Symptoms are like warning lights or gauges in your car. When the oil light goes on in your car, would you take it to the closest gas station and ask the mechanic to rip out the light? Would you tape over it so you can go about your business? Then why go to the doctor looking only for relief of symptoms? You may miss a warning signal that can help you prevent a future catastrophe.
Careful histories of people who come down with serious illnesses almost always reveal earlier warning signs that were ignored or treated superficially. Doctors commonly see patients who have treated their stomach pain for years with medications -- palliating, tolerating, or ignoring the signal that something is out of balance until something more serious, like a heart attack, brings the message home.
Unfortunately, we are not usually taught that our bodies are intelligent and can communicate with us. We are disconnected from our body language, just as we are from our emotions. We have somehow given away our birthright in the area of health and healing. We have come to assume that, yes, a symptom is a message -- but that all it's saying is "Go see your doctor!"
What would it be like if you were able to understand your symptoms and to use the self-healing intelligence of your body, your feelings, and your spirit? Why not ask yourself what you need and be receptive to the answers that come from deep within? Is it so strange, after all, to think that the intelligence that created your body in the first place would be able to let you know what it needed to be healthy?
Whatever created your body -- whether you call it God, nature, life, or DNA -- was smart enough to create your head. If it can create your head, why not a headache? And if it can create a headache, why not a thought that can tell you what the headache means?
Meanings and Functions of Illness
Illnesses may simultaneously express a person's distress and represent an attempt to relieve that distress. It is often useful to consider any benefits an illness may bring as a means of understanding its possible function.
In Getting Well Again, the Simonton group describes the five most common benefits their cancer patients listed when they were asked to identify positive things about having cancer. They were:
1) having permission to get out of dealing with troublesome situations or problems;
2) receiving attention, care, and nurturing from others;
3) having the opportunity to regroup psychologically to deal with a problem or find a new perspective;
4) finding incentive for personal growth or for modifying undesirable habits;
5) not having to meet the high expectations of themselves or others.
Whether these factors play a role in the formation of cancer is unknown, but they are certainly important in the development of many other common illnesses. Further, even if they are not causative, benefits derived secondarily from illness may interfere with your motivation to recover. Identifying the possible advantages of having your symptoms or illness lets you begin developing healthier ways to accomplish the same objectives. At worst, if you recognize any benefits that come with being ill, you can make the best use of them.
Other potential benefits of illness have been identified by many clinical observers. Dr. Gerald Edelstein is a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist in the San Francisco Bay area. In his book Trauma, Trance, and Transformation, he reviews and paraphrases the work of another well-known psychotherapist, Leslie LeCron, who suggested that there are seven common unconscious reasons for the development of symptoms. They are:
1. The symptom may be a symbolic physical expression of feelings you are otherwise unable to express. This can be called "organ language" -- having a broken heart, a pain in the neck, not being able to stomach something, getting cold feet, feeling weak in the knees, putting something behind you, and so on.
2. The symptom may be the result of an unconscious acceptance of an idea or image implanted earlier in life. Thus, the message "you're a bad girl, and no one worthwhile could ever love you" repeated often or under particularly emotional circumstances could result in poor self-image, depression, self-destructive behavior, and difficulty in relationships later in life. In a real sense, we are all hypnotized as children. We look to our parents, and later to our teachers and peers, to define our sense of self. The images we form of ourselves in these early years often form the unconscious basis for patterns of feelings, behavior, and physiology later in life.
3. The symptom may result from traumatic experiences that have been highly emotional and then generalized. Edelstein feels that such experiences are often at the base of phobias. Someone badly frightened by a dog, for example, may expect all encounters with dogs to be similarly bad. While these symptoms tend to be behavioral or psychological, they may also manifest physically.
4. The symptom may provide benefits or solve a problem, as the Simonton list indicates. If so, a person's focus needs to be on ways to enjoy the benefits without having to be sick.
5. A symptom may be the result of an unconscious identification with an important, beloved person in your life. The "anniversary illness" is a well-known phenomenon in medicine. People may fall sick on or near the anniversary date of someone's death. Frequently, the symptom is similar to the symptoms the deceased person experienced. The identification may also be with people still living or with historical or fictional roles. One patient of mine with cancer was shocked to find through her imagery that, as a child, she had always imagined herself as an actress playing the role of a heroine who dies a tragic, dramatic death. She was struck by the similarity of this scenario to feelings she was experiencing about her current illness and its effects on the people around her, and she began imagining herself instead as a heroine who overcame and survived adversity.
