On Being Parented and Parenting: Overcoming Past Experiences Through Understanding Pain of Fibromyalgia

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive at this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people”, Thich Nhat Hanh

Since I am convinced that fibromyalgia is the result of a hyper-aroused nervous system, I wish I knew for certain if it is caused by early inadequate parenting by our parents and/or difficult childhood experiences in highly sensitive persons, or if we are born with highly sensitive nervous systems. I have my hunches, built upon numerous interviews and talks with many people (mostly women) over many years. In particular, my view is built upon my own experiences.

Therefore, I will go out on a limb and suggest that we are not born with an easily aroused nervous system, but rather it slowly develops over many years as a result of our early socialization. Yet, even saying such a thing brings up the issue of children with fibromyalgia. Maybe, just maybe, they were born with the predisposition to this condition. What a dilemma! More questions than answers once again. Maybe it can be both nature and nurture. Parent blaming has become something of a modern-day occupation. That is certainly not my intent. Who among us had perfect parents or are we perfect parents?

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What did our parents know about parenting? Like most of us, they passed on the values and beliefs they had acquired from their own parents. Generally, those of my parent’s generation (they are currently 90+ years old) believed in a patriarchal, strict household without much awareness of the psycho-social needs of their children. Life was difficult for the people raised in the Depression-era and many had struggles that caused overwhelming challenges when they became parents.

School and church were strict and frightening places for their offspring, as they were for them, and we 1950s kids received little sympathy as we accepted the status quo without question, as they did. I often still remember the horrors of Catholic school, fainting spells, hyperventilating at night, sleepwalking, and nightmares. There was very little to soothe my nervous system as my mother was herself a fearful woman and for many years I was an only child subject to her worries and anxieties, becoming her mother.

My father has what is termed a ‘borderline personality disorder’ and is subject to numerous rages but I was never ‘physically’ or ‘sexually’ abused by anyone as a child. Psychological abuse is another issue, however, which can be just as abusive. School and church also experienced that were harmful to my psyche. There I was constantly on guard as a nun in a rage was not to be reckoned with at any cost. I would never have dreamed of rebelling; instead, I became super vigilant.

My parents would not have understood why I was having these fainting spells, nor would have many of that era. I can’t blame them. The information we have nowadays is so prolific that we can understand better what a healthy environment should be like for a child to grow to be strong and confident, without living in a state of situational generalized hypervigilance. But, even as I raised my own children I did not know what I know now watching my young grandchildren.

I made my own kind of mistakes, like most parents. Like those of us with fibromyalgia I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders, I had an intense belief in an obligation to my family of origin as well as to my own children with a sense of duty that was unrealistic. I was always second-guessing someone’s needs and would self-reproach myself for the smallest negligence of what I considered my duty. Many women and men are like that. Many children develop this hypervigilance early in life.

The cost of such high expectations of self is an over-aroused nervous system that is never in a state of rest. So what is to be done to help tame this self-imposed overly empathetic, sad, and tender heart of people with fibromyalgia? Undoing a personality that developed early in life is not an easy task. Other than psychotherapy I see little choice other than mindfulness meditation (or other peace-inducing techniques) and physical touch which is meant to be soothing. But, what kind of touch?

I have recently been reading various approaches to manual therapies written almost exclusively by physical/physiotherapists and MFR practitioners. To be honest I understand very little except to realize that the language of these professionals is not easy to decipher. There appears to be a great ongoing debate about the limited value of myofascial release, which does not allow the client to avoid dependence upon the therapy. 

Among the many issues discussed, one which is rather interesting is whether or not it is possible with MFR to bring forth repressed memories. Why this is appealing to me because I am trying to understand the relationship between pain and the brain in the hopes that I can grasp the concepts that can help me in my day-to-day struggles. It would seem that the controversy is among those therapists (not all, of course) who believe that with the release of the fascia the person begins to acknowledge painful experiences that have been stored in our memories. At least this is how I interpret some of the debate.

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But, the issues are not all about repressed memories. Rather, there are theorists who argue that the model of MFR is one that does not help the client to avoid feelings of helplessness. These pain scientists are the professionals, like Diane Jacobs who focus more on manual therapy which recognizes how touch affects the Central Nervous System (and the brain) and who educate the client to understand this relationship. They argue that those who believe that fascia release is a means to bring about relief (albeit temporary) without acknowledging the client’s role in changing the nature of our own brain is to do a disservice to the person who suffers.

They recognize that it is important to help the client understand the relationship between pain and the brain and involve the client in the process of understanding this rather than being a passive receiver of manual therapy. This is a quote from Diane Jacobs’ site regarding Melzack’s Neuromatrix Model which she embraces. This model “allows for you the patient, to see yourself in the center of your own experience, not only part of the big picture but the one who will help your own brain turn itself around”.

I realize that this is a very brief and simplistic overview of the arguments regarding pain but my point is: can MFR  (or Cranial Sacral work) actually help my brain to heal from the past trauma of childhood if I don’t better understand the nature of pain? I have had many various kinds of ‘massages’ if indeed some MFR practitioners (many of whom are PTs) are willing to be called massage therapists. In my personal experience, none of them have resulted in experiences that are akin to bringing up repressed memories.

In my view, massages could, in fact, soothe the body and mind, but at best the effects cannot be long-lasting. Yet, they do bring temporary relief and yet again, they are a great expense. It seems to me that if we are to deal with past experiences that have left ‘scars’ in our psyche (brain), then trained counselors are the professionals we should seek out, rather than massage therapists.

Having said that I have also been reading that bringing up painful past trauma is not good for the nervous system since it reactivates it. Instead, we are encouraged to remap the brain and not dwell on the wounds of the past. (For a very comprehensive understanding of the mind/brain that is much easier to understand than most of what is written by those whose research is focused on consciousness.

I have had MFR, Rolfing, Neuromuscular, and soothing types of massages such as reflexology, and jin shin. None of them have left me wanting to explore past psychological pain, although most have released tight muscle knots. Some of the types have been physically painful, and others have been soothing, but none of the therapists have tried counseling at the same time as treatment and for that I am grateful. After many years of talk therapy, I have begun to realize that the stories I tell myself need to be changed. Furthermore, the ways in which I absorb the pain of others need to be addressed.

It is the gentle work of such PTs as Diane Jacobs, and my own physiotherapist, Nick Matheson which seems to me to be the most promising, that is, that which directly addresses manual therapy of the skin in an effort to gently and slowly send positive messages to the brain while simultaneously educating the client to understand the nature of pain, and equally as important, the issue of physical movement.

We can’t undo the life traumas that have affected our nervous system(brain/mind/consciousness), but we can try to understand how we are not completely helpless and doomed to a life of turmoil without a sense of hope. We do not have to care about other people’s happiness to the exclusion of our own healthy mindset. We are not personally responsible for everybody else’s happiness (or pain); being in that headspace absolves others from caring for themselves. It is foolhardy to believe we can solve other people’s problems. This is our daily challenge, particularly since living with pain is a constant in our lives.

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