How Tony Robbins’ 6 Human Needs Relate to Back Pain

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Tony Robbins is a master at “chunking” complex topics down into bite-size pieces that be easily understood and applied – especially when they are in the realm of personal and professional growth and development.

One of his more well known “chunkings” is in the area of human needs psychology.  When it comes to articulating how people’s fundamental human needs influence their behaviors, Tony’s model is one of the easiest to grasp.

Tony describes 6 basic human needs.

A number of these needs must always be met in order for one to make it through life.  There are both positive and healthy ways, and negative and dysfunctional ways to meet these needs however.

I’m going to summarize the 6 needs, and then I’m going to explain how they relate to back pain:

1. Certainty

We all want know that we’re safe, and that we can count on certain things in life to happen (or not to happen).  We want certainty the car will start, the water will flow from the tap when we turn it on and the floorboards will support us when we get up in the morning.

2. Variety

At the same time we need certainty, we also crave novelty. Paradoxically, there needs to be enough uncertainty to provide intrigue and excitement in our lives.

3. Significance

Deep down, we all want to be valued for who we are. We want our life to have meaning and significance. We want to “matter”.

4. Connection/Love

We’re alive because someone (even if it was in a dysfunctional way) loved us. We need to feel loved, feel part of a community, and feel cared for and cared about.

5. Growth

We have a need to become better, to improve our skills, to stretch, expand and excel.  This need may be more evident in some than others, but it is present in all of us.

6. Contribution

The desire to make the world a better place than we found it is the final human need.  It is the need to contribute something of value, to help and uplift others somehow.

How the 6 Human Needs Relate to Back Pain

Although back pain affects millions of people, and is the second most common reason why people miss work in the US, the “cause” of most back pain is still quite elusive.

Misaligned vertebrae, strained muscles, inflamed and herniated discs, arthritis, “pinched” nerves and a multitude of other mechanical dysfunctions are often labeled as the cause, but after nearly two decades of working with thousands of people from around the world, I can say without a doubt that these mechanical diagnoses are not the real cause.

I’m not alone in this opinion either.  Even the medical establishment agrees.

In a British Medical Journal article (April 3, 1993), Andrew Frank, consultant physician in rheumatology and rehabilitation at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, England, stated: “Up to 85% of patients with low back pain cannot be given a definitive diagnosis because of the poor associations between symptoms, signs, imaging results and pathological findings.”

In other words,  the medical establishment states that they only know what’s causing the pain in around 15 out of 100 cases.

So why do so many people suffer with back pain?  Where is the pain really coming from?

Unmet human needs, or needs that are being met through unhealthy behaviors appear to play a significant role.  I’ll explain:

Your Body Is Made Up of Stories

Muriel Rukeyser said: “The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms”

I would venture to say that our bodies are made up of stories as well.

We have stories that help us meet our needs, stories that help us to feel safe, certain and significant, and stories that help us grow and contribute.

Our sense of identity is based on these stories, our physiology and physical posturing in the world is based on stories as well.

The way we hold our bodies, how we breathe and how we move can be traced to our stories, our family’s stories and our culture’s stories.

The stories we believe, about how the world “should be” and what “should be happening”, can cause inner-conflict, reactive behaviors, mental and emotional stress, and even physical pain and suffering.

Our unmet needs, and the stories we make up around them show up in our bodies in variety of ways:


When the need for certainty is unmet, there is typically a sense that it is not safe to be in the body, or even in the world.

This shows up in the body as a rigid or locked spinal structure, shallow respiration and decreased conscious awareness in certain regions of the spine.

The need for certainty or sameness creates a “freeze” in one’s posturing, and a reduced ability to move energy effectively or be fully present with some parts of the body.

If your body could verbalize the feeling of uncertainty, it would likely be saying something like:  “If I hold everything still and I don’t move or breathe, then I won’t have to feel the underlying energy and emotion in this area.”

I’ve found that many people experiencing chronic back pain are either in a situation with high uncertainty or are obsessively (but not always consciously) focused on getting certainty by trying to hold things together and control their outer world.

When the need for certainty is not being met in a positive and healthy way, the body shifts into a defensive fight-flight-or-freeze spinal posturing.

I have come to suspect that many people’s back pain is their body’s way of letting them know that trying to get certainty through control just isn’t working.

Of course this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes the need for variety is what is not being met.


How does the need for variety relate to back pain?

First, it is necessary to understand that variety is experienced through changes in one’s emotional state.

Change your emotional state and you suddenly feel very different about your situation. – and different is what variety is all about.

Strong emotions such as anger, grief or pleasure create the leverage for a change in behavior that can lead you down a very different path in life.

According to brain biochemistry researcher Candace Pert, emotion is the equivalent of “energy-in-motion” in the body, so when the body is restricted to a limited range of physical movements (because of stress or injury) the chi, qi, prana, or life-force cannot flow freely through the tissues and a full range of emotions cannot express.

When people are meeting their need for variety in unhealthy ways, they might smoke, drink or engage in some other addictive behavior in order to change their emotional state temporarily – without really changing their baseline behavior patterns.

When this happens the muscle system becomes increasingly taught and stiff, because although the body is mobilizing energy and preparing for a different type of action, a different type of action is not happening.

Even though an individual may have very strong underlying emotion, without physical movement and energy flow the emotion doesn’t register consciously, so it doesn’t express outwardly and behavioral change can’t happen.

I’ve found that many of the people who show up in my practice complaining of acute or chronic back pain, are meeting their need for variety through temporary emotional state changes rather than significant life changes.

It seems that the pain and tension keep coming back because the emotional expression has not occurred, therefore the body can’t dissipate enough of the stored energy.

When enough energy finally builds up, pain will often show up to let you know that something really does need to change.

When the first 2 human needs are not being met constructively, a defensive physiology and protective posturing are created, and back pain is often not far behind.

How do the remaining human needs relate to back pain?  I’ll cover those in an upcoming post.

Discover more about how to end back pain.


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About John Amaral

Santa Cruz Chiropractor Dr. John Amaral has helped thousands of people from over 50 countries transform and awaken to more meaningful and purposeful lives. Follow him on twitter at @johnamaral