Men who suffer from pelvic floor pain, whether it’s called prostatitis or pelvic floor dysfunction, tend to be intelligent, successful, ambitious, conscientious, and accomplished type-A personalities. And these men share the common characteristic of worrying. Pelvic floor dysfunction related to pelvic pain often occurs in men who work too much, care too much, want too much, desire to be appreciated, and strongly aim for success—and underlying all of that, who worry too much and have too little faith that things will turn out well.
Indeed, what we see in our practice is that men with pelvic pain tend to be intelligent, ambitious, thorough, and accomplished. Now, what do these characteristics have to do with pelvic floor pain? Underlying all these positive attributes is a worry about life—a sense of not trusting that the outcome of life will be favorable. It is my hypothesis in understanding this phenomenon, that this underlying unease leads these men to the stress response of tightening their pelvic floor. Really, they often tighten their whole body, but the focus shows up in the pelvic floor.
This highlights the larger picture of pelvic pain—like other parts of the body that bear the brunt of the stresses of life, the pelvic floor is a physical place people react to when they worry. The vernacular expression that someone is “anal” in what they do reflects an attitude of needing to get everything right and not make a mistake. This perfectionistic attitude is a way of guarding against something bad happening if you’re not very careful and not doing things correctly. There is an upside to wanting to do things right and caring about the outcome of what you do. These tendencies move men to be successful in their careers. At our clinic we often say that if we started a new business we’d want to hire many of our patients, because these men are typically very responsible, conscientious, thoughtful, creative, and intelligent.
However, there can be a downside to these tendencies, because often under this conscientiousness, care, and perfectionism is fear. Indeed, muscle-based pelvic pain is, in a certain sense, part of the physical expression of fear that leads to symptoms in a certain group of people. It’s a physiological response to the worry that somehow something bad will happen.
Pelvic Pain is a Squeezing in the Core of the Body
People who don’t care about outcomes, who don’t care about being conscientious, generally don’t suffer from pelvic pain. There isn’t that pressure to “do things right” and an underlying mistrust about the future and one’s safety. The physical consequence of this habitual worry is an ongoing squeezing in the core of the body, and this habitual squeezing is a big contributor to pelvic pain.
We use colloquial language to describe this chronic inner squeezing, such as gut-wrenching or a gut-response or being punched in the gut. These terms reflect a physical reaction that occurs in the sensitive inner core of the body. The “gut,” which colloquially refers to the colon, and in real life involves the pelvic floor muscles, is a Geiger counter for what’s going on in our lives. In our book A Headache in the Pelvis, we share an anecdote about doctors in the 1950’s examining army recruits with sigmoidoscopy to observe the behavior of the colon in relation to stress. When a doctor said, deliberately within earshot of the patient whose colon they were examining, “Look at that cancer,” the distressed patient’s colon would immediately go into spasm. And when the doctor said, “We were just doing an experiment to see the response of your gut to this kind of news,” the gut spasm reversed. Our gut is instantly responsive to things that frighten or stress us. Many people who have pelvic floor pain also suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, which used to be called a “spastic colon.” The gut and pelvic floor are not in separate rooms, and typically respond together to fear or stress.
In addition to all these tendencies, a person with pelvic pain tends to feel things deeply, even if outwardly this sensitivity is not obvious. There’s a Stephen Sondheim song that says “Children may not obey but children will listen,” meaning that though you might not see the effect of what you’re saying on your children (or really on any individual), they nonetheless hear it. In the same way you may not see the effect of the stresses the pelvis is exposed to until it becomes painful. The “listening” of the pelvis happens deep inside—the physical inner core of a pelvic-pain patient deeply hears and responds to the stresses of life.
I know this subject well because I myself suffered with pelvic pain for a long time, until recovered after I spending several years undertaking a rudimentary version of the protocol we teach our patients. In my view, the answer to being someone with pelvic pain who inwardly is sensitive, caring, and easily responsive to the slings and arrows of life is to regularly practice a method for relaxing the inner core and releasing it from ongoing, irritated contraction.
The solution we offer to the sensitive person suffering from chronic pelvic pain is both physical and mental and aims to release the sensitive inner core of the pelvic pain patient from its worried, irritated constriction. We teach our patients to regularly physically release the trigger points, muscle constriction and guarding inside the pelvic floor. Equally important we teach our patients to mentally/behaviorally, to practice a method called Extended Paradoxical Relaxation, whose aim is to regularly bring sore pelvic tissue into a healing inner environment in which the nervous system has shifted to the relaxed parasympathetic activation. In patients we treat whose pelvic pain significantly reduces or resolves entirely, the ongoing practice of Extended Paradoxical Relaxation cannot be avoided in order to allow the pelvis to remain relaxed and pain-free in the midst of often-stressful lives. While I don’t have pelvic pain anymore, I practice Extended Paradoxical Relaxation daily and love doing it. If I did not manage my type A personality and tendency toward anxiety by doing this, I think I very well might become symptomatic again.
The resolution of pelvic floor pain and dysfunction is both physical and mental and has to do with changing one’s way of dealing with a body and mind that is sensitive in which anxiety is easily turned into physical symptoms. In my view, only through daily practice of methods that releases the automatic, frightened physical guarding and tightening, can the pelvis have a real chance to heal and remain pain-free.