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Defining the TMS State: "Beating a Dead Horse", Also Known As... TMSing

Updated: Jan 3

I would like to discuss the state, or way of being, that is inherent to the chronic pain sufferer—the individual suffering from TMS.  This writing will serve as a guide when dealing with the many obstacles that arise throughout the process of healing from TMS.  What does it mean to be in a TMS State, or to be TMSing?  Having a thorough understanding of this concept will allow you to progress in your healing by making you aware of your unconscious behaviors, then making change possible.  The TMS State is a state of significantly elevated tension and stress levels, and TMSing is the verb form, referring to the behaviors we engage in when we are inhabiting this state.  For the chronic pain sufferer, and individual afflicted with many TMS symptoms, this state is ever-present.  I have learned this through and through, by observing it within myself, as well as in many others.  First, I will clearly define the TMS State, so you can know when you are in it; then we will look at all of the various forms of TMSing, so you can observe this insane behavior within yourself, and finally, we will look at what a person can do, or better yet, not do, in order to heal and transcend this state of mind.

The  TMS state is a state we enter into when our emotions have been repressed to unprecedented levels and are threatening to break through into consciousness.  When the emotional trauma of life events becomes too overwhelming, the TMS state is often activated.  This is also when an individual will begin to experience increasing levels of pain, often combined with a multitude of other distressing symptoms.  It takes increased awareness to recognize when you are in this state of mind, and even more awareness to see how it is intimately connected to the pain and other symptoms you are experiencing.  A quick reminder, drastically increased levels of tension and stress are what cause the autonomic nervous system to go out of balance, then causing it to function defectively, adversely affecting any number of the systems within the body.  The TMS state is akin to survival mode, also commonly known as fight, flight, or freeze.  When we are in this state, sensory feedback is heightened, causing us to become highly reactive to our environment; our actions become fear-driven and we perceive danger and impending doom at every turn.  As my Dad so eloquently puts it, we get "all wiggy".  Growing up, I recall how often times when my Mother or I would be overreacting to some situation (a frequent occurrence), my Dad would wryly remind us not to go getting "all wiggy" about it.  I never knew how good this advice was! 

In the TMS state, people and pets seem far more annoying than they actually are, sticks frequently appear as serpents, noises seem louder than they actually are, clothing suddenly no longer fits properly or "feels right", and everything in general seems to be turned up to a level 12.  Every situation and decision appear to have either life or death consequences—with zero nuance.  We embody an intensity that the situation in no way calls for.  The crazy thing is, when you are in this state your extreme perceptions seem as though they are totally reasonable, it is only in hindsight that one is able to see that this simply is not the case.  Steve Ozanich remarks in his book, The Great Pain Deception, that "what-if thinking is the curse of the tension sufferer."  If we wish to heal we will have to learn how to stop this process, by becoming aware enough to be able to take a step back, providing us with enough space to see that things are going to be ok.  We do not have to spend every waking moment of our lives heading off the next disaster, actually much of our reactivity is the very reason our lives seem to be one stressful event after another. 

Today is the tomorrow that you once worried about, and yet today came anyway.  Events in life do not cause stress.  It is our emotional attachment to the event that causes stress—the reaction to it.  Worrying warriors use what-if thinking as a weapon to head off possible bad future outcomes.  But no one has ever made a future event better by worrying about it.          -Steve Ozanich, The Great Pain Deception

I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.                 -Mark Twain

TMSing: Worrying, obsessing, being neurotic, ruminating, catastrophizing, over-analyzing, wigging out, tripping out, "beating a dead horse"

"Beating a dead horse":  The origin of the expression 'beat a dead horse' comes from the mid-19th century, when the practice of beating horses to make them go faster was often viewed as acceptable. To beat a dead horse would be pointless, as it wouldn't be able to go anywhere. (

Beating a dead horse is an idiomatic expression with a figurative rather than literal meaning. If you're beating a dead horse, you're engaged in a futile or pointless action. In other words, you're pursuing a lost cause and wasting time and effort. (

TMSing refers to the behaviors we unconsciously engage in in order to avoid becoming aware of our emotional state, and thus, to avoid feeling our emotions.  The truth is, our emotions can be completely overwhelming, as well as overpowering at times.  It is not uncommon for someone suffering with chronic pain (TMS), to have a difficult time understanding this.  I know because when I finally started to heal, I came to see that I had never allowed myself to feel the full intensity of my emotions.  The emotions I am speaking of are anger, guilt, shame, fear, and grief, among others.  Throughout my healing I have often felt, then thought, "I have never been this pissed off in my fucking life!", "I have never felt this guilty before!" or "I have never been this afraid in all my days!"  Many people who are in the early stages of learning about TMS, have a hard time understanding why their brain would use pain as a distraction from their emotions, "I would rather just feel my emotions!" they say.  Well, once you really experience the full intensity of your emotions, it will not be at all difficult to understand why your brain would do this—why you would do this—and you won't be so sure that your emotions are any easier to deal with than severe physical pain.  The good news is that when you actually feel the emotion, you release its energy that has until now, been repressed and stored in the body.  This is how healing occurs: by experiencing the full energy of our emotions, effectively releasing them. 

