Our Symptoms Are There to Teach Us

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"Go after what gives you meaning in your life, and trust the stress that follows." How beautifully said.

In my practice, I see patients with many different conditions. While the physical components of their illnesses need to be addressed, they're rarely the most important part of their healing. Many times a belief (like "stress is harmful to my health") is influencing their thoughts, behaviors, and ultimately, their biochemistry. This subtle influence can have profound effects, especially over the long term. And while their bodies are capable of making some amazing "medicines", like oxytocin, certain conditions need to be met to release them.

As we heard in this TEDTalk, our thoughts are powerful. They're so powerful, they can change the course of diseases. When I was in naturopathic medical school I saw a patient* with recurring pain. She had been in a car accident, and had been well evaluated (and treated) for physical causes of the pain. Some of her treatments helped, but she would constantly have a moderate level of pain. Finally, she was referred to a shift I was working on, where we focused exclusively on mind-body medicine. I had no idea what I would do, but my attending doctor told me just to interview her with genuine curiosity. That, I knew I could do.

It took her a little while to warm up to me. Maybe she thought we couldn't help her. Maybe she believed I would say "this is all in your head!" in a dismissive, impatient tone. I did my best to convey to her, "even if this is all in your head, it still matters, because you're in pain." Eventually, she opened up.

She noticed her pain would completely go away when she was working on changing the direction of her life, but if her boss asked her to take on more responsibility and she agreed, the pain would return. -- Michael Stanclift, N.D.

She had succeeded in a career as an engineer. She was the only woman at her firm, and was well respected by her colleagues, but still she was unhappy. She felt she had wasted many years of her life fulfilling someone else's dreams with her career choice. Her car accident had given her the opportunity to take some time off work, but she was expected to go back soon. She and I met weekly for several months. We explored her beliefs, thoughts and behaviors, sometimes through guided visualizations or meditations. At one visit she shared a dream of hers, to move to Spain and become an English teacher. It turned out, the drastic life change she wanted was within reach.

She negotiated to return to work at the engineering firm part-time (for the same salary!), and started working on a move to Spain. She noticed her pain would completely go away when she was working on changing the direction of her life, but if her boss asked her to take on more responsibility and she agreed, the pain would return. At one visit she came in ecstatic she had finally bought plane tickets. At our next meeting she told me her pain had returned, worse than ever this time. I asked if she was still planning on going to Spain despite it. She lowered her head and said, "I refunded the tickets."

I realized that I had set up a situation where she felt like my judgment of her was dependent on her moving to Spain. This was the very sort of situation that had caused her to get in the rut she was in, and I wanted to break that cycle. Eventually I was able to communicate the message that I wanted her to be free from pain, and live a life that made her happy, whatever that was.

The semester ended, we had our last visit, and I changed rotations. She came into the clinic one or two more times, and I talked with the new clinician she was seeing. The patient still wasn't sure she could fully commit to the move, but had purchased non-refundable plane tickets, and was planning a trip to try it out. Most importantly, her pain hadn't returned.

The moral I learned from her story: Sometimes symptoms are there to teach us something very important. Taking time to reflect on, share, and attempt our goals can make all the difference in our suffering. If we listen to our bodies, and muster the courage to trust the message, we can change the course of our lives.

*Some details have been changed to protect the patient's identity.

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