I spent a year in chronic pain before discovering how to use the mind-body connection to cure it

Hannah Millington pictured, who healed her chronic pain. (Supplied)
Hannah Millington cured her chronic pain by healing emotionally. (Supplied)

Four and a half years ago all I could think about was pain. From the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to sleep, it was all-consuming, and at times unbearable. But luckily for me, I found a way through.

My road to pain started when I was just 22. I was not long out of university and had dreams of becoming a writer.

This all changed when, during a temporary office job, I started to experience pain in both hands, described to me as a repetitive strain injury (RSI). Despite trying to push through, most work, especially writing, quickly became impossible. I was devastated.

Pain that looks like it’s never going to end can only be described as haunting – I’d never had that before. Why wouldn’t the tingling, sharpness and burning go away?

Hannah Millington in bed. (Supplied)
Hannah Millington consumed by pain at the age of 22. (Supplied)

After being held back by lengthy waiting lists, I was passed around different health departments, hearing other possible causes like carpal tunnel syndrome, scoliosis, thoracic outlet syndrome and pinched nerves.

After my hands were put in a brace, the pain spread further, up my arms, and across my neck and shoulders. While physio may have made me more agile, it didn't reduce my symptoms.

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As the months passed, my mental health was deteriorating and I began to feel desperate. Thoughts of not waking up the next morning didn’t seem so bad. They don’t when your whole body hurts and you can’t brush your own hair without crying.

Bombshell news

Feeling like I couldn’t wait for answers any longer, I went to see a professor and hand surgeon. Surely he would be able to help me. I waited patiently for my appointment, nervous but excited I was going to get 'top care', a world I wasn't used to. I was finally called in, by a short, small, smartly dressed man with glasses.

I sat down in his oversized office alone, in front of his large desk and chair he was perched on, and told him everything. Then my whole world came crashing down, aged 23 at this point.

"Someone needs to tell you that you aren't going to get better. There is no cure," he declared.

"You won't be able to do what you want to do. You'll have to find a type of work that you can cope with. You'll have to find ways to manage it."

"I've had to tell other people this who already have a career, a family and an established life, and they have to deal with it then," he added, as though I was one of the lucky ones, and my life hadn't just been ripped out from underneath me before I'd had a chance to start.

I tried to hold back the tears until I was out of the building, finally letting them out as if someone had died. In central London, I found myself walking through Parliament Square, pausing by Winston Churchill weepy-eyed and numb, ruining tourists’ photos.

I was faced with coming to terms with a new future. I begged my GP for some stronger painkillers, tried doing teaching assistant work again but could barely get through the day due to how physical it was.

I thought about tech that could help like dictation software but felt hopeless. I went on disability benefits, knowing I was lucky to have a roof over my head at home with my mum.

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Arm brace. (Supplied)
Small hand splints were replaced with things like arm braces (pictured) as the pain spread. (Supplied)

Breakthrough moment

Then I decided I wasn't quite ready to accept my fate. I read a book I'd previously seen recommended online, which perhaps I'd been sceptical of before.

It finally gave me an explanation that rang true, that I always knew had to exist. The Mindbody Prescription by the late Dr John Sarno explains "knowledge is the 'cure'", and knowledge is exactly what I'd been lacking.

In a nutshell, the theory is that what we feel physically from a range of unexplained conditions – from back pain and fibromyalgia, to chronic fatigue and migraines – is very much real, and not made up. But the cause is not the body itself, but more what is going on inside us emotionally, deep in our unconscious mind – what we’re not aware of.

Over time, for some people, our repressed emotions build up. When we might be about to reach breaking point, the brain creates pain or other physical symptoms as a distraction, thinking it is protecting us from a perceived danger of feeling something extreme.

So, if we can bring these feelings into consciousness, there is no need for the distraction of pain anymore. We need to listen to what our body is telling us about our mind.

It is of course crucial to rule out serious physical conditions first, like fractures, tumours, diseases and infections. My blood, nerve and muscle tests showed nothing of concern, so the book made me see things differently.

Flowers. (Supplied)
Support from friends helped Hannah Millington during her experience with chronic pain. (Supplied)

Pain as a distraction

So why did my pain start when it did? "Physical incidents, like an accident, a slip or a fall, doing physical work, engaging in a sport, and repetitive work motions are used by the brain as excuses to start up the symptoms," Sarno suggests in the book, among other scenarios, but "they are triggers, not causes”, he adds.

