How Writing Letters to My Chronic Pain Helps Me Find Relief

Dear pain-in-my-feet:

I’m sorry we ever met. Remind me where I made your acquaintance? Oh, yes—on my February trip to Death Valley, where I assumed long days of hiking had caused a rock bruise. Instead of healing, you got worse and jumped to the other foot, too.

Thanks for the reminder. It helps. Because I was there in the Valley to grieve my dead sweetheart, Tony, with rituals and tears and a personal funeral. I hate being forced to walk this earth without him. So I see you now for what you really are—grief and longing and fury that my soles keep on treading. Let me cry—okay, wail—for a while. Again. More grief to work through—endless, it seems.

Repeatedly over my life, I’ve suffered bodily pain caused more by stress, anger, or grief than by anything physical.

The first time, in my thirties, back pain stabbed at me for a year, through treatments ranging from drugs to physical therapy. The more I tried to fix it, the more it hurt. It disappeared like magic three days after I read a book I’d picked up in desperation. Dr. John E. Sarno’s work introduced me to the concept of mind/body pain and freed me from it. His suggestions helped me identify resentments I’d been hiding from myself.

Since then, mind/body pain in my feet, joints, and elsewhere struck and then vanished—or at least ebbed—in similar fashion. Often, I suffered for months before realizing that the latest pain might again be more emotional than physical.

Lulled by society’s disregard for the power of our subconscious minds, I keep forgetting to tend my body holistically. Each time I must abandon, “I wish X would stop hurting,” and switch to, “What emotion is this pain holding for me?” Only then do I find relief.

The same tactic won’t work for everyone with chronic pain, of course. But neither do surgeries or potent drugs, even when the pain’s cause is known. For me, writing a letter to interrogate my pain has worked better than any drug, and it’s free. Once I ask the pain the right questions, it leaves—as it did when I recognized that my feet were sore mostly from walking through hot coals of loss.

Not all pain is caused by difficult emotions, of course. Injuries, structural issues, and conditions from auto-immune disorders to endometriosis cause hurt for too many people. But researchers repeatedly show that regardless of the cause, mental factors such as anxiety about pain exacerbate how much it hurts. Those feelings can even reprogram our brains to feel pain caused more by the neurological rut than any physical cause.

Pain can’t exist, after all, until our brain interprets signals from nerves. Changing that interpretation—or reducing its volume—is the purpose of interventions such as meditation and deep breathing. Similarly, regardless of why our nerves are chattering, expressing emotions through writing can help.

Journaling is often recommended as a mindfulness technique for managing trauma or chronic pain. Numerous studies confirm it works. It’s almost spooky how writing—preferably on paper, by hand—can reveal truths stuck in our bodies or subconscious minds.

Drafting a letter to your pain, as I have, offers advantages that ordinary journaling might miss. Specifically, writing to the pain, rather than about it:

1. Helps us distinguish ourselves from the pain, instead of identifying with or defining ourselves by it.

2. Reduces the tendency to describe or complain about it, which can further reinforce that neurological rut.

3. Can increase our sense of control and calm, lowering anxiety and perhaps the pain, too.

To try this approach, ask your pain questions like these and let it reply through your pen:

  • Exactly what was going on in my life when you arrived?
  • When, where, and with whom do you plague me the most? Why?
  • When, if ever, do you leave me alone? What’s different about those times?
  • What difficult emotion or decision are you distracting me from?
  • What are you preventing me from doing that I secretly fear or resent?
  • What do you help me do (such as rest) that I might skip if you were gone?
  • What is the nature of our relationship? Where do you see it going from here and what will that mean for us both?
  • How are we both feeling right now, as I write this to you? Why?

Don’t censor the thoughts that arise, especially when your pain’s offering answers. Write quickly. Read later for insights.

Writing multiple letters can surface new lines of inquiry. And the more I practice, the faster revelations come. My most recent pain letter took only five lines:

Dear pain:  

Why are you stuck there on the left side of my back? Is it because I tend to start out sleeping on my right side? I do that because—oh.

Because that’s how I slept when Tony was here, snuggled against him, and I don’t want to “turn my back” on his place in our bed or my life. Hmm.

This explanation seemed simplistic, since I roll every which way over the night. Still, when I went to bed that evening, I experimented by settling on my left side instead. It hurt not my back but my heart. I wasn’t aware I’d equated that position with turning away from my love.

Tears oozed, but I woke pain free. The pain hasn’t recurred. Credit the placebo effect if you like—I don’t care why the pain stops, just that it does. Any pain management is valid.

Talking to your pain might help you, too, by reducing anxiety about it. Jot it a note and see how it responds. You’ve got little to lose besides ink. Grief still troubles my feet now and then, but my letter worked better than anything the podiatrist advised, including staying off them completely for weeks. So the rest of that particular letter thanked the pain and dismissed it:

Thanks (?) for the head’s-up. Goodbye. Don’t come back. I’d rather give heartache the attention it apparently still needs. I’ll mourn on my daily walk in the woods, where nobody cares if I sob. Satisfied? You may be trying to help, but I don’t need you to hold that emotion for me.

Sure, emotions can hurt too, but most of us prefer them to physical pain, with all its detrimental effects on our lives. So take out pen and paper and see what emerges. With luck, a fresh insight may increase your ease.

About Joni Sensel

Joni Sensel is an author and certified grief educator with art therapy training. Her interests in creativity, spirituality, and other mind/body issues are explored at more length in her forthcoming memoir, Feeling Fate (2022).

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