The Healing Power of Illness—How Seeing Illness as a Messenger Can Help You Heal

There are lots of good physical reasons why we get sick. Getting rear-ended in a car can result in whiplash. Cystic Fibrosis is a genetically transferred disease, and the flu results from a viral infection. When we eat food that does not nourish us we don’t feel well. When we cut our finger chopping onions we bleed.

There are many things that go wrong with our bodies that have to do with direct or indirect physical causes. There’s no doubt about this. And whether we use a conventional medical treatment or an alternative intervention, we need to address our physical ailments in a physical way.

I’m starting this article with this “disclaimer” because many people assume that if I suggest their illness might in some way be connected to their emotions or psychology, that I’m really saying it’s “all in their head” or that “it’s not real” and even worse, that they did something wrong to “cause” their illness.

This is a common misconception as the mind-body conversation heats up in healthcare. The term “psychosomatic” (defined as bodily symptoms caused by mental or emotional disturbance) is a dirty word and implies that we are imagining our physical symptoms, or if they are real, it’s because we are mentally ill. We still tend to see illness as coming from a physical OR an emotional cause.

As I have been discussing in my newsletters, I see the body as inseparable from the psyche. Our chemistry is constantly changing in response to our conscious and unconscious thoughts, beliefs and emotions. And our physical state dictates our moods and outlook. Every physical symptom is connected to an emotional or psychological state, and vice versa. The fact is that we are psychosomatic beings! I’d like to hereby take back the term “psychosomatic “and embrace it as an essential principle in healing!

In addition to the direct and immediate influences the mind and body have on each other every moment, the body also tends to symbolize our emotional and psychological state over time. Our physical imbalances often reflect, in a symbolic way, our emotional and mental struggles.  We may not be able to prove a scientific link between heart dis-ease and heartache for example, but the unconscious psyche, speaking through the body’s symptoms, can often tell us what’s needed to bring our body, mind and life back into balance.

By being curious about our symptoms as metaphors for our lives, we open an entirely new realm of possibilities for healing the root cause of our illnesses.  To do this we must make a big shift in how we respond when we become ill.

If you’re like me, your automatic response to a symptom such as pain is to try to get rid of it. We see pain, illness, discomfort, dysfunction as something bad to get rid of so we can get back to “good”. We may even, if we look closely at our subtle beliefs, feel that there is something wrong with us if we are not strong, healthy and happy in every moment.

So when we get recurrent headaches, for example, we may run for the aspirin and if that doesn’t help, we may go to a doctor for a stronger medication and a diagnosis that will lead (hopefully) to a treatment that will get us out of pain. Even alternative therapies can be used to try to get rid of symptoms.

By shifting to an attitude of curiosity about the meaning of our symptoms and slowing down to listen, the information we get could lead us to a “treatment” that is more effective than a quick, automatic intervention . Here’s an example.

I worked with a woman who suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 8 years. The first seven years she frantically tried every possible treatment, conventional and alternative, to get rid of the debilitating fatigue that was robbing her of her life. Some treatments like nutrition and acupuncture helped a bit, but nothing cured the disease. Finally, in our work together, she stopped fighting the fatigue and began to listen to it. She treated it as an ally (albeit an unwelcome one).

When she asked herself the question “What am I tired of?” the answers sprung forth from her unconscious: “I’m tired of trying so hard to be someone for other people, and not being who I really am. I’m exhausted from taking care of everyone else and not myself.” These insights came over time in the form of thoughts and images that she never would have discovered had she stayed so busy fighting  to conquer the fatigue. As she began to heal the underlying issues that led her, from an early age, to live this way, her vitality gradually returned. By “listening” to her illness as a metaphor for the underlying imbalances in her whole “bodymind”, she was able to address a critical root cause of her perpetual stress and depletion.

It is most useful to begin this work with a guide, a therapist who can help you learn how to listen to the expressions of your body and unconscious mind. There are many body-centered and integrative therapies that use these methods. Art, dance and expressive therapies are also powerful, as is Jungian psychoanalysis. More and more bodyworkers are learning the skills to help their clients make connections between their muscular tensions and their life issues.

It is my vision that all clinicians in conventional medicine and psychology will incorporate these principles in their assessment and treatment protocols and help their patients explore the messages and meanings within their illnesses. I vote we add a question to the physical assessment interview: “How might this symptom be a refection of what is going on in your life?”

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