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How to Overcome Chronic Illnesses

A closer look at how chronic illnesses develop and what we can do to regain health!

When I first started getting sick, I only looked at the physical, and I started seeing conventional doctors. Since they were not able to help me, and only offered medications, I started seeing nutritionists, osteopaths, functional medical doctors, and any type of doctor that was willing to consider diet and supplements to treat the symptoms I was battling. While changing my diet and taking supplements helped in the beginning, over the long run I started getting sicker and sicker. I continued to eat healthy, I removed toxins from my home, I turned off my WiFi at night, and I continued to take supplements. Nothing helped!

When I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease in 2011, I was almost excited. I thought I had found the source of all the diagnoses I had acquired at this point, and started researching it extensively. What I read was terrifying, and I wanted to see the best Lyme literate doctor I could find. The Lyme literate doctor I wanted to see happened to be located in Seattle. and I took regular trips from Nashville to Seattle 3 to 4 times a year. I would usually spend a week at the clinic, during which time I got various treatments (sauna, colonics, vitamin/mineral infusions, MSM infusion, injections, and more). It was not fun and it was incredibly expensive. None of the doctors I saw over the years took insurance.

What I neglected to address during my 14 years of chronic illness, is my emotions. I knew my life was stressful, being chronically ill alone is stressful, and I knew my childhood was tough, but I didn't understand that childhood trauma or trauma later in life, and extreme amounts of stress, can actually lead to physical symptoms and illnesses in the body. I had a huge folder with labs indicating that things were not right in my body, how could all this be due to emotions?

In her book Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, does an amazing job explaining why and how brains of children with childhood adversity (trauma) develop differently than in children who have a normal childhood. Side note, when we think of childhood trauma, we usually imagine the big traumas, like physical abuse or sexual abuse for example. However, trauma is anything that is out of the norm for a child at any given age. Trauma can be growing up with a mother who is dealing with depression, parents who divorced, or being bullied, to name a few. In my case it was being left with my grandparents in Germany at age 10, while my parents moved to the US. That's a long story for another time.

Not only does trauma set the stage for living in fight or flight, even when there is no real danger, but these changes in the brain lead to physical symptoms in the body much later in life. When we constantly live in fight or flight, the body cannot function normally. During a true fight or flight situation, say you are being chased by a bear, your brain is not concerned with digestion, sex drive, hormone regulation, and other normal functions. Your brain knows that the most important thing is to get you out of that situation and so it shuts down normal functions, and increases adrenaline and other hormones to get you out of danger. People who have had trauma, live in a constant state of flight or flight and the body does not function properly. This is referred to as mind-body syndrome (Dr. Sarno, who dealt mostly with chronic pain, called it TMS).

This is a very condensed version of how chronic illnesses develop. There is obviously more to it and this leads me to the first step in overcoming chronic illnesses that are due to mind-body syndrome. Take a self-assessment. If you have already done that, and the assessment indicates you have mind-body syndrome, you might consider seeing a mind-body doctor. It's not necessary, but it can help you overcome any doubt in the mind-body diagnosis.

If you are reasonably sure that you have mind-body syndrome then the next step is education. For most people, just taking an assessment is not enough, especially if you have been sick for a long time. The reason is that we live out of the subconscious 80-90% of our day, and it's much harder to convince the subconscious mind, than it is to convince the conscious mind, that you are not broken. On my "What is TMS" page I list several resources to get your started. The book I mentioned above is one of them.

Next you need to go back to living your life as normally as possible. If you are still going to physical therapy, afraid to work out, taking supplements, following special diets, and drinking adrenal cocktails (not a true cocktail) twice a day to support your adrenals, you are communicating to your brain that something is wrong with your body. Don't worry, you don't have to change everything at once. You need to go at your own pace, as you feel comfortable.

Technically this is all you need to do. It's having wrong beliefs that holds people back from being free from all symptoms. As long as you believe that your body is "broken," and that you need special diets, supplements, heating pads, and treatments, you will not heal. Doubt leads to fear and fear is the fuel for the brain to keep symptoms going. Let me explain that. Your symptoms developed because of emotional trauma, or maybe you had an actual accident that led to pain. The symptoms are scary and you fear them. Fear signals danger to the brain and if the brain senses danger, it creates more symptoms. It's a vicious cycle - one that can be broken!

Our beliefs are so powerful that they can heal us, but they can also hinder us from healing. The placebo effect is the best example for this, so let's look at a few examples:

  • In 2002, patients with osteoarthritic knees, were given fake knee surgery. The pain relief they got was the same as those who had had the actual surgery. Link to study here.

  • In 1962 a study was done with children who were extremely allergic to poison ivy. When their arms were rubbed with a harmless leaf, but were told it was poison ivy, they had an allergic reaction. Pretty fascinating, but even more fascinating, when their arms were rubbed with actual poison ivy, but they were told it was a harmless leaf, they had NO reaction. Y. Ikemi and S. Nakagawa, "A Psychosomatic Study of Contagious Dermatitis," Kyoshu Journal of Medical Science, vol. 13:pp. 335-350(1962).

  • People with multiple personality disorder can have diabetes, allergies, problems with eye sight, and other medical conditions in one personality, but these medical conditions don't exist in a different personality. One person, two personalities, one personality has diabetes and the other one doesn't!

These are just a few examples of the placebo effect and the power of the mind. I included these examples to show you, that what you believe has an effect on whether you will "heal" or not. With mind-body syndrome, the symptoms are very real (I've been there, I KNOW) but they are produced by your brain because your brain senses danger or wants to protect you. So there is really nothing to heal. You need to believe that your body is not broken, and overcome fear. This is why it is important to fully understand what is happening in your body, because understanding will lead to belief, and belief will eliminate fear, and symptoms will go.

For a few people, but definitely not the majority, this is all they need. Some people have read one of Dr. Sarno's books and had complete cessation of symptoms. Unfortunately for the majority of people it doesn't happen that quickly. That's why it is helpful to keep re-reading the information about mind-body syndrome repeatedly. There are also many techniques to help you calm your fear, while you are working on belief. Below are just a few:

  • Cognitive Soothing - giving yourself verbal messages of safety. This conveys a message of safety through the mind.

  • Somatic Tracking - observing symptoms mindfully and without fear. This conveys a message of safety through the body.

  • Meditation - focusing your mind on your breathing, a scripture or object. Meditation helps to bring you into the present moment. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and the better you get at staying in the present moment as you go about your day. I wrote about meditation here.

  • Evidence Sheet - write down times when you didn't have symptoms, then re-read your list every day. Finding exceptions to having symptoms is a powerful way to remove doubt and prove to yourself that you are ok.

  • Visualization - find a comfortable spot, close your eyes, and "see" yourself healthy. Engage all your senses. What do you see, is it cold or warm, what do you smell, who is there with you, how do you feel? Your brain cannot tell the difference between what is actually happening or what you are imagining.

I hope this post was helpful. If you have questions, or would like to learn more about mind-body syndrome, you can book a FREE 30 minute consultation with me here.

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