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Treating Chronic Pain – An Interview with Frances Sommer Anderson, PhD

Frances Sommer Anderson, PhD is a New York-based psychoanalyst and expert on treating chronic pain.  She talked to WTCI via email about what she does and how she does it.  Hear Dr. Anderson speak and learn more about treating chronic pain at the L.A. Mind-Body Conference in March, 2010.

What’s your background? What do you do now?

The body–disabled, disfigured, and in pain–has been the focus of my work as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, beginning in 1974 with my clinical psychology internship at Rusk Institute-New York University Langone Medical Center. Learning to help children and adults cope with and surmount congenital, traumatic, and progressive loss of bodily functioning was a daunting challenge in the beginning: I had to confront my own vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life and the fear that we all have when we experience a loss of the capacity to function physically. I soon found this work compelling and was fortunate to become a member of the psychology staff for 12 more years.

In 1979, while still at Rusk Institute, I began working in John E. Sarno, MD’s pain program, under the supervision of Arlene Feinblatt, PhD, the psychologist who collaborated with him in developing treatment of the pain syndrome initially termed, “Tension Myositis Syndrome, (TMS)” which he now refers to as “Tension Myoneural Syndrome.” Treating people in chronic, severely debilitating pain, as a psychosomatic manifestation according to Dr. Sarno, was an exciting opportunity to learn about the mindbody connection, which had fascinated me since my first undergraduate psychology course. After I left Rusk Institute in 1987 for full-time private practice and psychoanalytic training, I continued to collaborate with Dr. Sarno in treating TMS. In 1998, I published “Psychic Elaboration of Musculoskeletal Pain: Ellen’s Story,” a detailed presentation about my work with one of his patients (Relational Perspectives on the Body, The Analytic Press, Lewis Aron & Frances Sommer Anderson, Editors). In this chapter, I illustrated how overwhelming emotions were related to the development of Ellen’s TMS pain and discussed how we worked with these emotions in the psychotherapy process, thereby relieving her pain.

While treating Dr. Sarno’s patients, I developed a TMS symptom-tension headaches. As I delved into the early childhood origins of my own TMS, I refined my skills at identifying sources of TMS and its equivalents. I wrote about my personal journey, “At a Loss for Words and Feelings,” in my edited book, Bodies in Treatment: The Unspoken Dimension (The Analytic Press/Taylor & Francis Group, 2007). I have learned that accessing and experiencing “hidden,” “forbidden,” “repressed/dissociated” emotions is the crucial entry point in recovering from TMS. My colleague, Eric Sherman, PsyD, and I are publishing a book of case studies (late 2010), Pathways to Pain Relief, in which we illustrate how we treat people diagnosed with TMS by Dr. Sarno.

How do you distinguish TMS pain from other pain?

As a psychologist, I am not qualified to make a medical diagnosis, even a psychosomatic diagnosis such as TMS. A physician distinguishes the TMS pain through an interview and examination initially, thereby linking mind and body with a diagnosis of TMS. Teamwork with that physician is a requisite. Let me elaborate by illustrating why the teamwork is necessary. When I’m treating a patient who has been given a TMS pain diagnosis by a physician, I obtain written consent to collaborate with the physician, explaining the “rehabilitation team” approach, learned at Rusk Institute, which I have used effectively with Dr. John E. Sarno for more than 30 years.

As the treatment evolves, I learn about the person’s pain pattern. If the pattern changes for the worse, e.g., the pain intensifies and/or moves to a different location, I refer them to the physician to report these changes. While I may surmise that the intensification and/or change in location are related to emotions that are being evoked and/or warded off as a result of the therapy process, the physician needs to make an assessment before we explore the hypothesized emotional “triggers” further.

When I am working with a patient who was not referred for TMS treatment, I am, nevertheless, attuned to the mindbody connection and alert to “signals” of discord that may come in the form of unpleasant/painful sensations or other medical conditions. I first recommend that the patient consult with their established physician for an evaluation. If there are “no significant findings” or the results sound ambiguous, I raise the possibility of TMS by discussing the mindbody connection and suggesting that they read material about TMS written by physicians [see Recommended Reading, below]. If they “recognize” themselves in what they read, I refer them to a physician qualified to make a TMS diagnosis.