6. A symptom is often a manifestation of an inner conflict. You may have an unmet need or desire that feels forbidden by family, friends, society, or one's own inner judgments. The symptom may prevent you from carrying out a forbidden action or may allow you to fulfill the desire symbolically. Sometimes it does both at once.
A priest I once saw as a patient had an extremely painful immobile right shoulder. It prevented him from using his right arm and had not responded to extensive conventional treatment. He said it was so painful that he wasn't able to carry out his responsibilities as a priest and had asked his superior for a sabbatical leave. In an imaginary session he saw himself angry, righteous, and carrying a placard on his upraised right arm. The anger and placard spoke directly to grievances he had with the church bureaucracy that he hadn't been able to express effectively. As he began to share these feelings, he saw how his painful shoulder simultaneously allowed him to stop doing work he didn't believe in and to express his pain and anger to his organization. He also saw, however, that the message was disguised, unclear, and less effective than it would be if he were to articulate it openly. He realized his need to come to terms with the issues involved. During the weeks that followed, he was able to clarify his own values and bring his grievances to the proper authorities. His physical healing paralleled his psychological and emotional healing in an almost linear manner.
7. Symptoms may be a result of an unconscious need for self-punishment. This dynamic often results from the childhood hypnosis mentioned above, whereby you have unconsciously accepted a message that you are bad and need to be punished. It may also be an unconscious attempt to atone for a traumatic event for which you feel responsible or an attempt to prevent something from happening again. Children often feel they are to blame for their parents' unhappiness, illnesses, alcoholism, divorces, and so forth. They may carry this unconscious sense of guilt until it is unearthed and worked through. Disguised and under the surface, it may manifest in many ways in their lives -- as physical pain, illness, failed relationships, or underachieving.
There may be more than one factor at work in the formation of a particular symptom, and there may be factors other than those mentioned. When you explore your own imagery, any of the above dynamics may become apparent, or your symptoms may represent other needs or functions. For now, notice whether any memories, images, or strong emotions were triggered by any of the dynamics mentioned above. They may be helpful clues as you continue to explore the personal meaning of your symptoms.
The Saving Grace of Illness
The first time I became aware of the possible benefits of an illness was when I was at the University of Michigan Medical School. I had just started my three-month rotation on pediatrics and had been assigned to the university hospital ward, where the sickest children were treated. As we made rounds with the chief resident, he told us each child's history, both medical and personal. I felt increasingly depressed as I heard the stories of these small children with serious illnesses.
I had at that time very little awareness of my own emotions. I was learning to be a doctor, and in the 1960s the medical students and doctors I knew didn't discuss their feelings about illness. Then, a remarkable thing happened. As we sat around the conference table after rounds, the chief resident put his head in his hands and began to cry. His crying turned into deep sobbing, and through his tears he said, "I can't take it anymore... I can't stand to see one more kid die." The attending staff physician told us to go home for the day as he moved to comfort the chief. The next day, the chief resident quit. The day after, I developed severe nausea, a fever, and extreme weakness.
I underwent the kind of medical workup that is only possible at a university medical center. My liver was enlarged, and my liver enzymes were abnormal, but everything else looked fine. I had some type of hepatitis (the cause never was identified) and was not allowed to return to the wards until my lab tests were normal. I was very ill for a few days, then moderately ill for a few days, and I felt fairly well after that, though I tired easily. My liver-function tests remained elevated, however, for two and a half months. I had my first normal lab panel the weekend my pediatrics rotation ended.
While I never thought at the time that I got sick because of my pediatric experience, I was aware that, after the first few days when I was really sick, I was grateful not to have to go back to the wards. If I consider this illness in light of the functions I have reviewed, I can see that it relieved me from a responsibility I didn't want to have, and it gave me time to think a great deal about whether or not I wanted to continue in medicine. To some extent I think that I identified with the chief resident, whose feelings and honesty I admired. Looking back, I have no doubt that this illness served an important function for me.
It is often easier to see the benefits of illness in retrospect. It may be useful to you to review previous experiences you've had with illness before exploring what is happening now. Dennis Jaffe, a noted health psychologist and author of Healing from Within, offers a helpful way to do this.