So, the way to heal? Basic principles include diverting attention away from the body and finding confidence in the fact there's nothing wrong physically (once you have evidence) and acknowledging the psychological and emotional factors.

Sarno also suggests focusing on the unpleasant thoughts the brain is trying to distract you from, writing about possible things in life you need to address, and in time overcoming your fear of physical activity.

It may sound ridiculous, but I attempted activities that caused me pain and congratulated myself afterwards to rewire the neural pathways in my brain to have positive associations with it, rather than negative.

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Starting to heal. (Supplied)
Hannah Millington found inspiration via a book called The Mindbody Prescription. (Supplied)

Healing emotionally

Miraculously my pain reduced just from simply reading the book, and I was able to put pen to paper to write again, ironically to help me heal. I replaced medication and physio with these techniques, which I practiced independently.

I did get to a point where I needed some extra support from a UK company called SIRPA, which specialises in this type of pain relief. I saw a practitioner and each week we would go through my list of troubling events, bringing everything out and helping me to believe I could heal emotionally. My symptoms kept improving, and at times I felt euphoric.

Towards the end of this, my NHS letter invitation for an MRI finally arrived, something I was so desperate for previously, and the last thing on my list. I decided not to go.

Hannah Millington. (Supplied)
Hannah Millington, now 27, has been contacted by others inspired to try a new route of healing. (Supplied)

Changing lives

One man, Jim, 47, a decorator from Salisbury, who had experienced migraines, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), backache and hip pain since youth, contacted me in July 2020, after reading an article I’d written for a broadsheet about my experience.

"I just wanted to thank you for your [2019] article on healing chronic pain. It has really changed the course of my life," he revealed.

When I spoke to him again this month, he said it not only "changed'' his life, but "saved" it. "At that point I was suffering from prostatitis, a painful pelvic condition which had plagued me for nearly a year. It was the latest in a long line of chronic conditions which never show up in tests and I always leave a baffled medical service with only the option of long-term painkillers or needless surgeries,” he recalled.

“I was so frustrated and depressed with it all I did indeed consider suicide."

After being helped by Sarno’s work and other more recent authors and advancements in the field (of which there has been many since the 1998 book), as well as his own healing, he is now doing much better.

"I myself am mostly pain-free these days," he told me. "I get the odd tingle in the belly or twinge in the back but I look on them as a signal to relax. I actually thank them for giving me the message that I need to calm my mind.".

"I have my life back and my mind is no longer wracked with fear," he added.

Inspiring others

A woman who contacted me only the other week, Eve Delaney, 27, a writer, actor and artist from London, who has migraines and chronic fatigue syndrome, was also "inspired to start a new route of healing".

"I've been unwell for a long time and have tried so many different types of treatment. At first I was reluctant to acknowledge the strong mind/body connection because I thought it meant I was in some way responsible or to blame for my pain," she said.

"I was worried it was adjacent to the kind of medical gaslighting I had experienced at other times ('You're being a hypochondriac' etc). But eventually I couldn't ignore the patterns in my ill health – my flairs often aligned with times of stress or pressure.

"Though there is still a part of me that's sceptical, I'm mainly encouraged by all the positive experiences that I've read."

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One study in 2021 showed that 66% of chronic back pain patients who took part in a four-week psychological treatment in this type of field were pain-free or nearly pain-free post-treatment, the majority maintaining this relief for one year. Participants also showed changes in pain-related parts of their brain after therapy.

Hannah Millington, pictured in the front of a car in Cuba. (Supplied)
Hannah Millington is now free from the severe restrictions of chronic pain. (Supplied)

The easy option is not digging deep and potentially reliving trauma, but I believe patients deserve to be taught about the power of the mind-body connection within the mainstream health service. Not in a way that suggests it's 'all in the mind', but validates their experience, empowering them about other options. While there has been advancements, including the latest NICE guidelines on chronic pain, there's still a way to go.

I also only experienced the best part of a year debilitated, but many spend decades.

Chronic pain isn't part of my day-to-day life anymore. And when I do feel slight twinges from time to time, like Jim, I do not fear it, but instead think about what is going on in my life that needs addressing. As humans, we’re far more capable than we give ourselves credit for, and I’m grateful that through writing this I’ve reminded myself of that again, and hopefully you.

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