Ask any ex-chronic pain sufferer for a book recommendation and Unlearn Your Pain by Howard Schubiner, MD, is always top of mind. If you’ve spent any time on various TMS forums or Facebook groups, it is usually mentioned with the likes of Dr Sarno’s work.
So it’s only fitting that we take the plunge into a key resource for those on the journey to recovery from chronic pain. Who exactly is this book for, you ask? What did we like about it? Who should steer clear?
Read on to find out.
Unlearn Your Pain
You should never judge a book by its cover. But what about its title?
“Unlearn Your Pain” seriously?! you might as well say “Unlearn Your Mortgage” or “Unlearn Your Mother-In-Law“. How does that even make sense you ask?
Let me explain.
First Schubiner makes a distinction between acute pain (say due to a broken bone) compared to chronic, persistent, or psychosomatic pain. The later of which is said to be caused by a toxic cocktail of unhelpful neural pathways and maladaptive emotions. If your brain got you into this mess, your brain can sure as hell get you back out of it. The ultimate end goal is the formation of new habits, neural pathways, and resolution of emotional trauma. You really can unlearn your pain.
“Your pain is real. But you no longer have to put up with it… The nerve pathways causing the pain can be retrained by understanding what riggers them and what amplifies them.”Howard Schubiner, MD
“Unlearn You Pain” is unashamedly focused on a psychological approach to healing pain. He advocates for people to avoid a medication-centric approach to their healing. Of course this is only applicable for those with a clear mind body syndrome (MBS) diagnosis. This book is not intended for those suffering from a clear “organic pathology”; for example, cancer, acute injury, clear nerve damage.
Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psycho-whaaat?
The crux of his approach to chronic pain consists of intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy or ISTDP.
Side note: my suggestion here is not to Google ISTDP. Seriously, just embrace it. Don’t give Google the opportunity to talk you out of healing yourself. If you are anything like me you have enough critical voices in your head as it is. Give yourself a fighting chance.
ISTDP is a way of opening up a temporary wormhole for revisiting traumatic events or unchecked emotions. You are in the driver’s seat. It starts simply enough with some individual roleplay dialogue with say an ex-partner, abusive parent, belligerent boss, or former friend. Things then escalate by outpouring every drop of anger, hate, and malice – all from the safety of your own home.
This is a rapid way of accessing unconscious emotions or feelings, instead of via months of exploratory “free association” style psychotherapy looking for that needle in a haystack. This can resolve issues by expressing them verbally. Making the unconscious, conscious. Shining light into darkness.
A word of warning: I first found this incredibly destabilizing and anxiety inducing. It was like drinking from a fire hydrant! I could only attempt the exercise once per week (instead of the recommended daily routine). If this happens to you, stop, take a break, recognize where it came unstuck and then jump back in. Don’t Google it. And don’t hesitate to speak with a trained health professional (instead of taking advice from a random person on the internet).
ISTDP isn’t the only weapon that Schubiner has in his arsenal. Guided meditations, trigger point therapy, and audio recordings reinforce his program. He also includes a handy list of physicians with experience in chronic pain healing. A holistic program indeed.
Putting Yourself To Work
My first impressions of this book when the physical copy arrived was “wow – this is definitely a workbook”. If I was to unlearn my pain, school was back in session! It’s large tome (US Letter paper size) and has plenty of space to fill in the blanks and get down and dirty with your pain.
Enter my first piece of criticism. The workbook format was a turn-off when I only had a few minutes of free time and wanted to just read the next section of a chapter. Here a book of smaller physical size would be handy, as it is more approachable and less intimidating for a casual read. Questions and exercises can still be listed with the reader (you and I) supplying the pen and paper. It may sound like a minor grievance, but it definitely stopped me from picking up the book more often than I would have liked.
It is recommended that exercises are completed daily. I would agree, but life happens. These three steps are repeated in an ideal world:
- Reading and re-reading the provided theory on mind body syndrome (20 minutes)
- Completing workbook questions and individual ISTDP session (30 minutes)
- Listen to audio mediations (10 minutes)
To do it properly is at least 60 minutes of work minimum. I would normally do the reading and ISTDP in the morning when my energy levels were at the highest. The meditations helped with my sleep routine. When ISTDP got a bit out of hand I would give it a break for a week or until my head stopped spinning.
There is no denying it’s a lot of work, but for me, that’s fine. Ultimately no one else is going to do that work for you, nor would really want them to. It goes without saying that my 28 day timeline was blown out of the water.
But It’s Not Working!
During a healing journey from chronic pain it is normal to ask these kind of questions. What if a mind body approach doesn’t work? Is this mind body syndrome just a fad?
Schubiner deals with this well in a section titled, “If You Are Not Yet Improving”. In my opinion mind this is a hidden gem as not many authors deal with this common patient concern. This is a credit to Schubiner to address this issue head-on. He only spends a few pages on this towards the end of the book. I would love to see this expanded upon in future revisions.
I found this book very helpful and have recommended without hesitation it to friends and family. For many sufferers of chronic pain, this may be the first exposure to mind body theory. Therefore, this may be confronting and challenging as the existing health model of corrective surgery and medication regimes is slowly but surely dismantled.
Upon reflection I can’t help but feel that I am more interested in reading about mind body pain than doing the hard work to recover from it. Maybe it is the adrenaline rush and excitement of starting something new, only to lose momentum when it gets a bit uncomfortable (I’m looking at you ISTDP). Probing into one’s psyche to heal from pain is challenging endeavor – but arguably knowing one’s psyche is the only “real” endeavor there is.
This is a book that will need to be worked through several times over the course of months. Motivation for genuine, consistent, and intentional work over 28 days is hard but oh so worthwhile.
What I liked
✅ A safe and low-risk approach to healing. You are in CONTROL.
✅ Good mix of theory and practice. Theory must be appreciated as current mainstream practice is far behind modern pain research.
✅ The written exercises and meditation tracks are helpful.
✅ Can be used as a reference workbook and returned to time and time again as other issues resurface.
❌ Workbook style. It would be more convenient to have smaller portable copy.
❌ Hard to keep motivated with the daily exercises. Serious motivation is required. 💪
❌ San-serif typesetting!
Bonus Pro Tip To Unlearn Your Pain
Buy a hardcopy, not an ebook or Kindle version. After all, it’s pretty hard to write responses on a Kindle!
You’ve read this review, so it’s time to get serious about your approach to chronic pain. I put my own recovery off for years because while I knew the theory, I didn’t understand what it meant or how to implement it. Living in pain was so exhausting that I needed the specific steps.
Take the first step today with my free guide to kick starting your recovery. 👇