What if the cause of most of the illnesses were, in large measure,were a product of our minds rather than our bodies? For most of us, that idea would make us very angry because we know what ails us in definitely in our bodies. And according to John Sarno, MD, that anger might serve to make us even sicker.
Researchers are not saying that we’re hypochondriacs who purposely think ourselves sick; it’s just that many illnesses are products of the mind before they are symptoms in the body. According to Dr. Sarno, the source of illness is unexpressed emotions that sometimes are buried deep in our subconscious. These unconscious emotions incite real, physical pain and disease in the body but the underlying cause remains in the mind. The disease, according to this view, serves to distract us in order to protect us from the repressed emotions in the mind. Uncover the emotion, the symptoms disappear.
Illness Distracts to Protect
Sarno explains in his 2007 book, The Divided Mind, that when we can’t (or don’t want to) face our fears, angers, or frustrations our bodies comply by giving us physical illnesses to get busy fixing. When we focus on the physical, we can avoid the emotional.
For example, “unacceptable” emotions like anger and rage, according to Sarno, trigger back pain but the pain is not from a slipped or herniated disc or other physical cause (as research confirms). If it were, the pain wouldn’t disappear once the emotion is acknowledged through education or talk therapy. This disc remains compromised, but pain is gone. Sarno, and others, conclude that emotions buried in the subconscious mind are the underlying cause of the back pain (and a whole host of other illnesses).
It’s All in Your Head – And That’s Normal!
Psychosomatic is a word someone who is ill hates because when your doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong and tells you it’s all in your head, it’s frustrating. Infuriating. Crazy-making.
Yet, psychosomatic illness is neither an indictment of the suffering person nor a fantasy a doctor should condescendingly ignore. For Candace Pert, PhD, psychosomatic is not a pejorative term, as it’s traditionally been in medicine ever since Sigmund Freud discovered the unconscious. Psychosomatic illness is a reality of the biology and chemistry of the body.
Pert’s work uncovered the fact that emotions create molecules that share “intimate connections with our physiology.” As a result Pert said, “I’ve come to believe that virtually all illness, if not all psychosomatic in foundation, has a definite psychosomatic component . . . It is the emotion, I have come to see, that link the mind and the body.”
Pert is no scientific lightweight. She has a PhD in pharmacology from Johns Hopkins, held a research professorship in physiology and biophysics at Georgetown’s medical school, and for thirteen years was the chief of section on brain biochemistry of the Clinical Neuroscience Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health. In her 1997 book, Molecules of Emotion, she said that our minds and our bodies are a singular interconnected system, so our emotions affect the biology, chemistry and functioning of the entire body way down at its most basic molecular level. Emotions, in the conscious and unconscious, affect every single cell and sometimes that leads to illness.
Body & Mind Act as One
It’s not that we think ourselves sick. Our bodies merely comply with the emotions in our subconscious mind to produce symptoms that deflect attention from the “dangerous” subconscious emotions. Sigmund Freud (who first spoke of the unconscious) said physical symptoms were a way neurotics punished themselves – which is why we have such a negative view of the process. Sarno disagrees with Freud saying the illness is a way to protect ourselves from the “unacceptable” or dangerous emotions. It’s normal, not neurotic.
My experiences say Sarno is right. But I also wonder if there’s more. Perhaps the emotions our subconscious minds use to create physical symptoms are really invitations, a way to get our attention, so we can heal both the body AND the emotions.
Is your bodymind using illness to invite you to healing? One way to find out is to ask your illness if it had a voice, what would it be telling you? The answer just might surprise you.