Relationship Advice Tips From Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
Donovan woke up with a pain in-between his shoulder blades
After a wonderful weekend Donovan got up tired on Monday morning. He wanted to go back to sleep. A spot of muscle tension in his back just between his shoulder blades kept him awake and irritable. He had slept well, and enjoyed hanging out with his friends the last two days. Everything went well. He had been comfortable and content, so why was this ache troubling him now?
Donovan mistrusts the good feelings he got from his friendships
As Donovan recalled his sense of fulfillment with the company he kept over the weekend he found himself experiencing a mixture of feelings. On the one hand he was thrilled that he had gone with the flow and not worried about what each person might think of him, strategizing every move twenty steps into the future. He had never felt so at ease and unselfconscious as over the last two days. The other feeling was one of trepidation, anxiety and stress. Could he trust this experience to be the way forward? Was it possible that he missed some clue or sign that would give him a warning of the dangers awaiting him when he got back in the same crowd?
Donovan had to be “on” at all times to make sure he didn’t miss vital information
Donovan’s doubts turned into stressful but familiar back muscle ache
The feeling of trepidation was strong and stressful. As he felt it the sore spot between his shoulder blades started to throb with tension and pain. It was like a warning that he needed to be vigilant again. Donovan saw an image of himself standing up straight, eagle eyed and fully alert to his surroundings so that he knew exactly what was going on. It reminded him of how he had felt throughout his childhood up to the last few weeks.
Childhood relationship stress leads to adult back pain
The journal Rheumatology reported in 2010 that early life stress in childhood has a “lifelong impact” on the neuroendocrine system which attempts to cope with chronic and persistent stress leading to chronic back pain in adulthood. As a child Donovan had to be fully responsible for himself so that he survived and could adapt to whatever came his way. Adults around him didn’t include him in their thoughts and actions, so he had to ‘carry’ himself into their world by being prematurely grown up. He had to shoulder that burden of care for himself when he wasn’t ready, able or developed enough to do it right. He was scared of ‘missing things’ and suffering negative consequences, like losing a chance to spend time with his father. If he had been he wouldn’t have had to spend hours alone in the dark waiting for his mother to pick him up from school because he would have known that she had planned but not told him that she was in the beauty parlor!
Long term trepidation and lack of trust in others made Donovan anticipate the worst
Relationships based on fear are linked to back pain
Donovan certainly had a lot of uncertainty leading to chronic stress as a child. His relationships were based on fear of being forgotten and uncared for. Clinical Psychiatry News, 2002 reports that adults with chronic pain like Donovan have fearful attachments, mistrust others, suffer low self-esteem, and are anxious a lot of the time.
Donovan’s upper back muscles held his head upright so he could see, hear and anticipate everything that was necessary for him to take care of himself while his parents got on with their own lives. He trusted those back and neck muscles not to let him down. He couldn’t afford to ‘slump over’ and end up alone, afraid and helpless. Those muscles were his internal emotional eyes keeping him safe.
Those childlike vigilant eyes and ears were under stress. The emotional strain put pressure on his back and neck muscles that for so long had been his only reliable protective mechanism.
Things inevitably went wrong and that would scare him. Like the time a stranger’s dog bit him and he had to drag himself to a crabby neighbor for help. Like the time when he had no lunch money and had to eat scraps from the school cafeteria.
He would dread the future, stressing about his ability to stay on top of things so that nothing bad happened. Donovan had lived with the stress of having to care for himself without ever having the experience of the pure joy of connection, of being himself and getting lost in the moment.
Donovan can learn to trust adults again and enjoy good relationships free of stress related back pain
Donovan is challenged to trust adult relationships and break the stress pain cycle
Now for the first time in his life he felt good with people. He began to trust that they liked him and he could relax his vigilance. He had worked hard to get to this point in his therapy and was beginning to reap the rewards. The nagging stress related ache in between his shoulder blades was the fly in the ointment.
The old fear of being alone and uncared for returned in the form of the stressful back muscle ache. Donovan’s muscle ache made him question his ability to stay safe if he let down his guard. Familiar relationship stress washed over him, depriving him of sleep and making him exhausted.
How can Donovan deal with his muscle ache echoing his past and stay in the present?
- Donovan can tune into the evidence of the present rather than the fear of the past. He can do a mental check to calculate how many times if at all any of his close friends abandoned him, lied to him or forgot about him. As he does so, he will feel more secure and his stress levels will decrease.
- Donovan can trust in his ability to tell the difference between his need to safeguard himself from irresponsible adults in his childhood and the reliable friends he has now. Relationship stress will be reduced and his aches will lessen.
- Donovan can allow himself to relax his future based thinking that causes relationship stress by staying in the comfort and security of his genuinely warm friends in the present, eliminating the need for his back muscles to hold him up and keep him safe.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any emotional reactions you may have after reading the article or using any of the suggestions contained within it. Interaction with this article does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Raymond.