TMSing includes, but is not limited to: worrying, obsessing, being neurotic, ruminating, catastrophizing, over-analyzing, wigging out, tripping out, and... "beating a dead horse".  Two years into my own healing process I can assure you that there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, that cannot become the target for us to use to distract ourselves from our emotional reality.  Ozanich clearly states, "TMSing is the continual distractive search for solutions through the body—focusing on the body or anything else—in order to avoid unwanted emotional overload."  

So what exactly do we TMS about?  We TMS about what to do, what not to do, what we should do, what we should not do, what we want to do, what we don't want to do, what we have to do, and what we do not have to do.  We TMS about the pets, the children, the neighbors, the neighbors pets and the old people.  We TMS about what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat, and when not to eat.  We TMS about whether to workout or just have a couple cold ones.  We TMS about our boss and our jobs, or lack thereof.  We TMS about traffic.  We TMS about the bank account, the bills, the taxes, the student loans, and insurance rates.  We TMS about climate change and the environment, politics and the president.  We TMS about safety.  We TMS about the laws, codes, rules, and regulations.  We TMS about corporations, big pharma, and "the MAN''.  We TMS about the weather; the hot, the cold, the wind, snow, and rain.  We TMS about our bodies and what to do about them and all the suffering they seem to cause us.  We TMS about what we think and what other people think, what we say and what other people have said.  We TMS about death.  We TMS about dying.  If you are starting to get the point, you might be noticing that we TMS about anything... and everything! 

The tricky part is that we truly believe that to all of these questions and things we TMS about, there is a correct answer, if we can only make the perfect choice, we will be ok.  We seem to think that there is a way to do things that is just right—that is perfect— and that will solve all our problems.  Furthermore, we seem to think that we are somehow in control of this whole thing.  In reality, it is all this thinking that is precisely what keeps us from ever just experiencing how we feel, which is what will eventually set us free.  I have come to see that much of the time I just don't know what the hell to do, and whatever I choose, is ok.  I have had to learn to step back and say, "Look man, you are just TMSing again, it isn't that big of a deal, you are just distracting yourself."  It is always only a matter of time before I snap out of it and think "damn that was weird."      

For the chronic pain sufferer the body is typically the go to for TMSing, but in extreme states of TMS such as I was in, many different forms of distraction, and let's face it, addictions, are used to cope with anxiety and overwhelming emotions, seemingly too difficult to face.  At the height of my struggles I was drinking heavily, I was in severe physical pain, I had a host of other distressing physical symptoms, and was using relationships and sex to avoid facing reality.  It's easier to recognize when it is commonly agreed upon negative behaviors such as drinking or drug use, sex and destructive relationships, over-eating or not eating, and compulsive shopping, but is especially confusing when it is behaviors that are generally deemed to be healthy endeavors.  I have TMSed about healthy diet and nutrition, exercise, breathing, and even meditation.  Who am I kidding? I have had my moments throughout the creation of this website and blog as well, ironic, I know, but some things must be done.  See, as people with TMS, we don't just do things, we must do them perfectly!  ZERO MISTAKES!  I have often realized that perfectionism itself is my primary addiction.     

Some questions that you can ask yourself if you think you might be TMSing are, "can I walk away from this?", "can I just let this go for now?", and "can I say "fuck it"?".  If not, you my friend, are TMSing.  TMSing not only stops us from ever actually experiencing our life and the emotions we hold deep inside, it also prevents us from chasing our dreams and acting on the things we feel deep within our hearts.  It makes us complacent, allowing our talents and gifts to go unmanifested in this world.  TMSing is the very Resistance Steven Pressfield so brilliantly identifies and articulates in his book, The War of Art.

