I remember once feeling like I was offering my patients a warm, nurturing hug when I would give them a diagnosis, or confirm it, after a consultation. “It’s the nature of Bipolar Disorder,” I would say “…it’s just part of your lineage, a brain chemistry condition, that thankfully, we can manage if you stick with your medication.”
I never suspected that this diagnosis would ultimately be cold comfort, and perhaps even something like a number on a prisoner’s jumpsuit.
A diagnosis is just that. It is a label that reduces a human experience to an impersonal pattern. A pattern that your doctor is trained to match up with a prescription or medical intervention. This pattern recognition makes no room for you – your story, your experience, the meaning of your symptoms.
Unfortunately, medical training has neglected to heed the advice of our forefathers like William Osler who said: “It is more important to find out what patient has the disease than what disease the patient has.”
Hospital-based doctors are notorious for referencing their patients by their diagnosis – the COPD exacerbation in room 401c – as if they are stick figures with signs hanging around their necks.
If you are simply a broken down machine that needs a tune up, then obviously, what you eat, think, and feel, let alone the very personal significance of the symptoms, are totally irrelevant to the point of distraction from the matter at hand.
The “you” in your illness
It is clear to me now that there is deep meaning in illness, and a corresponding invitation designed especially for you. In fact, the medical literature is beginning to catch up with the concept, publishing articles entitled Symbolic Diseases and Mindbody Co-Emergence.
In this way, how you interpret your symptoms is everything.
Mindset has become the bedrock of my transformational medicine practice. My patients are invited to explore, examine, and become deeply aware of their beliefs. These beliefs determine how they experience suffering and the potential for self-healing activation. These beliefs give them the ability to trust that everything is going to be exactly as it needs to be.
These beliefs even override elements and aspects of our biology that we think of as cause and effect. I’m talking about everything from less blood loss in surgery to faster bone healing, to lessened use of pain meds if a soldier knew his injury would lead to a dismissal home.
What about infection? It’s about germ exposure, right? Perhaps it’s not so simple as germ exposure equals illness…
Do negative beliefs lead to illness?
Cohen et al report that the response to this simple question was the most meaningful determinant of clinical experience of the common cold: “In general, how would you rate your health?” After being inoculated with cold viruses, participants in Cohen’s study demonstrated that negative health perception led to the experience of common cold symptoms regardless of whether the immune system was reacting**. In other words, if someone had a positive health perception, got exposed, and had antibody confirmation of immune response, they did not manifest clinical symptoms of the cold (aka get sick). Now, it’s possible that positive and negative perceptions result from a sensed experience of an inflammatory state that would lead to more frequent infections, but this relationship between thoughts, emotions, and the immune system is tri-directional, each arm as significant as the other.
Mind as body, body as mind
When symptoms of overwhelm, sadness, and hopelessness do emerge, however, more than a positive attitude may be required to suffer better, and to access the gift that the illness brings.
The resolution of these symptoms may not call for fighting, either. It may, in fact, be the opposite of fighting: an attitude of acceptance and non-resistance.
When we accept and allow, we unite with our body and our illness. Your experience is no longer one of a divided front with warring factions set out to kill at all costs.
In fact, I dug deep into the annals of medicine to find data from decades ago that was telling us that healing comes when we accept our health challenges.
In other words, allowing struggle, pain, and suffering to just be, led to immune system improvement in these patients. Based on the work of renegade scientist Dr. Candace Pert, we have known for quite some time that the mind/body division is a false one. Illness manifests out of both spaces and resides in both spaces.
2 Tips to Try Today:
When my patients are in the darkness of their transformational birth canal, and when the struggle is crushing, and fear and hopelessness taunt them like some horrific circus clown, I talk to them as my midwife spoke to me when I was in the transition phase of active labor.
I tell them to watch for opportunities to unite with their experience rather than fight it:
1. Say yes when you want to say no
When your entire being is rejecting your experience, saying “I don’t want this. I can’t handle this. I could never bear a life of this.” Play with it and start a sentence with “Yes”. Try saying “Yes, I needed it to be this way to get where I am going next” or “Yes, this is hard. Really hard.” Or, simply, the word “Yes” over and over.
2. Do nothing when you want to do something
When your mind is saying “No”, you will almost immediately seek to fix the situation. Reach for a cookie or a beer, stay later at work, call that ex-boyfriend, give in to the medical intervention you know you don’t need. You will reach for a way to take the edge off the discomfort. But if you just sit with it, it changes. Just be with it. Watch it. And wait for the intensity of pain and sadness to transform. Float in the deep, scary water because if you flail around, you might drown the you that needs to be saved.
Watch your mind when you are in crisis. Play with it so that you can look with curiosity instead of fear on your experience. Understand that illness, pain, and suffering may be the portal to your more authentic self. All you have to do is allow it to unfold.
Commit to yourself… surrender to what is… and you will heal, transform, and experience a joy that is far beyond the simple relief you thought you were seeking.
**Poorer SRH also correlated with poorer health practices, increased stress, lower positive emotions, and other socioemotional factors. However, none of these (alone or together) accounted for the association between SRH and host resistance. Additional data (separate study) indicated that history of having colds was unrelated to susceptibility and hence also did not account for the SRH link with immunocompetence.”