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Uncovering the Hidden Meaning of Illness

Let's face it, being ill is certainly not something that we would ever consciously will upon ourselves – or is it?  A growing body of scientific evidence compiled from emerging fields of intuitive and behavioral medicine suggests that virtually every illness that affects the physical body from AIDS to aches; heart disease to headaches or cancer to the common cold may have some sort of psychological roots. As a matter of fact, many of these studies indicate that at least 90% of all illnesses are either significantly impacted by our thoughts, emotions, attitudes and beliefs or are created as a result of them. But how can this be? If we think about illness and how it affects the quality of our lives, why would we allow ourselves to hold on to thoughts and emotions that are, indeed, undermining the health and well-being of our physical body? The answer to this question is three-fold:

  1. Up until now, we have not fully understood the connection between thoughts and emotions and the significant role they play in the formation of illness, and specifically their impact on the immune system.
  2. The evolution of allopathic medicine has separated the mind from the body and the mind and body from the soul, and has forgotten that when this separation occurs the physical body loses its vitality, thus leaving it susceptible to illness.
  3. The healing of the physical cannot occur without addressing all of its contributors including the thoughts and emotions that lie at the root-cause of illness.

If we were to look back in history to the physicians and metaphysicians of the past, we would be reminded of an old adage that they would adhere to in approaching the healing of illness “as a person thinketh, so shall they be.” These wise ancient healers understood that illness did not just happen to us, but rather it happened because of us, meaning that it was the quality of a person's thoughts and emotions that affected bodily functioning and that ultimately would lead to the breakdown of the physical body. They knew that the mind and the body imitate and imprint each other and that what affects one affects the other. University Medical Center professor of psychiatry, Donna Renshaw couldn't agree more as she maintains that “thoughts and emotions have to be expressed somehow, somewhere, and if they are repeatedly suppressed, and there is conflict about controlling them, then they often show themselves through physical ailments of the body.” Her research and that of Psychoneuroimmunologists who study the link between thoughts and emotions and their impact on the immune system, shows strong evidence that the susceptibility to illness increases when these psychological factors are present; the inability to express feelings and emotional needs, feelings that are not valued; social isolation and rejection, uncontrollable stress, the lack of resources, failed expectations, loneliness, feelings of helplessness, victimization, unresolved issues, mixed messages from those we love, and the presence of strong negative emotions such as fear, anger, resentment, cynicism, worry, grief, guilt and despair.

Illnesses and Their Psychological Roots

Take a moment and think about what it is like to be ill. How does it make you feel?   Does it feel restrictive and confining? Does it make you frustrated or angry? Do you find that it serves a purpose because it gives you the permission needed to justify slowing down from the hectic pace of your life? Does being ill elicit the nurturing and attention from other people you emotionally crave and need? When ill does your perception of the world shrink so much that all you can see is your life through the condition of your physical body? Do you attach to the illness in a way that it becomes your identity? For example. Do you refer to it as “my cancer,” “my cholesterol problem” or “my heart disease”? How you answered these questions reveals the kind of relationship that you might develop with an illness should one occur. Your answers also reveal the psychological roots, meaning the hidden thoughts and emotions that could ultimately increase your susceptibility to illnesses and to specific types of illness.

In order to better understand the connection between thoughts and emotions and illness, here are several examples of some of the more common illnesses and their psychological roots. However, it is important to remember that these descriptions are general in nature and are not intended to be interpreted as psychological or medical diagnoses. If you have any of these illnesses or display the psychological patterns associated with the illness, it is recommended that you seek the services of a medical or psychological professional or a holistic practitioner who is trained in their treatment.

Autoimmune Disorders – Autoimmune disorders are caused when the mechanisms of the immune system become imbalanced and the immune system reacts to normal body tissues as though it was allergic to them, thus making the body allergic to itself. At the root cause of any autoimmune disorder whether it is chronic fatigue, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia or AIDS there tends to be the psychological pattern of unrealistic self-expectations and self-directed anger – the kind of anger that causes a person to be allergic to themselves and to turn against themselves much like illnesses that cause the immune system to turn against itself. The people who tend to have the highest susceptibility to these kinds of disorders are those who are immobilized by self-doubt, who never seem to find the personal satisfaction and gratification they seek and crave, who feel like they never fit in conventional social structures, who have a fear of failure, who do not trust, and who are relentless in their self-criticism.