Now that we have established what constitutes the TMS State, and defined what it means to be TMSing, let's discuss what is to be done about it.  See, although TMS healing requires us to stop directly addressing symptoms, physical or otherwise, simply doing nothing does not seem to be an acceptable option.  Especially for those of us with type-T, tension-prone personalities, who desperately want to fix not only ourselves, but everyone and everything else as well!  My experience with TMS has taught me that throughout the process of healing, what we do not do, is just as, if not more important, than what we do do.  We need to stop trying to treat our symptoms, for the only reason we have the symptoms in the first place, is because we have massively repressed our emotions and are living our lives in a TMS state.  We need to start addressing the root causes of our troubles: our repressed emotions, and the far reaching ways in which we are not being true to ourselves.  When we do this our symptoms will drop away one by one as if by magic.  I can personally attest that since I have stopped fruitlessly attempting to treat my symptoms, and started to experience my emotions and be true to myself, I have witnessed nothing short of miracles in my life.  The chronic pain I had experienced off and on in the forms of back, foot, and pelvic pain (to name the main ones), for about fifteen years, has vanished.  I had lived this same period of time with substance addictions: opiates and ecstasy, cocaine and tobacco, alcohol and cannabis, and just about everything in between, and at the time of this writing, have been sober for over a year, with no desire to go back.  This is something I would have thought impossible even two years ago, but guess what, when you address the reasons why you drink and use in the first place, the need to do these things becomes non-existent.  What you are left with is the social pressure to fit in and not make waves.  Now let's talk about how one goes about tackling the root causes, meaning how one begins to fully experience their emotions and be true to themselves, living a life of authenticity. 

How do you prefer to face yourself?  How do you fancy getting down to the nitty gritty and meeting your demons?  What do you need to do to step away from your distractions? Your addictions?  How will you embrace the darkness, and romance your shadow?  I have heard these called healing mechanisms, but any name will do.  What will allow you to listen to yourself, to your heart, to your soul?  For some this is walking, running, or hiking, for some this is yoga or meditation, and for others this is time spent alone: in the bathtub, the bedroom, the mountains, or the desert.  Just sitting works wonders for some as well.  For me it is all of the above.  These are far from the only practices that will do, each individual will find what works best for their unique disposition.

You see, we have to learn to be present enough to actually be with ourselves, in order to recognize how and what we are feeling.  We have to learn to relax, cope, and let things go, without the use of intoxicants and other harmful behaviors.  We need to begin learning how to respond to the events in our lives when it is actually necessary, rather than belligerently reacting to every single thing that rubs us the wrong way. 

I feel like I'm preaching, so let's make it clear, I have spent the majority of my life using a glorious variety of powerful distractions to allow me to let go and cope with life.  This is not an attempt to moralize or tell people what they should or should not do—I am well aware that we all have to go through our own processes with these things—but is more accurately an attempt to share what I have found works and doesn't work in the healing process. The changes I have experienced certainly didn't happen all-at-once, and likely have been years in the making. 

Throughout the early stages of my healing from TMS, alcohol and other forms of escape were still very present in my life, for the habits and momentum of a lifetime do not drop away overnight.  Beating ourselves up and feeling guilty about it, only further entrenches us.  The truth is, when you fully recognize and accept that you are the source of all of your problems, when you take full responsibility for your life and the pain you experience, difficult decisions such as saying goodbye to things that no longer serve you, becomes much easier.  How can you continue to do something that is directly causing you pain and misery!?  I am no different from anyone else, when I feel my shadow nipping at my heels, my first impulse is to go running for the hills, and I often do, quite literally at times.  Although I have been able to let go of many of the more destructive ways in which I used to find my escape, I still have plenty of sneaky ways in which I will attempt to avoid the brutality of the moment.  This is and likely always will be, a work in progress.  A process in which each day the meter moves so slightly that oftentimes we are unsure of if any progress is being made at all.  Only time will reveal how far we have truly come.  I came across a passage from the Buddhist practitioner, Pema Chodron, in her book, When Things Fall Apart, that I feel nicely illustrates the nature of the work I am suggesting we engage in.  And it goes, "According to a famous quote, the student of Vajrayana Buddhism should always be in a state of panic.  It is so unfamiliar to us to make such a total commitment to being awake that it unnerves us.  Once when I was spending hours and hours doing a certain practice, I became so agitated that I could hardly sit still.  Later I told Rinpoche that I felt irritated at everything, even little specks of dust.  He said that happened because the practice was demanding me to be sane and I wasn't used to that yet." 

It is necessary that we become clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it.  We need to be able to, at the very least, be honest with ourselves about these things.  Healing involves being sane in the face of insanity and being honest in the throes of deception.  We learn to embrace our discomfort and to bear the unbearable.  But don't grit your teeth!  Breath... and bear it.

Love your struggle and remain free,


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