How to Make Friends with Your Illness
Understanding Health and Illness Through a Nervous System Based Perspective
Making friends with your illness may seem like a wild and even misguided idea. But really, how has viewing your illness as your enemy been going? It has probably left you frustrated, discouraged, and feeling like a victim to your own symptoms. If we want to reframe your approach to healing, we have to look at it from a nervous system perspective. At its foundation, your nervous system is the great conductor of your body! Symptoms of health or illness are stimulated by a response from the nervous system. It is a giant sensory organ, assessment tool, and orchestrator.
Every moment of every day, your nervous system is taking in information. The nervous system primarily uses sensory cues to learn about its environment. Smelling, hearing, seeing, tasting and feeling are used to gather up information. The nervous system also responds to sensory information coming from inside the body, including blood sugar levels, the content and diversity of the microbiome, levels of essential nutrients available, overall toxic load, and much more.
This information is taken to the brain where complex filtering and assessment processes take place- only information perceived as most important makes it to our conscious cognitive awareness. That is part of what is so amazing about the nervous system! It is constantly taking in information for us and trying to distill it down to what is most important. This is happening all the time- we are not even usually aware of it but somewhere in our brain our nervous system knows what temperature the air is, all the nutrients present in the food we have eaten that day, the ambient sounds and smells in the room, the current levels of your blood sugar, among many other pieces of important information.
Why is the nervous system always working so hard in this way? Because it has a very important job. The primary job of the nervous system is to RECOGNIZE POTENTIAL THREATS. With this constant information intake and assessment the nervous system is at all times asking, “How safe am I right now?”
Every decision the nervous system makes about how to modulate your bodily systems from all the information it is taking in and assessing is related to answering the question: How can I keep myself alive? How can I survive any potential threats that exist in this situation? What can I do to get through these next few moments safely?
The nervous system is incredibly perceptive. It is picking up on massive amounts of information from both our external environment and inside our own bodies. Only a small amount of it trickles up to the surface of our conscious awareness. Our nervous system contains more information than we could possibly comprehend- we would become instantly overloaded if we were aware of it all. For this reason, we are the descendants of those who have been kept alive for millions of years by a deeply wise and perceptive nervous system doing most of the survival work for us behind the scenes.
This framework is essential when understanding the roots of mental and physical illness. When we are having symptoms, whether it is disrupted digestion, depression, panic attacks, autoimmune flares, or anything else, we must look at the function of the nervous system in causing this problem. If we assume that the nervous system is constantly pushing for our survival, why would it allow such uncomfortable and even sometimes life threatening symptoms to occur? It can be easy to start viewing the body as an annoyance, nuisance, or even a direct enemy to our wellbeing.
But in fact, the nervous system it is a sacred protector, and our symptoms are its tools. Everything the nervous system does is to promote our survival. Even if long term that means we experience negative symptomology as a result.
One way that symptoms can promote our survival is to send us a message. Sometimes, a very clear one! “Something is wrong”, the nervous system says. We get a stomach cramp, a heart palpitation, feel out of breath, get stuck in a fog of fatigue. This is the alert system of our body. It says, “Pay attention, something is out of balance here. I’m struggling. I need more support.”
Another way that symptoms can manifest is as a side effect from a survival attempt by the body. That is, in the face of a stressor, the body tends to think in short term survival. As it finds a path to ensure short term survival, it may cause uncomfortable long term symptoms, but that is not the nervous system’s primary concern. An example of this would be the effect of cortisol on insulin resistance. When faced with chronic stress, the body can begin to strip the sugars out of food and store it as fat. Long term, this can result in diabetes, but short term, it prevents potential starvation.
Even in the face of painful, debilitating symptoms, we still must understand the logic of the nervous system. It is using these symptoms as a powerful communication mechanism (to send a red alert into your conscious awareness). These symptoms may also be a side effect of an important short term survival pathway being used. While the uncomfortable symptoms may seem incomprehensible, you can be assured that your nervous system knows much more about what is happening in your body and what is necessary to keep you alive than you do.
If we take this approach, we can come to the conclusion that there is a reason for every possible symptom you may be having- and a good reason at that. What a shift in perspective this can cause! We can get rid of harmful rhetoric that frames us as fighting against our body, eliminating our symptoms, or waging war against our illnesses. Instead, we can trust that there are important reasons why everything we are experiencing is happening. We can shift our goals to allow healthy patterns to reinstate themselves in the body, to promote a sense of safety in our nervous system, to rebalance, and to work with the nervous system as opposed to against. This collaborative perspective will completely shift your relationship to your own body and any manifestations of illness you are experiencing.
By rejecting the concept of dysfunction, we recognize that every so called “disorder” is actually an intricate strategy of the body to stay alive, and an attempt to distinctly signal a need or imbalance. In this view there is truly is no such thing as illness, only a body in need that is currently unsupported by its environment.
