelvic floor physical therapy most therapists will already be creating a welcoming and safe environment for their clients. But if there’s anything else you need to support your staying present with the sensations in your body don’t hesitate to ask. Most of my clients find that their physical therapists are more than happy to support their mind body work when they do.
If you’re a physical therapist or other bodywork practitioner, simply being aware of and creating space for this mind-body-emotion connection, and the potential for emotions to surface can be a great benefit for your patients or clients that do have an emotional component to their pain.
It’s All Connected
We tend to think of the mind, body, and emotions as separate things, but they are not actually separate. They are all part of one being that is us. The mind, body, and emotions are inextricably linked, and supporting any one of them inevitably supports the others, creating the optimum conditions for healing and relief.
If you’d like to learn more about a mind body approach to relieving pelvic pain – sign up to receive a free Mind Body Alchemy Kit at www.radiantlifedesign.com or register for Lorraine’s upcoming free class, Say Goodbye to Pelvic Pain, accessible by phone or online from anywhere in the world.
Lorraine Faehndrich is a Women’s Mind Body Mentor and Pelvic Pain Relief Coach specializing in the relief of female pelvic and sexual pain. Through her company Radiant Life Design, she empowers women with the skills and information they need to understand the connection between their mind and body, allow their emotions, access their inner wisdom, and go on to live radiantly healthy joy-filled lives!