Depression – Depression usually occurs when there is a disruption in the normal life balance, a loss, conflict or trauma, and rather than being a single illness or condition, it is believed to be the result of group of mood disorders that strike with varying intensity. The medical cause of depression is difficult to pinpoint, however if looked at psychologically, there are specific predictable thoughts and emotions. Some of the most common psychological factors include feelings of hopelessness, disappointment and despair, perceptions that life has let them down, other people have let them down, and feelings that they are not emotionally supported by those they love. They display the behavior of victimization stemming from the belief that they do not have control over their life or what happens to them or the choices they have. They feel that life is against them and that being alive is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Diabetes – Diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions as more and more people are feeling the sweetness of life is slipping away and that the burdens of life are overriding their ability to enjoy it. When life loses its sweetness, there is a tendency to look to other things to feed the deep sorrow and loss we are feeling. Food in many cases fills that need. Yet, the foods that we crave to psychologically give us what we need are not necessarily those that support the health of the body. The psychological roots underlying diabetes are associated with the feelings of lack of love, lack of happiness, lack of joy, lack of abundance, lack of hope, and lack of the ability to find and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. People with diabetes tend to long for what was and express a deep dissatisfaction with life. Many times, they believe that they do not deserve to have their needs met, and see themselves as not being worthy of the pleasures that life offers. Deep within them there is suppressed grief and embitterment which colors their perception of life, thus causing them to feel inadequate and unworthy.

Cancer - This is one illness where allopathic and behavioral medicine agree – both consider it to be the disease of the nice people, meaning that there is a higher predisposition for this illness in people who suppress their feelings and emotional needs; who are inclined to avoid conflict at all costs even at their own expense, and whose tendency is not to make demands on people because they do not want to be seen as a burden or too needy. Cancer-prone personality types are the people who tend to feel that they need to put the emotional needs of others before their own. And, while being considered a desirable and admirable quality, it tends to suppress the expression of feelings and personal needs and desires. This type of behavior encourages martyrdom and supports the fear of abandonment. One of the most common responses when a person with cancer is asked why they want to heal themselves is, “I want to heal for my spouse or children”, but rarely is it for themselves. It seems that even when their own mortality is threatened, they still will put the needs of others before their own. Some of the other psychological roots associated with cancer are loneliness, hopelessness, helplessness, pessimism, resentment, and feelings of powerlessness.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – Once considered primarily caused by the general fatigue that comes from overworking, we now know that this syndrome is actually the result of an autoimmune system disorder – a disorder that interestingly affects more women than men. Perhaps, if we look the psychological roots underlying this disorder, we can better understand why this is the case. The most common underlying cause associated with chronic fatigue syndrome is the frustration that comes from never having the time to do what is important. People with this syndrome suffer from what Dr. Stephen Covey calls the “urgency addiction,” meaning being driven by the need to do what is urgent rather than doing what is important. People with CFS consistently express that before their illness they felt that their lives were out of control, their calendars were over scheduled, they experienced emotional numbness, and they seemed to run from one thing to another, never having the time to slow down and enjoy life. They complained of people draining them of energy, always taking and never giving back. They did not have the time to do what they loved, rather spent their time tending to the needs and wants of other people. They suffer from what I call the NO Syndrome, meaning the inability to say no. People suffering from this illness seem to have difficulty delegating tasks and responsibilities, and believe that if they do not do things personally, they will not be done right.

Heart Disease – If ever there was an illness where personality plays an important role its creation, it would be heart disease. The people who are most prone to heart disease are those who display Type A behavior. They are the people who live with constant and prolonged stress; who seem to struggle for all that they have; who are angry, resentful, hostile, cynical, argumentative, and who display aggressive, controlling behavior. This disease stems from the perception that life is hard and difficult, and that achieving one's goals is a fight and an uphill battle. When asked about their life, people with heart disease express a deep sadness and emptiness inside. They feel that life has passed them by and they harbor resentment for having to carry the responsibility of providing for other people. Many express feelings of being taken advantage of, feeling insecure, and having the fear of losing what they have worked so hard to accumulate. They tend to be skeptical and do not trust people, and in many cases don't even trust themselves. People who have suffered a heart attack never complain of having to little to do, but instead complain about having too much to do. We are now learning that heart disease also represents a heart that is not filled with self-love, and consequently, becomes broken because it is unable to find the love it needs, craves, and yearns for through the love of others.

The Story of Our Lives

What we are learning about illness is that it tells the story of our lives and that those stories ultimately become our biology. We are learning that if a person believes that their illness is serving a purpose, feels that it is fulfilling a deep emotional need, owns it by personalizing and identifying with it, they become their illness. However, we are also learning that it is not all thoughts and emotions that contribute to the formation of illness, only those that are negative and that are self-directed. Only those that cause us to engage in self-destructive behavior and that lead us to create the false perception that we are less than who we really are. If we think of the stories of our lives as being a video tape that is constantly replaying itself over-and-over again through our experiences, it becomes easier to understand how those stories affect the health of the body.