What does this shift look like in practice? We change our mindset from antagonistic to collaborative. We see our nervous system as always making the wisest choice to promote our survival, whether we understand it completely or not. We see each symptom as a finely tuned message to help us provide the proper support to our body’s natural and profound healing capacity.
We change our language from that of waging war against our symptoms to deep acceptance of and surrender to our symptoms. That does not mean we accept being sick. In fact, it is essential that we maintain faith in our nervous system- that it has the capacity to heal and that eventually our symptoms will begin to subside when supported properly. What it means is that we no longer have the mentality of fighting a battle with ourselves, but rather become fully integrated with the wisdom of our bodies as a comrade in the journey towards wellbeing.
We shift from fear of our symptoms to curiosity for them. This is a difficult task when symptoms can be frightening and even life threatening. Severe symptoms of this nature should always be taken seriously. An investigatory attitude allows you to really examine the messages your body is sending you and provide the support it is asking for with more consistency and discipline. We have a tendency to shut down from fear, but open up in the face of learning and growth opportunities. See your symptoms as the latter.
Shift from feeling anger and despair towards your body, and instead cultivate compassion. Experiencing severe illness is devastating. It is completely valid for people to feel a mixture of betrayal, rage, depression and even hopelessness. You may feel lost in your own sense of yourself. These feelings should not be pushed aside or left unacknowledged. A grieving process is an essential first step in healing. You will be leaving behind a lot of what you have taken for granted. As you move through the grief, however, we can come to a place of self compassion. You are having symptoms because something is actively blocking your nervous system from allowing you to thrive. Your nervous system wants you to thrive! It wants you to hunt, gather, explore, connect with others, reproduce, and find spiritual and life fulfillment. If it is forced into survival mode and sending you uncomfortable symptoms as a result, there are concrete reasons for this. Sending your nervous system all the warmth, kindness and understanding you can muster is a powerful tool in learning to collaborate, be curious, and work with yourself on this journey.
Stop masking your symptoms. We are a culture obsessed with avoiding pain and reducing symptoms. And in doing so, all we accomplish is to send our nervous system the message that it needs to stop communicating with us. This is not a recommendation to immediately throw away any prescribed medications for severe and life threatening conditions. Quality of life is important, and sometimes these medications can help us cope in the short term. In the long term, they are not the solution.
Stop rushing the process. Many people have complex and overlapping imbalances that manifest as their unique combination of mental and physical health symptoms. These imbalances take a long time to untangle and unwind from each other- they have likely been slowly building for your entire life, whether you were consciously aware of it or not. Stop thinking in days and weeks and start thinking in months and years. Healing becomes a lifestyle when we switch to this mindset. Your body will feel the sense of slowness and expansion when you begin thinking this way and your healing will actually progress faster as a result.
At the core, our goal is to signal safety to our nervous system. Our bodies accumulate imbalances when they are faced with stressors that are overwhelming. We switch into survival mode as a result. Alert signals begin to go off, making you consciously aware of what has been building internally for a long while. Mechanisms to ensure our survival begin unfolding, which can cause uncomfortable side effects even as they keep us alive. By shifting our internal and external environments to be oriented towards safety, our nervous systems will sense that we can come out of survival mode because we now have the resources needed to correct underlying imbalances we were overwhelmed by previously. Healing will happen spontaneously with the right supports in a safe environment.
Let’s get more specific. What does signaling safety to the nervous system look like in practice? These factors are ranked loosely from highest to lowest priority, meaning to start with #1 and see if this allows your symptoms to resolve naturally. Continue down the list until enough supports are provided for your body to begin to heal itself.
1. Getting enough sleep to promote rest and detoxification
2. Resolving sources of chronic stress, unprocessed trauma and suppressed emotions
3. Feeling a sense of community, connection and support to those around you. This can be spiritual connection and support as well.
4. Providing the proper nutrients to be the building blocks of all your cellular processes (this includes vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids)
5. Addressing blood sugar stability, which will balance your endocrine system and hormonal signaling
6. Addressing sources of synthetic toxins, such as EMFs, environmental and work place pollutants, heavy metals, personal hygiene products, cleaning products, cookware, other household items, and pharmaceutical medications
7. Addressing sources of organic toxins, such as overgrown parasites, fungus, bacteria, and viruses inside of our bodies
Remember, your nervous system is constantly taking in information. All of these factors can promote a sense of safety or a sense of danger. When the body becomes imbalanced from too many of these factors, our nervous system can become overwhelmed and switches into survival mode. From there, distressing symptoms begin to manifest as mental and physical illness. These symptoms are both messages alerting you to the needs your body has for increased support, and as side effects to the processes keeping your body alive under extreme stress. By shifting our mindset, language, and healing process to focus on collaboration, compassion, and safety building, we can help our nervous system feel supported again and healing will happen naturally and spontaneously. We cannot overrule the wisdom of the body, but we can learn to work with it.