Life with Chronic Pain: What Trauma is Doing to Your Body, and How to Fight Back

Recently, a photo series captured my attention. You may have seen the photos too: they are of young Scottish soldiers before, during, and after tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The images are stunning. They speak to the fear and pain these men have experienced, and the way those experiences have chipped away at their resilience. Some of the faces are lined and drawn after tours, while others are tense; some eyes are softer, while others are deadened. But it’s evident that these are all changed men, men whose bodies have absorbed a great variety of hurt while serving their country. Nearly 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated by the VA have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, often in addition to physical wounds. The body tells this story.

I am a Pilates expert with over 15 years of instructional experience. Although I have never taught war veterans, I regularly work with bodies affected by trauma. Nearly a third of Americans are affected by chronic pain, and the majority of my Pilates clients suffer from it on a daily basis. Some come to me after catastrophic events like car accidents or back surgeries. Others contact me for finer persistent issues, like complications from scoliosis, or hip strain from sitting daylong behind desks and steering wheels.

Pilates is a rehabilitative practice. It seeks to heal the body and restore its strength, flexibility, and endurance. When Joseph Pilates created his exercises, he aimed to develop a system that would unite body and mind, thereby treating both.

As Pilates knew, the mind and body are highly interrelated. An injury to the body will leave its imprint on the mind and spirit. Likewise, emotional trauma can be evident in one’s affect and stance—or, as evidenced in the photo series, one’s face.

I once dated a man, Mark*, whose lifelong pain from a spine injury exemplifies this truth. The hurt was plain in his cautious gait, in the flinch of misery that seized his face from time to time. You could tell the injury went beyond the purely physical—his spirit had been harmed as well. I led him in a few Pilates lessons, through which I realized the extent of his injuries; I had to work gingerly to create any sense of relief for him whatsoever.

Mark eventually opened up about the injury. Though his father left when he was very young, his mother, in denial, claimed that her husband had simply died. Mark grew up believing this tale. But some of the neighborhood kids knew the truth. A couple years later, while on a roundabout at the playground, Mark was circling at a high speed when some kids from his street started teasing him. The pestering built up until finally one boy spit it out—“Your dad’s alive, he just left you and your mom!” The shock of the realization was so great that Mark lost his grip on the roundabout and fell, hard, onto the blacktop. Although he was rushed to the ER, his spine has never been the same since. His is a deep-rooted physical pain, exacerbated by the emotional source of the injury.

Naturally, there are ways aside from blunt force trauma in which the body spells out personal history. Posture can say a lot about self-confidence and anxiety, about the worries a lifetime has built. A woman’s background in hard labor is just as evident in her body’s gait as a man’s history of emotional abuse is in his.

In some ways, the traumatic events of life are what make us human; they are what shape our personalities, our relationships, our addictions and neuroses. Such pain even defines our strengths. Without our past challenges, we would not have developed the resilience to keep moving forward.

But it’s also true that we are not fated to our pain. There are valuable steps in treating the body, mind, and spirit that we can endeavor to take.

Although there is no simple cure for a major spinal injury, the muscles surrounding the vertebrae can be strengthened and stretched, alleviating some pain. Similarly, working through hip and lower back tightness from stressful jobs and commutes can help slough off the workday strain.

And by focusing on healing the body, we lay the groundwork for healing the mind. In the photo series, one subject discusses the repercussions of a knee injury in Iraq. “I just had to accept, my body was telling me to give up as I had pushed it. I was telling it to go, it was telling me to stop.” This hurt was clearly connected to the emotional trauma of tours. “I had to have anger management after Iraq. If I get like that now, I just go for a walk with the dogs. It is the best way to deal with it, instead of being all tense and ready to snap at folk.”

Sometimes the best way to fight pain is to stay in motion. As the soldier realized, moving our bodies—reminding ourselves of our physicality—can help relieve emotional trauma. This echoes recent conclusions from scientific studies: cognitive alertness is positively correlated to exercise. Reversely, the worst thing we can do to our bodies is to stay inactive; as a New York Times Magazine article stated two years ago, sitting is essentially lethal. By being sedentary, we wreak further havoc on the spine and shave years off our lives.

Considering the acute interrelation of body and brain, staying emotionally active is just as vital to the health of mind and spirit. Even after surviving psychological trauma, we have to be willing to surmount our fears and invite in new experience, new people, new feelings. In the same way that improving body flexibility can alleviate physical pain, striving to be open and flexible with one’s heart can alleviate emotional pain.

When looking at those photographs of the soldiers, you wish you could take them by the hand and remind them of this. At the end of the day, keeping an open heart is what will keep us healthy and happy and alive. We must refuse to let our hearts shut down.

*Names have been changed for this post.

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