How do you go about treating someone with TMS?

First, I will oversimplify by saying that the treatment is implied in the diagnosis: If hidden/repressed emotions create somatic pain as a distraction or avoidance mechanism to protect the psychological self from intolerable emotional pain, then treatment must aim to identify and help the patient experience and explore those emotions. Now this appears to be very easy for many people–the ones who become pain free after reading a book on TMS. I hear stories about these people from patients and have witnessed this kind of cure among friends and family members. These people didn’t need my help! How they are cured so quickly is a very interesting and important matter that I can’t address further here except to say that I’ve learned a good deal from treating a few of these people over the years after they’ve experienced a recurrence of pain that won’t go away.

The people I treat have usually tried very hard to eliminate the pain and are quite discouraged and critical of themselves because they haven’t been “successful” on their own. They often feel that they’ve “failed” the program, citing statistics in Dr. Sarno’s books about how few people need psychotherapy. As he has described, often TMS sufferers have internalized the value “Americans” place on being independent, self-sufficient, and invulnerable and have been rewarded professionally and financially for these traits. Many of the founders of our country were people in desperate straits who had to work hard to survive. Acknowledging vulnerability and fear could have been more perilous than toughing it out. Thus, it seems to be a part of our national “character.” Another large group of people with TMS have been rewarded for being nice, considerate, peace-makers, for pouring oil on troubled waters, indeed for making sure that there are no troubled waters.

These admirable qualities contribute to building a robust economy and to the smooth working of our social structure. When relied on at the expense of acknowledging one’s own feelings and needs, however, a consequence may be emotional and/or mindbody disorders such as TMS and its equivalents. The disavowal of dependency, vulnerability, and anger/rage contributes to overflowing emotional reservoirs of shame, fear, grief, longing, rage, and even love. The reservoir of rage that Dr. Sarno has brought to our attention, is problematic for many of us in our civilized western culture. Within the last few years, he has increased our awareness of the young child within who needed, and stills needs, unconditional love and acceptance. He has encouraged his patients to get to know that child through journaling and in therapy. In addition, quite a few of my patients have discovered the frustrated, insecure, adolescent who has also been unconsciously disavowed.

So, the treatment begins by exploring the context in which the symptom developed. Often, people do not have an awareness of the emotional impact of the physical/work/family/relationship environment in which they live because they have learned to survive and thrive by disavowing the emotions I described above. I ask for minute details, like a journalist, sometimes annoying with my “picky” questions about “who, what, when, where, and why.” We learn a lot from what they can and cannot answer. My aim is to help them identify “stressors” that can lead to the overflow of an emotional reservoir into a pain symptom. For example, a 36 year-old patient recently told me that, within the past year, his father had died suddenly, he had lost his job, and separated from his life partner. While these life events would cause many of us to have overwhelming feelings, he had scant appreciation of just how stressful these events had been. Thus his therapy began.

While identifying the life events preceding the onset of the pain, I am listening intently to how the person is speaking about the event. How is my patient reacting emotionally to what they are telling me. For example, are they laughing when telling me about what sounds like an enraging/embarrassing/shaming/humiliating situation? Do they seem sad when speaking about sad matters? Can I detect any emotion at all as they speak about a highly volatile interaction or a devastating loss? I often refer to this function of the therapist as the “emotion detector.” In the initial consultation I begin to bring the patient’s attention to this dimension of their participation, carefully probing to assess the extent of their awareness and how they react to my inquiring. We often identify this as an area where they will need to do work both inside and outside of the session.

For people who have great difficulty being aware of what they are feeling about what they are saying, I work intensively on this in each session. I recommend that they take a “feeling inventory” several times during the day and evening: Ask yourself, “What am I feeling about the events that happened during the past hour? How did I feel when my supervisee didn’t meet the deadline and casually brought the work into my office without acknowledging that it was late? How did I feel when our nanny called to say that she had an emergency and had to leave immediately, possibly indefinitely? How did I feel when our 16 year-old son showed up two hours past his curfew, undeniably drunk?” At the beginning of therapy, some people need to take this inventory once every hour.

