As we know from neuroscience and brain scans, chronic illness and stress literally transform the brain. If you’ve been sick for a while, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about, but just in case, here’s a quick background:
Trying desperately to protect us, the brain rewires to scan for what’s going wrong, dreaming of what might go wrong, and hyper-focusing on everything that is awful in life.
It masters seeing the world in negatives, through the lens of lack and fear, symptoms, and misery. Rumination and worry take over as the backdrop to every experience, even those deemed safe or relaxing to the general population. Some refer to this generally as being stuck in the fight-or-flight mode, while doctors and researchers label it specifically as a limbic system dysfunction. The primal part of the brain that so badly wants to protect us from ravenous tigers and bears actually takes over. It keeps us ready to fight, flight or freeze in even peaceful moments laying on the beach or making a morning cup of green tea.
In this dysfunctional state, the brain recognizes sickness as homeostasis, therefore doing everything in its power to keep it there. It adeptly gears the body towards constant survival mode, which means shutting down digestion and cellular repair, fertility, hormone and neurotransmitter production, as it ramps up cortisol and adrenaline to do whatever it takes to survive. Long-term, this leads to severe depletion, deep sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and more symptoms of disease as the body draws on reserves to fight fight fight. The function of the Vagus nerve, regulating homeostasis in every function of the body, becomes damaged as well, increasing the severity of disease.
So, illness leads to limbic impairment, and that limbic impairment perpetuates sickness and the resulting panic, depression, and anxiety related to a diseased state. The perfect catch-22!
Over the past 27 years, I have mastered the art of panicking. Perfected it, really, and made it into a thing of beauty.
Early life trauma, undetected illness, and years of emotional and physiological stressors created the perfect learning environment for my curious brain. This fatty, glorious muscle learned to flawlessly assume the worst and prepare for constant and unrelenting disaster. Hypervigilance and fear became the norm of every thought, every reaction. I spent more time focusing on wondering what could go wrong than actually living in my life, planning every detail to avoid any worsening of my circumstances.
As a result of this massive load of chronic, moment-to-moment stress, my physiology continued to change: what started as small bubblings of anxiety and shyness in elementary school progressed into full blown disorder and disease as I grew older. The cortisol constantly flooding my body distracted it from being able to take care of me and compromised its ability to fight off things like viruses, infections, and parasites. By the time I was in my late teens, these things had made themselves at home having a free for all in my body.
My mom and I were determined to find answers to how unwell I felt, flying to specialists across the country, attending conferences with the hope of finding out why I was so tired and so darn sick.
The more lab tests I completed and specialists I visited throughout my teens and twenties, the more I panicked, confirming my suspicions that my body was under attack. The diagnoses piled on:
- Lyme and co-infections
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic Epstein-Barr
- Anxiety disorder with obsessive tendencies
- Panic disorder
- hormonal dysregulation
- Premature ovarian failure
- Precancerous cervical cells
- Leaky Gut and food sensitivities
- Idiopathic constipation
- sleep disorder
- Parasites & worms
- small intestinal bacterial overgrowth
- small intestinal fungal overgrowth
- heavy metals
- mold toxicity
- histamine intolerance
- Muscle wasting
- MTHFR and detoxification mutations
As a result, my sense of doom and exhaustion increased. Just by thinking of my symptoms, what layer to pull back next, I felt paralyzed. My hopes would rise innocently with the prospect of a new treatment, and soon spiral into misery when nothing seemed to budge. Negative thoughts consumed me, every moment feeling and thinking of myself as a “sick” person, all the while quite aware that I needed to change my thoughts to allow any chance of escaping this catch-22 loop from hell.
So, how the heck do you begin to shift? How do you teach the brain that it is safe and can let down its guard? How does one stuck in this loop find a way out if their brain wiring and chemistry is actually perpetuating the problem that may have gotten them sick to begin with?
I’ve tried EMDR. DNRS. Somatic Experiencing. Yoga. Craniosacral therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Ecstatic Dance. Reiki. Alpha Stimulation. Healing Touch. Energy Medicine. Light therapy. Sound Therapy. Micro-dosing peyote. Essential oils. Meditations. Massage. Acupuncture. Cupping. The Emotional Freedom Technique. Thinking extra positive. Writing through my fear. Even punching walls and car windows (I would not recommend this).
All of these techniques have definitely helped alleviate some of the symptoms of a dysfunctional limbic system, and I draw on their strengths in the appropriate moments. Certain modalities seem to build off of each other, depending on the context and the unique blend of symptoms that day.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found a healing modality with a truly lasting effect. Many times, I’ve gotten off a massage table, feeling close to bliss, only to be filled with rage and panic as I walked back to my car, swallowed by bucket-sized tears and shallow breaths on my drive home.