Here is an example of how those stories manifest themselves in the body:
Ruth came to see me at the suggestion of her doctor because she believed she had diabetes, yet he was unable to provide her the diagnosis she expected and strangely enough wanted. Because of our working together, he understood the connection between thoughts, emotions and illness and knew that if she continued her desire for diabetes, she would ultimately manifest it in her body. He thought that perhaps in our session we could uncover the psychological reasons behind her strong need to have this illness. Here is what was uncovered. Ruth did actually have a family history of diabetes and as a child saw how being sick made her mother's life easier, and many times could be used as a tool to get what she wanted, which was emotional support and love from her family. When Ruth reached a point in her life that trying to juggle the needs of the family with the demands of work became more than she could handle, she began complaining of always feeling tired and showing the diabetic symptoms that her mother had. She felt that there was no joy in life and that the struggle was taking away its sweetness and preventing her from giving and receiving the love she needed. She felt emotionally abandoned by her husband and felt inadequate in filling the emotional needs of her children. Consequently, she began to look for ways to escape the things that were placing so many demands on her. It seems that creating the phantom illness of diabetes was that answer. The unfortunate outcome of this story is that because she believed so strongly that she had diabetes, she did ultimately manifest the illness and did so in a way that it manifested as if she had it for many years.

But what about the person who eats right and exercises regularly and who seems to have everything going for them, and then suddenly dies of a heart attack at a very young age? All medicine can attribute it to is a family history of heart disease. Yet, looking at heart disease from a psychological perspective we uncover a very different story. Such is the case of Toby who died of a massive heart attack at age 45. Digging deeper, we find that Toby had always been an over- achiever and was continually suffering from unrealistic expectations of himself. He was dogmatic and relentless in his need to control both his environment and his family. He would work long hours to escape the demands of home and had a wife that he believed was never happy. Time seemed to be his worst enemy because he never could catch up with all that he had to do or never had enough time do what he wanted to do. Talking to his wife, she said that he always seemed to be angry deep down inside about something; people's inability to follow through on their commitments, people's inability to meet deadlines, people who refused to take responsibility for their actions, his employees who consistently took advantage of his good nature and who were always letting him down, his boss who would criticize and never praise, the government for high taxes, the cellular phone company for their bad service, and even the car dealer for not fixing the problems that he so clearly explained to them. When we really got down to it, while Toby appeared to have it all, he never was happy with himself or what he accomplished. He always wanted more, pushed for more, and looked to others to give him the love he needed rather than learning to love himself and showing himself the same appreciation that he showed others.

Changing Patterns – Changing Health

Change your thoughts – change your life. While we have most likely heard this over used cliché many times, it could very well be the answer to healing what ails us. When approaching the healing of the body, there are many techniques available that directly address the issues of the physical body. These techniques include changing diet, adding exercise, stopping smoking, minimizing the consumption of alcohol, using relaxation techniques, and getting more rest. However, if we are to truly heal, then we must begin with changing the thoughts, emotional reactions, and patterns of behavior that are responsible for the formation of the illness in the first place. Here are just a few suggestions to help get you started.

Change your perception from seeing illness as just something physical. Illness is the result of the mind, body and soul not communicating with each other. Each day do the things that bring joy to your life and that nurture your soul – laugh more, play, do something fun, and do things that are important first and that make you feel good about yourself.

Develop an awareness of your own needs. This doesn't have to be a complicated time consuming analysis. You can start on a small scale such as recognizing that you need a few minutes of quiet time when getting home from work before plunging into the demands of the family, or that you need to be able to spend time with your friends without feeling guilty or worrying about how others feel.

Discover your inner guide and learn to listen to it. This inner guide is not your conscious mind, it is your intuition. How do you tell the difference? Your conscious mind is the one that nags you and that berates you for not doing something or for not doing it right. It creates anxiety and stress. Your intuition is the voice of your soul and it offers alternative solutions to old problems, it creates the awareness that there are thoughts and emotions that are not serving you well. It creates excitement and stimulates the need for change. If you are used to listening just to the rhetoric and demands of your conscious mind, this one make take some practice and concentration. However, the benefits for doing so are many.

Reframe your feelings about emotions. Emotions serve as a barometer to let you know how strongly you feel about something and how much you are feeling compromised. When you experience anger, it is trying to tell you that whatever is causing it needs to change, and change now because it is putting you in an unhealthy situation. Anger reveals the extent of the personal compromise you are experiencing and it is telling you that your personal boundaries have been crossed. When you find yourself feeling angry, find ways to express it that are not destructive to you or to the other person. Learn how to work through it without compounding it with other emotions such as guilt, worry, or resentment. And, most importantly, set some healthy boundaries and let other people know when they have crossed them.

Eavesdrop on your self-talk. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. When you hear yourself saying things that you would not say to your worst enemy – stop. Negative self-talk creates false perceptions about who you are and what you are capable of accomplishing. It creates mental barriers that support the replaying of old tapes and that keep you caught in self-destructive behavioral patterns. Develop a gratitude attitude toward yourself and learn to sing your own praises.