As we are doing this “emotion detection” work inside and outside the sessions, we are also tracking pain levels as well as presence and absence of pain. This strategy is aimed at making links between emotions and pain symptoms. I offer a few examples to illustrate:

1) A patient had been pain-free all day but noticed that his pain started on the way to the session.  I asked what he was thinking and feeling along the way.  He realized that he had mixed feelings about being in the session.  As we examine these feelings, his pain lessens but is not completely alleviated.

2) A patient is pain-free in the session until she starts to describe an interaction with her husband the previous night.  In our discussion, we discover that she was furious with him and afraid of feeling her anger.  We spend some time helping her tolerate that feeling right there in the session.  As she becomes more comfortable with feeling angry, we talk about some constructive ways to express it to him.  Her pain gradually subsides.

3) A patient is in excruciating pain as he enters the session and has no idea what brought on the pain the day before. We begin our search for the emotional triggers and discover that he had been dreading an upcoming phone call to his mother in which he planned to confront her in a way he had never done.  As we discussed his strategy and what he was afraid would happen, his pain started to subside.

Recommended Reading

For patients and therapists:

John E. Sarno, MD

Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection

The Mindbody Prescription

The Divided Mind

Howard Schubiner, MD

Unlearn Your Pain

David Clark, MD

They Can’t Find Anything Wrong

David Schechter, MD

The Mindbody Workbook

For therapists:

Lewis Aron and Frances Sommer Anderson (Editors)

Relational Perspectives on the Body

Frances Sommer Anderson (Editor)

Bodies in Treatment:  The Unspoken Dimension

All titles are available at the WTCI-Amazon Bookstore.

For more about Frances Sommer Anderson and TMS, try FrancesSommerAnderson.com and the TMS Wiki.

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  1. Dear Frances,

    Thanks for this thoughtful and important article. I have read all the books above, and then some (Marc Sopher, Scott Brady, Monte Heuftle, Fred Amir), but unfortunately, I was unable to save my wife from her obvious TMS, and unable to persuade her to see a TMS doctor or psychotherapist. In fact, the more I tried, as tactfully as I could, the more her resistance grew.

    She separated from me two days after we’d first heard of Dr. Sarno, after two and a half years of going througn the medical establishment trying to find a cure for her chronic back pain, but to no avail. When I read Sarno, it seemed clear that this was the answer, but my wife read it and rejected it, and got very angry at me for even suggesting it. Then she went to visit her mother, who turned her further against me and TMS, and persuaded her to divorce me. In the meantime, I was reading everything I could find, hoping to find that key that would let her see the benefits of accepting this diagnosis. Instead, she saw a neurosurgeon, and had a spinal fusion surgery without telling me, which improved things a bit for awhile, but caused other problems too. She separated from me in 2004, and we were divorced in 2007.

    Julie, my wife, had a difficult childhood, her mom divorced her father when Julie was 7, then her mom married an abusive alcoholic, became an alcoholic herself, and Julie had to leave the family at 15, just to survive. She had created a business for herself, had a good life for herself when we’d met when she was 35, and her back pain came on at age 42. In the meantime, she’d repaired the relationship with her mom, who’d gotten sober and was on her 4th husband by then, and we had what I thought was a wonderful marriage up until then. But now I can understand why she didn’t want to face her long repressed emotions.

    Unfortunately, Dr. Sarno was not so well known in 2004 as he’s come to be since, and there was no one else of her friends who had heard of him, so he was rejected as a quack. Now with the Internet, his fame is spreading more rapidly. I have a Google Alert for ‘Dr. Sarno’, which alerted me to your fine article, and hardly a day passes now without one or two alerts. So that it is good. I think he should get a Nobel prize for the pioneering work he has done, and the sheer number of people who have found relief from their pain through his ideas and books.

    Thanks for the fine article.

  2. Fran:

    What a wonderful article!
    What incredible work you have done through the years. And, the most inspiring thing to me is knowing the depth to which you walk your talk…the degree to which you “take yourself on” in discovering and dealing with your own mind/body connections.

    With love,


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