"...“natural healing” is to refer to a method of using your natural resources as much as possible to aid in recovery as well as to help prevent illness. These resources mobilize the body's natural defenses in addition to using the medical treatments available."
Recently, a user of my website contacted me to share her story. Struggling with a serious chronic illness, she has suffered from anxiety since becoming ill. This is a common, and very normal, scenario which I will discuss later. “Sherry” described her first experience in the hospital as “terrifying.” When she returned to the hospital more recently, she used the materials on this website during her stay.
”I spent time on your site. I used your meditation audios and enjoyed meditating. As a matter of fact, my blood pressure was really high at one point when I was so stressed out, but I just meditated and brought it down while the nurse was standing there. She was amazed.”
What Sherry and many others have found is that meditation and mindfulness help control physical symptoms. This is critical to care because if natural methods can be used not as much medication may be necessary. Why is that important? Primarily because we tend to be an over-medicated society and there is still much we don't know about drug interactions. Such as: can one drug interfere with the effectiveness of another with certain physical conditions? Or, can certain drugs when combined cause negative side effects? With all the medications on the market, research cannot answer these questions with any precision. It would require a research study for all of the different possible combinations which just isn't feasible.
Natural methods are essential to recovery and healing. The more an individual can assist the body in coping with and resisting illness, the chances for a positive outcome improves. Conversely, the more the individual engages in unhealthy practices, the more difficult recovery becomes.
Some people when reading these statements may feel helpless or overwhelmed. They may think “I'm too unhealthy already. What's the use?” or “It will take too much to make any changes. Too little, too late.”
However, the point of this article is to recognize that health involves one small step at a time. Anything you do to help mobilize your body's resources will aid in your recovery and reduce the impact of illness. Don't become overwhelmed by the big picture. Focus on what you can do today to make a difference in your health.
WHAT IS NATURAL HEALING?
This article was originally titled “Natural Healing: Reducing the Impact of Illness.” However, personally, I dislike the term “natural healing” because so often it has been used to imply the replacement of traditional medicine. However, the way I and many others use the phrase “natural healing” is to refer to a method of using your natural resources as much as possible to aid in recovery as well as to help prevent illness. These resources mobilize the body's natural defenses in addition to using the medical treatments available. They are an aid that help to improve the outcome of the medical treatments.
Therefore, medical treatments are often important and necessary. However, you need be able to distinguish when a treatment is necessary or when there may be a more effective natural method. When a proven natural alternative is available, consider using it.
For instance, anti-anxiety medication can be very effective at reducing anxiety but there may be a downside for many people: anti-anxiety medications can be addictive, they can have unpleasant side effects such as psycho-motor retardation (slowness and drowsiness) and memory impairment, and they can cause rebound anxiety when used for long periods.
Much research has been conducted showing that not only is meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation skills effective in reducing anxiety, these methods do not have side effects and have a much lower relapse rate than the anti-anxiety medications. Therefore, these natural methods may frequently be the treatment of choice.
In Sherry's case, having had a very bad experience with the anti-anxiety medications, she needed to find other means to help her with the anxiety. “It's shocking how willingly doctors prescribe anti-anxiety medications and how they will even push you hard to take them.”
Many medical professionals view anxiety or sleep disturbance or pain as just symptoms that need to be treated and don't look at the emotional causes or behavioral treatments. Some believe that it may take too much effort to teach patients to use relaxation or meditation methods. A pill is very simple to administer. However, the pill only reduces the symptoms, it does not mobilize the body's resources.
WHAT ARE THESE RESOURCES?
Our bodies are complex designs. We may be physically vulnerable and susceptible to illness. However, we also have mechanisms within our bodies that help aid recovery and cope with the assaults from the world around us. A few of these include:
1) Immune system
There are so many components to the immune system to help our bodies fight off disease, I couldn't begin to list them in this article (even if I understood them all). However, suffice it to say that the basic components such as our white blood cells and antibody system help to protect us from invasive diseases.
Believe it or not, pain is a resource within our bodies. The presence of pain brings our attention quickly to a problem so that the problem can be resolved or managed.
3) Hormonal system
Frequently, I refer to the stress hormones which are part of the hormonal system. Although I may refer negatively to cortisol (one of these hormones) because it has been implicated in the development of abdominal body fat which is a factor in heart disease, these hormones are actually part of the body's resources. Cortisol is released initially in small amounts to help the body cope with a stressor. It is the chronic release of cortisol that can cause problems.
