By David Simon, M.D.
In my role as a “mind-body” physician, I hear many heartrending tales. Over the three decades I’ve been practicing medicine, I’ve come to see a person’s migraines, fatigue, digestive distress or back pain as a sad kind of admission pass that entitles the bearer to a few moments of a doctor’s attention.
After listening to people’s problems for so many years, I’ve learned that when I can create enough safety for the sufferer, an underlying story – a story that at its heart is about giving or receiving love – will be revealed to me. And if I as a doctor can coax the hidden meaning of the illness into the open, then healing can begin.
As you can imagine, seeking the emotional roots of a patient’s illness is not something I picked up in medical school. On the contrary, my conventional medical training taught me that my responsibility is to relieve symptoms:
Prescribe a pain reliever to subdue a headache; add an acid blocker to extinguish heartburn; sprinkle on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor to alleviate depression.
In this era of managed care, in which one out of four doctor visits lasts less than ten minutes, providing symptomatic relief for a person’s pain is a practical and worthy endeavor. There is indisputable value in lessening the symptoms of distress, and it is not my intention to disparage any approach that relieves the suffering of humanity. Still, long before beginning medical school I sensed that illness presents a deeper opportunity for healing and transformation, which we miss when we focus on symptom relief.
Hearing the Stories
Like a young child, the body communicates its needs in a relatively simple and straightforward manner. Whether it wants nourishment, affection, new experiences, time to rest, or an opportunity to release toxins, your body generates sensations to get attention. When you listen to these signals and address the basic needs they represent, your body responds by producing chemicals of comfort. When you fail to heed your body’s message, it gets louder. If despite its best efforts, your body is unable to get your attention, it may stop talking for a while, but when next heard from, will not be ignored.
When a doctor “fixes” someone without exploring the hidden meaning of the illness, the symptoms may abate but the unmet needs persist, and a person’s emotional and physical health remain vulnerable. A migraine sufferer’s headaches may be less intense with medication, but her insomnia becomes more troublesome. The pain relievers prescribed to reduce a lawyer’s backache lead to an escalation of his digestive complaints. Suppressing a stay-at-home mom’s anxiety with pharmaceutical drugs shifts her focus to chronic fatigue. The body is trying to tell us something, but instead of listening, the tendency of conventional medicine is to use drugs as more effective sound barriers.
If there were pills that could cure anxiety, alcoholism, obesity or irritable bowel syndrome without significant side effects, there would little reason not to take them. Sadly, there are few conditions causing human suffering that have surrendered to our “pill for every ill” approach. In the vast majority of cases, medicines lessen but do not eliminate symptoms and often carry side effects that are as distressing, and at times as dangerous, as the illness we’re treating.
An Alternative Alternative
What is the alternative? The word alternative carries a lot of emotional charge in healthcare these days. From the perspective of conventional medicine, alternative implies unproven interventions that keep people from accepting effective care. From the alternative health practitioner’s perspective, the word implies individualized therapies that relieve dis-ease, even if they have not been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny.
I have a different perspective. Although I embrace any approach that can provide relief to your body, mind or soul, I’m wary of interventions that retain the power in the hands of the health practitioner, whether it be a medical doctor, chiropractor, or herbalist. I’m pleased when an acupuncture treatment, homeopathic remedy or nutritional supplement eases someone’s functional bowel disorder or headaches; yet, I wonder how long the reprieve can last if awareness and healing of the underlying mind-body turbulence does not accompany the relief. If a person does not learn to heal the deeper love wound, another expression of the underlying story will emerge.
Responsibility, Not Blame
There is rarely a simple explanation for physical or emotional illness, and looking for the deeper story – the illness’s subtext, if you will – does not mean assigning blame when your body becomes ill or your mind becomes distressed. Pursuing the answer to why people become ill is only of value if it leads to more productive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The last thing a suffering person needs is the additional burden of thinking that they caused their illness or could have prevented it if they had made other choices. Responsibility and blame are not the same. One uplifts and empowers, the other weakens and depletes.
A close friend of mine recently discovered that her cancer had recurred after being in remission for several years. Her first question to me was, “What did I do to bring this back?” Knowing her enthusiasm for life, her love for friends and family, and her overall healthy lifestyle, I could not support her self-flogging over being too ambitious or trying to manage too many projects. Even if it were true (which I do not believe) this type of inner dialogue is unproductive. There is nothing we can do now about the past. We can take responsibility for the choices we make in the present moment.
Each week at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, I see guests struggling with challenges that at times seem overwhelming. Serious physical or emotional issues are exhausting, but when people are willing to look at the story behind their illness (which ultimately is a story they have been telling to themselves), do the work of releasing the toxic emotions they’ve been carrying, and begin thinking and doing things differently, healing and transformation occur.
The essence of responsibility is recognizing that regardless of what has happened up until now, we are capable of making new choices that can improve our situation moving forward. We always have the ability to respond in creative ways that allow for something new to emerge, for healing to unfold.
Take a moment now and tune into your body. See if there is an area that is calling for your attention – an aching in your back, acidity in your stomach, a pressure in your temples. Bring your full attention into the area and breathe easily.
Now in your imagination, ask your body what it is trying to tell you. What do you need to release that you are holding on to? What do you need to embrace that you are resisting? If your body reveals a need to you, see if you can commit to taking at least one step in the direction of fulfilling that need. Then check in again with your body and see if, as a result of being heard, it is willing to give you some relief.
Dr. David Simon is the medical director and co-founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California. His views on the relationship between emotional and physical health were shaped while studying shamanism as an anthropology student, and practicing meditation, yoga, and other holistic healing techniques. David Simon is also a best-selling author whose newest book, Free to Love, Free to Heal: Heal Your Body by Healing Your Emotions, has just been published by the Chopra Center Press. Visit www.chopra.com/love or call 888.736.6895 to learn more the book and David’s upcoming emotional healing workshops.