Dr. Jaffe recommends you take a large sheet of paper and draw a time line across the bottom, with marks for five-year periods. Above this line, mark important health events in your life -- serious illnesses, recurrent health problems, and accidents. Above that, note the important events and changes in your life during those periods. Notice if there seems to be any correlation between stressful events, or clusters of changes, and your health.
Be open, receptive, and nonjudgmental as you consider illness from this perspective. Few people would ever choose illness consciously. Your purpose is to discover what your unconscious response may have been to a difficult situation so that you can more consciously play a role in your recovery. When you discover the purpose of your symptom, you have a chance to develop ways to fulfill that purpose that may not require you to be ill at all.
Using Imagery to Explore Your Symptoms
While you may have found the above list of considerations useful, they are essentially left-brain methods of analyzing the meaning of your illness. A simpler, more direct way to understand your symptom is to relax, focus your attention on it, allow an image to come to mind that can represent the symptom, and then have an imaginary conversation with it. Ask it why it's there, what it wants from you, what it needs from you, and what it's trying to do for you.
As you begin to work with imagery in this way, you will need to address several points. One of these is the difference between a diagnosis and the personal meaning of your illness. I have already discussed the necessity of making sure you have a clear understanding of your medical condition and your treatment options. While no one should be forced to have medical treatment, I believe you deserve the best possible assessment of what conventional medicine has to offer. Once you understand your condition on that level, however, you need to explore the personal meaning of your symptoms. To do this, you must temporarily put aside the diagnosis you have been given.
Most people, doctors included, don't realize that a diagnosis is not a "real" thing. A diagnosis is the way we classify a certain pattern of findings in a given system of medicine. Patients with the same symptoms and signs of illness will have different diagnoses depending on when and where they live and the systems of medicine practiced there.
For instance, a patient with vertigo and ringing in the ears may be diagnosed as having Ménière's syndrome by a Western physician. A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, however, might diagnose the same patient as having "yang fire of the liver rising". In another culture, a shaman might say that an evil spirit has entered the sufferer's head.
To most of us, the Western doctor's diagnosis sounds the most authoritative and scientific, until we look closely at what it means. Ménière's syndrome is defined as "a syndrome believed to be caused by some derangement of the inner ear, characterized by hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo, which may be severe and chronic". In other words, by diagnosing your problem as Ménière's syndrome, your doctor is telling you that you have ringing in the ears and dizziness. The diagnosis is simply a label.
In this instance, as in many others, our medical system of classification fails to meet the two most important criteria of a diagnosis, from the standpoint of the patient. It neither clarifies the nature of the problem nor leads to an effective remedy. This is why it is important to realize that a diagnosis is a name, not a life sentence.
People have widely varying reactions to most illnesses and to most treatments. While there is an "average" or "typical" course of an illness, there are almost invariably exceptions that are important to know about. You should learn about the typical course of your illness, but you should also ask your doctor about exceptional patients he or she has known. Do some people do better than others? What seems to make the difference? If you have a serious illness, then ask if anyone has ever recovered from it. What's the best possible course of the illness? Will your doctor be willing to support your efforts to recover, or does he or she think they are "unrealistic"?
Hope is a very important component of healing, and there is a difference between hope and false expectations. A patient of mine with breast cancer told her radiation oncologist that she had great faith in him and felt that he was going to help her overcome her cancer. He told her that he would do his best but didn't want her to get her hopes up. Shocked, she told him, "Doctor, I'm doing everything I can to get my hopes up! Without hope, what do I have?" As Dr. Bernard Siegel, a cancer surgeon at Yale says, "In the absence of certainty, there is nothing wrong with hope."
The point I'm making here is that diagnosis is important because it allows you to assess your medical treatment options. When you use imagery to explore your symptoms, however, focus on your symptoms as you experience them and temporarily set aside what you have been told about your illness. If you have back and leg pain, and it has been diagnosed as coming from a herniated disc, use the pain, not the disc, as the focus of your imagination. If you have an illness without symptoms, then focus on the involved area of your body.
Reprinted with permission (©2000) of
H J Kramer/New World Library, Novato, CA
800-972-6675, ext. 52, or www.newworldlibrary.com.
About The Author
Martin L. Rossman, M.D., is a physician and board certified acupuncturist, practicing holistic medicine since 1972. As cofounder and codirector of the Academy for Guided Imagery, he has taught therapeutic guided imagery to over ten thousand health professionals. Through his writing, workshops, and tapes, thousands of people have learned to use imagery for their own self-healing.