Our bodies naturally release chemicals to help manage pain called endorphins, a morphine-like chemical. The natural management of pain helps us to cope with situations that may otherwise overwhelm our system. For instance, many people have reported that they did not experience pain when initially suffering a severe injury. This allows the individual to deal with the threat rather than focus on the pain.
5) Autonomic nervous system
When our bodies are threatened in any way, the autonomic nervous system is activated in order to deal with the threat. This may result in a shut-down of certain activities in the body while managing the threat. For instance, the digestive process may be slowed when managing threat which is why many people have gastro-intestinal distress when suffering from illness not related to that body system.
THE STRESS REACTION AND ILLNESS
I refer to illness or injury as an assault on the body because that is how the body experiences it—as a threat to the system. Often I find that people suffering from illness or injury (or recovering from surgery) don't recognize that their body has been assaulted. As a result, they tend to downplay the impact the illness may have on their system and ignore their body's need for recovery.
Many times they may even get messages from health professionals or others indicating “Recovery shouldn't take long. You'll be feeling like your old self in no time.” If they are not feeling better in the allotted time, they may tend to believe something is wrong with them when it may just be the normal recovery process.
However, the body recognizes that it has been assaulted. Which is why it mobilizes all its resources to fight back. Doing so takes energy which often results in secondary symptoms. These symptoms commonly include feelings of weakness, general feelings of discomfort, lack of energy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and depressed mood.
These symptoms arise due to the need for the body to rest when it is trying to recover from the assault of illness or injury. The body will tend to shut down any unnecessary processes when it is recovering. Thus, fatigue is common because the body doesn't want to be expending energy on unnecessary activity.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MANAGING ANXIETY
Anxiety is frequently associated with illness for two reasons. One is that the natural defense system of the body becomes activated with the stress response. The other is that chronic illness creates concern and worry regarding possible outcomes.
1) Anxiety Due to Defense System
When the body feels threatened it activates the autonomic nervous system. The purpose of this system is to prepare the body to respond. As such, it involves energizing the body, increasing muscular tension, and increasing vigilance. These reactions may be experienced by some as agitation or anxiety.
2) Anxiety Due to Worry
Actually, anxiety that is due to worry also activates the defense system that I described above. The difference is the cognitive component. Whereas, the above scenario is a purely physiological response, anxiety due to worry is created by thoughts. When an individual catastrophizes about possible negative outcomes, the autonomic nervous system becomes activated the same as above.
It is very normal to be anxious when confronted with a serious physical illness. In fact, I would think it abnormal not to have any concerns when you are dealing with an unknown situation over which you may not have control. However, it is important to manage the anxiety because it interferes with the job the body needs to do.
Referring to the Panic Assistance audio
, Sherry commented “Your talk on anxiety made some things click for me. When you said "You can stand it. Nobody dies from an anxiety attack" etc. it just made me realize yes I can stand it.”
I particularly love Sherry's comment: “If the Shaolin monks can break boards with their heads and meditate while hanging from a noose, I can control the situational anxiety that has come from dealing with physical illness.”
THE IMPACT OF MOBILIZING RESOURCES
What may not be readily apparent to Sherry is the benefit she may be receiving from the meditation to actually help reduce the impact of her illness. Although her illness is not common and therefore research regarding the value of meditation is not available for it, we do know that mindfulness and meditation reduces the severity of many common illnesses. It is reasonable to assume that the same mechanisms occur with other illnesses.
1) Chronic Heart Disease
Research conducted by Pischke and colleagues (2008) examined the relationship of lifestyle changes with reducing the impact of chronic heart disease (CHD) including diet, exercise, and stress management. The results indicated that the lifestyle changes improved overall psychological well-being and adherence to treatment.
Interestingly, stress management helped to prevent narrowing of the arteries independently of the benefit found with dietary changes. In other words, the improved psychological well-being associated with stress management has a physical impact on controlling heart disease. This appears to be consistent with studies showing the excessive release of cortisol, a stress hormone, plays a role in the development of heart disease.
Researchers reported improvement with diabetes self-care and blood sugars outcome based on adding a psychological component to a 1-day diabetes education class. The psychological component included mindfulness training and acceptance practice which is cognitive training focused on the specific thoughts regarding the illness. Such training helped to improve the individual's sense of ability to cope with the illness (Gregg et.al. 2007).