When your brain rewires itself to the point that almost every thought is a reaction to a symptom or forecasting how things are only going to get worse, it can feel hopeless. But let me tell you, it is not. There is always a shift, there is always something to change. There is a way out of the storm, and it starts with the fact that the brain is plastic and can be re-trained towards health. As it re-wires, you get to see the miracles unfold.
I’m always amazed that sometimes, the simplest, most mundane thing seems to be the most powerful when it comes to healing the brain. Beyond all the therapeutic treatments and specialists, sometimes its as simple as following the beauty already present in your life.
Let me explain how this works…
It begins with letting your belly hang out and breathing deeply, sometimes even stopping what you’re doing to bring awareness back to the moment. Filling your belly and lungs with oxygen, pausing, and then slowly exhaling. Then, doing it again. And maybe a few more times.
As you let go of thoughts, stories, the chatter, and just keep breathing, you begin to settle.
Then, you can see this moment as if everything is brand new. This is your first day with vision and my goodness, how glorious it is. Your brain might interrupt, interjecting judgement and doubts, scanning for symptoms, but that is just a signal for another round of big belly breaths.
You begin to get curious.
What is something new you notice? What can you fall in love with, right now, this very moment?
You start to focus on what’s beautiful right now, if there was nothing to fix or nowhere better to be. Right now, it could the vibrant color of the egg yolks in your breakfast scramble, the sunshine pouring in through the window. Perhaps it’s the smile on your partners face as they put on their socks. Or maybe, it’s the loving tone of your mom’s voice when you call her and she tells you about the almond butter & toast she feeds to the squirrels.
Just keep following the beauty, tallying what you notice, letting it saturate your awareness so you forget what was pulling your attention to begin with. You may even find it easier to smile and soften your body as you count the beauty that surrounds- I sure do.
This won’t make your chronic illness magically go away right this second, just by focusing on your eggs or the sunshine or the well-fed squirrels. It’s not a magic bullet. But, it works, and it only becomes more powerful with time. Each time you interrupt the brains faulty default mode by intentionally choosing beauty, you’ll start to feel better. Your brain and body will be flooded with the neurotransmitters conducive to health and repair, reminding it of its capacity to heal and be well. In a couple of months, you’ll start to feel way better. After a year, who’s to say what changes could take place.
The more I practice, the more energized and playful I feel throughout the day.
When I take the time to focus on what is thriving– intentionally, every time a constricting thought bubbles up– strange and wonderful things started to happen within a few weeks. (Let me remind you that this was after YEARS of trying to find something that would actually work.)
I started smiling more, without forcing.
I started laughing more, just from my own thoughts.
I didn’t feel as dizzy and fragile when I stood up.
I started bouncing on my mini trampoline, even feeling in touch with a child-like joy as I did so.
I started dancing and shaking my hips, just because I felt like it.
I started noticing more good in every moment, and the good would pile on top of that good.
I started sleeping through the night.
I started to notice how the flowers kissed by dew drops looked brighter, the bumblebees more bumbley.
I started to draw again, for the first time since college. To sing again. To read fiction for pleasure instead of medical journals for answers. To remember what it was like to access joy beyond pure survival.
I started to write.
I would wake up, and actually feel excited to get out of bed and get out in the sunshine, to journal about what was going well.
When I looked back on my day before falling asleep, I could count the moments of joy and nuggets of goodness where I actually felt HEALTHY and sturdy, when I wasn’t hyper-consumed by my symptoms or my desire to get hit by a bus and escape.
I will not pretend I’m cured, or that all of my diagnoses have magically lifted. But, I can say that I am so aware of the inherent lightness and beauty in every moment in a way that completely contrasts the darkness of before. Just tuning into this allows me to hold the sadness inevitable in life, yet still choose life. I choose life because I can feel the joy of my relationships, the beauty in the mundane, and know that I can add to this world by being more of myself, however unconventional that may be.
When any thoughts of doubt or doom surface, I stop. I breathe.
I follow the beauty and keep scooping more on top until something in me begins to shift; Until the seriousness is outweighed by a certain quality of okayness, even magic. The world that surrounds me feels like a miracle, a chance to explore and experience. As I go about my day, I visualize all the smiling faces of the people I have the privilege of calling friends and family. I smile back, proud to be able to do so.
Some days, I’ll find myself bursting into laughter for no reason aside from a hilarious thought. I’ll find myself smiling, softening naturally, instead of holding my breath, as I walk to pickup eggs and butter.
Other moments, I’ll forget to remember any diagnoses. I’ll forget to remember how long this journey has been because I’m too busy getting excited about what is to come and too busy following the beauty in this very moment. I look back at the years and very recent months of thick darkness, smiling, thanking it for allowing me to follow something brighter.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog should not be used to treat or diagnose disease or health problems and is provided for your edification and delight only.