TMS, Somatics, and Vagus Nerve Stimulation

The pain is not in your head, but the solution is not in your body.” Nicole Sachs, LCSW

TMS stands for tension myositis syndrome, coined by Dr. John Sarno. TMS is based on the theory that the nervous system perceives intense emotional distress as a threat to our safety, much as it perceives an environmental threat to survival (such as a saber tooth tiger in our cave, or a car crash, if you prefer a modern analogy.)

In some cases, the body’s coping mechanism for handling such distress is to “store it” in the body, rather than experiencing it mentally or emotionally. The body may achieve this by intermittently shutting off oxygen to various parts of the body (called ischemia,) sending pain signals, or developing autoimmunity. TMS is a fancy way of describing the nausea or headache you may feel in response to intense stress: it is a real physical symptoms caused directly by the nervous system’s response to a simulus with an intense emotional component.

One of the doctors I saw in my long lineup of medical staff was a rheumatologist, who told me it was clear I was developing an autoimmune syndrome, but too soon to say which one. Needless to say, this was not helpful. The doctor told me someday my symptoms would be severe enough to be classified as a particular disease, but we may never know the biological cause for it. I tell this story to highlight the difference between the typical line of thought in western medicine and the more holistic approach my healing has shifted towards. To this doctor, a specific set of symptoms or a particular result in a blood test would mean I had a disease that has a name. If there is a single known cause for that disease, perhaps we can treat that cause. Where does that leave those of us that are so unwell, but not falling neatly into a box with one simple, knowable cause?

I have had experiences with TMS before now, though I didn’t have a name for the pain I was experiencing. In 2016, I developed a toothache that drove me to see many doctors, looking for answers. Seven dentists, three root-canal specialists, and an ear, nose, and throat doctor could find nothing wrong with my tooth. I was in so much pain it was difficult to speak, let alone eat, and I knew I had to find a different answer. I went for a walk, and began trying to channel the energy of love and direct it straight to my tooth. When the pain eased, I continued the practice. Within a few months, (yes, it took that long,) I was pain free. The pain has resurfaced on and off since then, usually without a discernible trigger.

I now call this my “Intuitive Tooth,” and when it flares I take it as an SOS call from my physical and emotional bodies. I tune in, ask my body what it needs, and send it love.

While I knew from early on that my Intuitive Tooth was a manifestation of the mind-body connection, I have had other ailments which I’m only now realizing were probably also TMS. In early 2018, I was at a very low point: in the early stages of OTS, dealing with cruelty and emotional manipulation within my home, and feeling terribly alone. One afternoon, I was reading in my bed when my right forearm suddenly felt like a pressure bubble was building inside it. I thought I could literally shake it off (it felt like the wrist joint needed to be cracked,) but it soon grew to be incredibly painful. I could not open a door or even grip my toothbrush.

Without health insurance, I couldn’t afford to see a doctor, so in desperation I fashioned a splint out of pieces of plywood to keep my arm immobilized. The pain persisted for weeks and ended what would be my final race season prematurely.

I was at a yoga class one evening, struggling to not move my arm through the series of poses. I was in a deep state of despair; the world literally looked dark through my eyes. After class, the instructor, Daniel, stayed behind to ask what was wrong with my arm. It felt like the first time in months someone had actually seen me. I cried as I told him about my mysterious ailment. Daniel, bless him, brought me a splint to borrow, and offered to work on my arm, shoulder, and back (he was a massage therapist) to try to release the muscles. Over a couple weeks of working with Daniel, the pain disappeared.

At the time, I was only more confused. Now, I see that it was the tiny ray of emotional safety Daniel provided in a storm of distress that allowed the pain to cease.

One of the ways we may address the symptoms of TMS is through becoming safe in our bodies once again. To complement my trauma therapy, I have also been using Nicole Sach’s Journalspeak technique to help my body and mind speak freely about what is distressing to them. I took a class through Bessel Van der Kolk’s (author of The Body Keeps the Score) Trauma Research Foundation and learned some physical exercises to help the body re-learn it’s own boundaries, and how to safely experience itself. Such mind-body reflective exercises are called Somatics.

One specific form of physical stimulation I have been utilizing is somatic exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve: the longest and most complex cranial nerve, which connects the brain to the gut and a variety of other organs. Manually activating the vagus nerve with somatic exercises, electrical stimulation, and breathwork allows me to actively tell my CNS to switch from sympathetic activation (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest,) helping my body manage its allostatic load, improving my heart rate variability, and helping me shift into more restful modes that permit better sleep and recovery. I discovered many of the somatic techniques I use simply by following along for free on the social media accounts of others who have healed from ME/CFS and related dis-ease, including Heal with Liz; Raelan Agle; and Jennifer Mann, though I have also taken paid classes with Jessica Maguire.