Cognitive-behavioral methods have been shown to be effective in improving the outcome of those with asthma (Lehrer et.al. 2002). I have experienced this myself. Although I don't have severe asthma, I have found that improving my lung capacity with exercise and being aware of my triggers has substantially reduced my reliance on medications.
More and more the CBT methods are being recognized as the treatment of choice (over medications) for long-term insomnia primarily due to the effectiveness of CBT combined with its lack of side effects or the addictive properties common to the medications.
Particularly interestingly is a systematic review of the medical literature in PubMed by Kozasa and colleagues (2010) which concluded that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is more effective than sleep medications for long-term insomnia.
5) Pain Management
A review of the research shows the importance of the role of psychology as part of the team treatment of chronic pain (Turk & Burwinkle, 2005).
HOW DO I MOBILIZE THESE RESOURCES?
Determine what areas of your health over which you have some control and decide what action you can take. You don't need to change everything at once. Any steps in the direction of taking control will be helpful. You may not have direct control over the illness itself, but you may be able to use some of these methods:
1) Mindfulness, Meditation, Relaxation
(see article: Why Are Meditative Relaxation and Mindfulness Important?
for more info)
These methods have been shown to help reduce certain chemicals in the system. For instance, they help return the autonomic nervous system back to normal functioning by releasing norepinephrine which has the opposite effect of adrenalin (or epinephrine). In addition, they reduce the release of cortisol.
In other words, these methods help to calm the body and restore the body to a healthy state of equilibrium. Instead of the body continuing to throw more and more weapons at the problem, it is able to recover, regroup, and get ready for the next event.
Think of it similar to watering a plant. Water is good for the plant. However, if you keep watering the plant when it doesn't need it, the roots become water-logged, develop rot, and the plant dies due to lack of water. By letting the soil dry out, the natural process for the plant works properly.
How we talk to ourselves affects the likelihood of engaging in positive health behaviors. Negativity and hopelessness lead to poorer outcomes due to not taking the necessary steps to improve health.
The meditation audios (Loving-Kindness and Compassion) involve both the meditation discussed above as well as self-talk. A review of the literature by Barnard and Curry (2011) indicates that self-compassion is related to a number of positive attributes. First, it is associated with positive mood states, a sense of well-being, and satisfaction with life. The development of self-compassion through cognitive and meditative methods tends to reduce negativity, depression, and anxiety. Such effects may be related to the reduced fear of failure as well as worry.
Certainly, exercise won't help when you are in the recovery stage of illness. The idea with exercise is to help your body function at its highest level generally. That way you maximize the potential of your resources so that when your body needs those resources to recover from illness, they are available.
Similar to exercise, the healthier you eat, the more you help your body function at its highest level. However, with nutrition it can help you (or hurt you) during the recovery phase. Stay away from foods that require a lot of energy to digest and focus on healthy foods that provide energy. Maybe that's why chicken noodle soup has always been the food of choice by moms when someone is sick.
Barnard, L.K. & Curry, J.F. (2011). Self-Compassion: Conceptualizations, Correlates, & Interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15, 289-303.
Gregg, J.A., Callaghan, G.M, Hayes, S.C. & Glenn-Lawson, J.L. (2007). Improving Diabetes Self-Management Through Acceptance, Mindfulness, and Values: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology Copyright, 2007, 75, 336–343.
Kozasa, E.H., Hachul, H., Monson, C., Pinto, Jr.L., Garcia, M.C., Mello, L.E., & Tufik, S. (2010). Mind-body interventions for the treatment of insomnia: a review. Revista Brasileira Psiquiatria, 32:437-43. Review.
Lehrer, P., Feldman, J., Giardino, N., Song, H.,& Schmaling, K. (2002). Psychological Aspects of Asthma. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 691-711.
Pischke, C.R., Scherwitz, L., Weidner, G. & Ornish, D. (2008). Long-Term Effects of Lifestyle Changes on Well-Being and Cardiac Variables Among Coronary Heart Disease Patients. Health Psychology, 27, 584-592.
Turk, D.C. & Burwinkle, T.M. (2005). Clinical Outcomes, Cost-Effectiveness, and the Role of Psychology in Treatments for Chronic Pain Sufferers. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36, 602–610.
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