How this psychologist recovered from interstitial cystitis
Dr. Jennifer Huggins woke up one day with severe pelvic pain. She was eventually diagnosed with interstitial cystitis. After battling for 11-years, she recovered and is with us today to share her story.
Arun: Dr. Jennifer Huggins, I'm really happy to have you here and to hear more about your experiences.
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: I'm happy to be here. TMS and PPD are my biggest passions in life. I talk about it all the time so it's great to have a platform.
Arun: Not everyone knows what TMS or PPD is. Can you explain the acronyms and what they are?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: TMS stands for tension myoneural syndrome which was coined by the late Dr. John Sarno. This term is for chronic pain, but mostly pain that is created in the brain.
Tension means the tension we hold in our body, myo meaning muscle, and itis which people thought meant inflammation. Sarno later changed the name to myo neural syndrome because of the debate surrounding the name. TMS can be also called PPD which stands for psychophysiological disorder. It is for the same issue, chronic pain in the body that's persisted past three months. Some examples of this would be irritable bowel syndrome or chronic fatigue syndrome.
Arun: There's a lot of cool science coming out around how all these things connect. I understand you have a personal connection to this science and work?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: Yes I do actually have a deep personal connection to this work, which is why I am so passionate about it. One day I woke up and felt the worst pelvic and bladder pain you could imagine. I immediately went to the doctor but they didn't find any infection.
So for the majority of my twenties, this pain had completely consumed me. I hated my body, and I became depressed and isolated and I just shut down.
Arun: Did you get any answers from your doctors in that period?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: I did get answers, but they weren’t accurate. Eventually, I got diagnosed with interstitial cystitis (IC for short) which is a bladder disorder. It's basically an incurable bladder disorder. Once I found out about all the different theories about Hunter’s ulcers making the bladder wall thin so urine could create the burning sensation, I started doing everything I could. I took pain meds, traveled to different doctors all around the world, and I did a bladder installation. Then came the stomach problems. It began with swelling in my lower abdomen which made me look pregnant and was very noticeable. All that stress ended up being TMS, which is why I am here.
Then I started with alternate treatments like diets and shamans which is like chanting and praying for my health. So I kept going to doctors and getting different responses until one day I got an email from one of my clients who listened to my mind and fitness podcast on Spotify. She was going through something similar and she really believed that it was an embedded infection.
Seeing many doctors and hearing unsure responses can really mess with you so I don't blame her. I went on a forum where I found this girl named Abigail Studley who healed herself from IC through mind-body methods. So I came into contact with her and after some hard work, she saved my life.
Arun: Wow, that is really interesting. So how long did it take you to get better?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: It took me about a year and a half to get better, but the specific timespan is a little fuzzy. Two years ago is when it really finished though, before that even when it was better, it would come back and go every once in a while. During the nine years of pain I had, I was open to anything. That stemmed from the side effects of desperation and depression. When you have chronic pain, you feel hopeless and I think anyone with chronic pain has had some sort of depression.
Arun: I agree. Were there any other parts of the TMS philosophy and treatment that can show up as tension? Do you see other conditions being present in some of your clients?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: For me it didn’t show up in any other place. It mostly was in the same place except for the swelling. I think that's because my brain didn't need it to move around. For my clients, I see other conditions all the time. I usually have them do a pain timeline where they create a timeline for as far back as they can remember that has to do with pain. Then I have them link it to stress and anxiety-related event in that time period, like a parent's divorce, breakup, or something like that.
Arun: If you were going to go back and actually do that. What would you check off?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: It’s interesting, I never really had anything except for anxiety. In the TMS world, many would consider anxiety equivalent to TMS. So anxiety would be on the timeline. Nothing else really would be on the timeline.
Arun: How do people react to that pain timeline and is that one of the steps in the journey? What comes after that?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: Generally people are skeptical about trying it. They aren’t used to this whole concept of TMS yet. The timeline helps them warm up to the idea and it also helps build up evidence because the evidence is crucial for healing when it comes to TMS. I get a lot of curious and interesting reactions from this. So the purpose of the timeline is to create evidence that will help the client heal.
Arun: Was there an aha moment that you had in terms of building your own evidence when you were struggling with IC?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: When I had IC, I had to go on a diet. If I had orange juice my bladder would instantly flare-up. Then this one time I bought a smoothie from a store and I didn’t realize it, but there was orange juice in it and nothing happened to me. I would’ve known something happened because I was in the TMS mindset and closely monitoring all my symptoms.
Arun: Could you say a little bit more about that mindset?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: The power of suggestion is a big thing that consists of what you read, what people say, and what doctors say. So I think the power of suggestion is why it was the orange juice, many doctors had already told me that orange juice would be bad for me. Now I can’t drink orange juice anymore because I get reminded of the pain. This is a conditioned response and it happens to a lot of people. It is also very challenging to fully get control of. Most of this is because of doctors and what they repeatedly say is bad for you. That is another reason why doctors need to be more aware of what is going on with chronic pain.
Arun: Yeah I agree. It’s hard for a person to wrap their mind around that concept.
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: If you have a client with back pain, and they believe that the sitting causes the back pain. It’s hard to challenge that belief and get them to understand that it has to do with your mind, not the body. It’s challenging because you have to change the person’s belief on what actually is causing the pain.
Arun: Is there any advice you would give to someone who is hearing about this for the first time?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: My advice is to have the most open mind you can. Whatever you think you know, leave it at the door because none of that is going to help you. Think of all that you have done and think about if it has actually happened to you. My second piece of advice would be to start reading. Read books from Dr. John Sarno, he is a great resource to use for learning about healing through the mind.
Arun: That is really helpful. Could you tell a story about a time when someone had it for a long time, 10-20 years, and still had success.
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: It’s all about the mindset. If you are willing to understand how to heal the pain, then you can work on it. There was this guy who had 15 years of back pain, and halfway through reading one of Sarno’s books, the pain was gone. So being open-minded is key to healing. I am working with someone right now that has the post-concussive syndrome. She was told to stay away from computers, which became a conditioned response for her. So we have been working together, the headaches are gone, but she still doesn’t use a computer. That is the conditioned response that needs to be overcome. She used her phone and her TV, but not her computer even though the pain was gone. So I had to get her to realize that using her phone is the same thing as using her computer because it is the same thing. It is the same light coming from the phone that is coming from the computer so essentially it is the same thing. So I had to get her to understand that if she doesn’t get headaches from her phone, she won’t get headaches from her computer.
Arun: That’s interesting. Anything else that you want to share?
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: I talked about a good amount. I would say that the majority of chronic pain is this, believing that the pain can be healed through the brain.
Just to reiterate, when you understand that the healing of the pain mainly comes from your brain, that helps so much. Even though you have to understand this, you can’t think that your pain will go away instantly. It is hard work to heal and it won’t go away from reading books, that is just part of the process.
Arun: I’m hearing that if people need additional support, they should join a forum.
Dr. Jennifer Huggins: I would actually stay away from forums, this is just from my experience. I went on forums a lot and you usually get people with the old way of thinking. People try to get you to regress your thinking. You should go to pain psychologists, more important ones that have or had TMS because then they really understand and can help you better because they are trained. They take more of a cognitive behavioral therapy route. Two websites where you can find a directory of practitioners that you can trust are PPDassociation.org and TMSwiki.org.
Arun: Dr. Jennifer Huggins, you have so much knowledge. Thank you for spending the time today!
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Modern research shows that psychological and emotional elements can play a major role in chronic pain. These non-physical components can help the brain “learn” to be in pain. By training the brain, we can re-wire the body’s neural circuitry to dial down pain sensations and bring relief.