This post first appeared on Holistic Wellness:The Path to Wellbeing
People generally see physical symptoms as stemming from a bodily problem, and tend to react in one of three ways. Either they ignore the symptoms or treat them with over-the-counter medicines until they get to such a pitch that that they cannot ignore them any longer, or they go to the doctor seeking immediate relief. While diagnosis is important to rule out any serious problem, it is also important to understand the message that a physical symptom is sending about what is out of kilter in the person’s life. Rather than ignoring or killing the messenger, it is preferable to listen to the message.
Listening to symptoms is a way of creating health and healing. Seeing a symptom as a message and listening to it means recognizing that there is a connection between the body, mind and spirit. Just as bodily symptoms can affect the mind and spirit, so mental or spiritual discomfort can affect the body. These parts are not separate, but part of an indivisible whole. Mental or spiritual pain, especially when not acknowledged, can show up as physical pain or discomfort.
Parents might recognize this when a child frequently gets a stomach ache before school, and will ask what is happening at school that the child does not like. They often fail to recognize that their own aches and pains stem from something happening in their life that they do not like.
I had an example of this recently when a friend asked me why she might be experiencing periodic bouts of burning and itching in her arms. She had consulted her physician who could find nothing to account for these symptoms, and had then gone to an ayurvedic physician. After taking a careful history he had asked her what was getting under her skin. She said that nothing was. However, when I asked her about her most recent episode, it turned out that she had been annoyed by the way that a friend was behaving, but had not wanted to say anything for fear of upsetting him.
So one way to listen to symptoms is to look at them as a metaphor for something you are experiencing. Do you get a sore throat or a lump in your throat when there is something happening in your life that is difficult to swallow? Or did your angina start when something broke your heart? In my own life, a series of losses led to deep psychological pain which showed up physically as severe chronic pain from spinal stenosis. Even when there is a medical diagnosis that seems to be the cause of the problem, healing the psychological pain can lead to a lessening or the disappearance of the symptoms.
Another helpful way to listen to physical symptoms is to go into a deeply relaxed state and talk to them and ask them what they have come to tell you. Or you can focus on the symptom and form an image of it. This may trigger something that helps you understand the meaning of the symptom. It may be helpful to work with someone who can help you to become deeply relaxed and guide you through the process of communing with your symptoms.
Finally, if your illness or symptoms are long standing it is helpful to look at what was happening in your life when they first appeared. If the symptoms have waxed and waned over the years, create a timeline and note what was happening when they were most troublesome. This might confirm the mind-body link and can also help you to avoid flare-ups by either avoiding or managing specific situations that bring the symptoms on.
Working in this way and listening to symptoms does not mean that you should stop working with your physician on medical approaches to a diagnosed problem. However, letting your physician know of the mind-body link to your physical symptoms you have discovered will help her or him to tailor treatment that will be most helpful.
Do you agree or disagree with this take on symptoms? Leave a comment and let me know what you think. Does it fit with your experience?
picture from Rasmussen College, Green Bay