Your mind has a powerful effect on your overall health and wellbeing.
I see this regularly in my job of working with people to help them get better or overcome chronic conditions. It became such a noticeable pattern in my work that I began asking people with chronic illnesses, “Why don’t you think you’re getting better?”
Often these people (mostly with chronic digestive issues like IBS or IBD) had been to countless doctors and practitioners and maybe they would get better for a while; maybe they wouldn’t see any improvement even if they were doing all the right things. It’s incredibly frustrating and a hopeless place to be when you’re working so hard to make changes in your health and nothing is happening.
That’s when I noticed a common thread with these cases: They had been struggling so long that they just didn’t believe they would even get better. They were taking all the right supplements, eating all the right things, yet they still had unresolved trauma or a belief system in place that told them they would never be well. Sometimes being sick was a comfort zone for them in some way. Familiar. Or they had toxic relationships, a stressful job or boss, or emotional stuff they hadn’t or couldn’t deal with.
Sometimes they were so mired in their health problems that they wouldn’t or couldn’t leave the house. They were down to eating only a handful of foods. Almost every single one had been diagnosed with several sometimes debilitating conditions. All of them struggled with anxiety and depression.
Why was this happening?
Well, from a scientific perspective, research suggests that our mental perception of the world constantly informs and guides our immune system in a way that makes us better able to respond to future threats (source). That means that our thoughts, our perceptions of our world and environment are not separate for our physical body (though Descartes, the famous philosopher who believed in mind-body dualism, or a separateness between mind and body, would disagree).
What that means is that if you think are unwell, or that you’ll never be healthy, your mind will get right to work making sure that happens for you. You create your own physical reality, in a sense. To add to that: If you have experienced trauma in your life, whether it be abuse, accident, serious injury, violence, or any other event that has altered your life significantly, this trauma can be “stored” in a sense in your body and manifest as physical or psychological ailments (source: The Body Keeps the Score). In other words, you have to deal with all the shit– including the emotional baggage–to be well. And it’s hard. That’s the true holistic model: healing mind AND body,
This can be very a very sensitive or tricky topic because it may make people feel that they’re contributing to their illnesses by not “thinking positively,” but that’s not the case here. Much of this can even be unconscious, meaning your thought patterns are so ingrained that you may not realize how they inform your belief systems. This is absolutely not a case of blaming the person for creating his/her own reality. However, understanding that this can be a very real factor means there are ways to reverse these stuck thought patterns.
4 Ways to Use Your Mind as an Ally for Healing
First off, if this post resonates with you in any way, I highly recommend seeking help from a therapist of psychologist who has experience helping people with trauma or illness. That’s a great first step. But there are also ways you can rewire and strengthen your mind so that your thoughts don’t become you. Remember: Don’t believe everything you think.
Secondly, this stuff takes practice. A LOT of practice. Even if if feels foreign or silly at first, keep with it. You’re literally forming new neuronal pathways in the brain (neuroplasticity), and that that takes time.
A few good ways to begin:
1.Believe that your therapies and your treatments will work for you. Remember, countless studies show the placebo effect influences the effectiveness of treatment. If someone tells you that a pill will cure your headache, you’re more likely to find the treatment helpful—even if the pill was a sugar pill. (source) So even if it feels fake, tell yourself you’re doing the right things and that they will work for you. Believe it. Visualize it happening.
2.Meditation. I’m including meditation in this list because studies show it literally changes your brain. It reduces stress and slows aging, but above all, meditation teaches you that you can control your thoughts. Your thoughts are always randomly firing, and sometimes weird stuff comes up that makes you go, “huh?” But you have the ability to detach and let go, to let the worry or negativity pass you by without believing or attaching to it. Again, this takes a lot of practice. It’s like building a new muscle, Don’t expect to just plop on a mat and become a master meditator. Start with 5, even 10 minutes a day,.Work up to 20 or 30. There are countless resources to help you find a meditation practice. Here are some of my favorites. If you have a hard time with mindfulness meditation (which is basically sitting on a mat and observing), try guided meditations. There are some great ones out there that offer mantras to help encourage healing.
3.Gratitude journaling. If you tend towards the negative, simply making a list of three things you are grateful for daily can have a huge impact on your thoughts. Humans are hardwired to consider negative outcomes: It’s literally what kept our ancestors alive. But some brains (like mine) tend more towards the negative, and soon you’re off and running. Cultivate positivity by giving thanks. And when the negative spiral starts, shift your thoughts away instead of going down the hole.
4. Certain non-traditional therapies like EMDR and EFT can be useful. EMDR uses a patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to remove emotionally charged memories of past traumatic events. EFT is a tapping therapy “psychological acupressure” that may help reduce the feelings of stress and anxiety associated with numerous mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specific phobias, and panic disorder. I’ve also seen that it’s effective for food and alcohol cravings or simply breaking out of negative thought spirals.
if this list is overwhelming, pick one and focus on it before adding another. Meditation and talk therapy are great places to start.
I’d love to hear from you. Have you found that addressing emotional issues or past trauma has positively impacted your healing journey?
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.