When you get a sore throat, headache, or another form of pain, where does your mind go? Do you take medication at the first sign of discomfort, or wait until you get beyond a particular threshold of pain?
If you’re quick to jump to these outside sources of relief, you might fear pain. Not an unreasonable stance, of course, but is it because of a belief in a sharp divide between your mind and body? Even if you don’t acknowledge it explicitly, if you run to the hospital when your temperature rises or quickly reach for medication at the first sign of a headache, it suggests that you believe there’s not much meaningful interplay between the psycho-emotional aspects of your life and your physiology.
If you appreciated the role of narrative in illness, you’d feel more empowered, more certain of your ability to withstand the discomfort that comes with physical pain. Maybe you’d even see a paradigm shift at the end of every excruciating headache or nauseating bus ride.
While there’s certainly a place for medical help, by appreciating the role of narrative and story in pain, you gather insights you would have never gotten from simply numbing the pain with medication or outsourcing all knowledge and wisdom to a doctor. Whether it’s in the form of ultimately resolving your pain or simply understanding how the language in your mind is contributing to it, you can benefit massively from appreciating the link between story and physiology.
When it comes to illness, you can study the mechanisms behind a symptom or an illness. We all know this. And you can certainly take medication to resolve pain. However, if this is all you do, you’re likely to experience the problem over and over again. Lifestyle and diet play a central role in health, and these aspects of life can’t be understood from a purely mechanistic standpoint. Further, the stories you tell yourself play a major role in the choices you make.
So, if you’re feeling pain, many times it means that you are making choices that are contributing to that pain. These choices are the results of the stories in your mind. While there are obviously exceptions to this rule, it’s easy to see how the dynamic plays out — for example, perhaps you drink one, two, or three too many hard seltzers because you’re feeling uneasy, worried about how you’re being perceived, or antsy. Then you wake up the next day with a headache.
In this example, you can take a medication, but your probably going to get that same headache next weekend if your inner conversations are still encouraging your heavy drinking.
A good system for gaining insight into the interplay between narrative and physiology is the Chakra system, which consists of seven spiritual energy centers throughout the body. Regardless of whether you can study Chakras objectively, they offer an excellent window into the link between narrative and the body.
Here’s an example: you’re a smoker. You develop voicebox irritation. Sure, you can clearly trace its occurrence to the smoking. However, why smoke at all? Fundamentally, no one would smoke if nothing were missing. You smoke to experience feelings that you can’t generate without them, like stimulation or the releasing of social anxiety.
To resolve the irritation in your throat, you can sip on hot tea or suck on lozenges. But until you are able to address the root cause (smoking), your voicebox will remain agitated. Stopping a symptom requires quitting a habit, and quitting a habit requires a lot more than physical interventions — it demands a psychological change.
Maybe you reflect. You realize that your lack of confidence stems from the fact that you are not so good at being transparent with people. You lied frequently when you were younger, and you still occasionally tell a subtle lie to keep your interactions smooth. When you smoke, you don’t worry so much about being smooth, but even if you lie, you don’t feel guilty about it.
With reflection, you realize that ceasing to lie is the key to gaining the confidence that enables you to stop relying on smoking to ease your social anxiety.
From the perspective of the Chakra system, you might say that your struggle was the result of your throat Chakra being blocked. While your irritated voicebox wasn’t the casual result of having a blocked throat Chakra, you needed to resolve the blockage to get relief. You couldn’t address your physical symptoms without confronting the psychological dynamics urging you toward the behaviors that caused your problem.
The truth is that most, if not all, of what happens to the body is a downstream effect, in one way or another, of what’s going on in the mind.
Alter the narrative in which you are playing part, and you’ll also see those changes reflected in a physical world.