What Does Your Illness Mean?

Kelly Brogan, MD, ABIHM
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Nine months after the birth of my first daughter, I felt off. Flatness, forgetfulness, cold, and tired. If I hadn’t discovered my formal diagnosis of an autoimmune thyroid condition, I could easily have been offered an antidepressant. Instead, I delved into the complex physiology of the immune system and its relationship to seemingly unrelated areas like the gut and brain. I learned pathways and the role of nutrients in their optimization. I changed my lifestyle, and my life changed as a result. What if this diagnosis wasn’t just a result of chemical exposure, lack of sleep, and a horrendous diet? What if it meant something, specific, to me, for me, and about me?

• • •

According to my credentials, I have fellowship-level expertise in Psychosomatic Medicine. What does that phrase mean to you? Undoubtedly, it conjures notions of hysteria and attention-seeking illness fabrication. Almost in an effort to escape these implications, this advanced medical training has, at some sites, been rebranded as Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry, to invoke the seemingly more legitimate study of psychiatric symptoms emerging in medical and surgical patients.

Psychiatry has been seeking to scientifically substantiate itself for the better part of a century, and we have all fallen prey to the allure of the biological explanation, the organic cause, the mechanistic descriptor for a given pathology. Many a patient has felt relief at being told that they have a “chemical imbalance.” A chemical imbalance is, by definition not your fault. In fact, there’s nothing you can do about it, except, of course to fill your prescription and take it forever, like a good patient.

The Physical Origins of Mental Illness

Even with my left turn from conventional psychiatry, I have spent a decade steeped in vanguard biomedical models of depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia. Models that explore the contributions of various systems including endocrine, immune, and neurochemical. I have even been criticized by other psychiatry-dissenters as simply substituting one physiologic illusion for another that continues to pathologize what is appropriate human angst and response to trauma. These critics say, it’s all mind, not body.

What if there is a new conversation happening in the medical literature – one that encompasses the whole person, all at once?

Entitled Symbolic Diseases and “Mindbody” Co-Emergence. A Challenge for Psychoneuroimmunology, Broom et al take the progressive field of Psychoneuroimmunology to task and demand an even more nuanced and sophisticated approach to the human experience.

Gut-Brain: Just The Beginning

On many levels, psychoneuroimmunology is an exciting revelation simply because it decimates false boundaries between different systems and allows more cohesive assessments to be made. No longer are there many blind men feeling parts of the elephant describing a rope and a tree trunk. We begin to understand that the immune and endocrine systems appear to be mediating a dialogue – bidirectional – between the gut and the brain.

In this model, the gut influences the brain and the brain influences the gut but they are still two separate entities communicating through biochemical signals. Where are YOU in this relationship? Where are the elements of the human experience that reflect your deeply held beliefs, thoughts, and relationships? What about your history and experience of yourself up until this point? Are we still just reducing humanity to bubbles of substances?

Gut-Brain-Mind: Adding Another Dimension

The mind is invited into gut-brain physiologic conversation in the form of stress. Stress has been used as a cause-all vector of bodily illness, a perspective that still reigns in the literature including data that demonstrates that perceived stress mobilizes inflammatory immune cells in the bone marrow. But the mind is more than stress, isn’t it? Is the personal meaning of the stress relevant?

Dr. Candace Pert has confirmed as much through her discovery of the bodily opiate receptor and research on neuropeptides demonstrating that that emotions are literally encoded throughout organs and tissues. Her perspective seems to elucidate why and how one person could weep after 8 minutes of raised arms in a kundalini yoga class and another might barely find it challenging. We get closer to a more personal experience of the physical body that blurs the boundaries between mental and physical.

In fact, the interpretation of the physical by the mind can actually then lead to changes and shifts in the physical – this is called the placebo effect. An emergent phenomenon, the placebo effect is physical and mental and both in the context of your personal beliefs, history, and expectations. It is not a mental factor. It is not a physical factor. It is a totality of you brought to the experience of healing.

So if it’s not just a broken body, why do we get sick?

Since the dawn of the microbiome, exosomes, and placebo research, no longer can we hold onto the cold comfort of our genes. We weren’t simply “born with” our illnesses and struggles. They have been co-created by us in our environment. But are they meaningful beyond that? Purposeful, even? Teleology is the study of purpose as a driving force of nature. It flies in the face of the mechanistic, reductionist perspective that life is random, nature is meaningless, and that force, effort, and exactitude dictate all outcomes.

The attunement of the organism to the world is reciprocated by the action of the world on us. The world or environment is not something inert, passive, something waiting to be acted upon. – Maurita Harney

Far from being new age woo, this field is supported by burgeoning disciplines such as quantum physics and biosemiotics, non-linear exploration of top-down informational exchange in web-like matrices. The one gene-one pill-one ill model of random bad luck is a skin this snake has shed.

The Meaning of Your Illness Matters

I firmly believe that there is a personal invitation in every diagnosis, and even every symptom. It is an invitation to examine everything and anything from diet to spiritual beliefs, but could illness carry personal symbolism and meaning? Broom et al, the authors of the previous paper, suggest that:

“Some persons will represent their meanings and “stories” clearly in language, some in behavior, some in the body, and some (maybe most) in multiple ways.”

To appreciate the relevance of symbolism, the whole person must be assessed in a global view with sensitivity to the meaning for a given individual of their symptoms. They pull cases from the literature including;

“A woman developed the precancerous condition oral leukoplakia (and, later, oral cancer requiring seven surgical interventions/reconstructions) at age 33. After 22 years of disease she entered therapy, and, in the first session, it emerged that her dentist father had died by suicide when the patient was age 6 and when he was 33. At age 12, the patient had been told by her alcoholic mother that she, the daughter, had caused the father’s death because she had refused to sit on his knee! There was a profound shame at having “caused” his death. Brief therapy led to a rapid and, thus far, 15-year remission.”

This made me wonder if my postpartum thyroiditis symptoms of cloudiness and fatigue so many years ago were representative of my feeling suppressed and oppressed by my unexpressed self. Perhaps I developed exactly what it is that I needed to become more myself in this life, and that healing it rather than fighting it was the integration that rendered me one with my very personal process.

Broom et al might say yes. They propose a co-emergent framework. This is one in which mind and body are not causing effects in one another but are a part of an unbroken continuity of internal body processes and external interpersonal meanings and influences. In other words, it is a model that takes into account the person, their story, and their environment as all a part of a web that includes the body and its systems.

More Than the Sum of Our Parts

How can we can enter on all of these levels at once – body, mind, and meaning? With the launch of my course, Vital Mind Reset, I have witnessed that self-healing is possible when we escape the reductionist magic pill/magic bullet model and honor our weblike complexity. Medical meditation, examination of beliefs, engagement in community, detox, and nutritional medicine all synergize to bring about results that might not have otherwise been possible. In fact, Bloom states:

“It appears that a co-emergent framework commonly allows recovery from chronic illnesses unresponsive to biomedical treatments.”

When we use this multi-signal, personalized (by you, for you) approach, participants marvel at the simplicity of the interventions yet the robustness of the shift:

FullSizeRender (2) (2)

In fact, we don’t even need to know why this multilevel approach to healing works, or how. We can move beyond the chemical theories, the complex analysis, and simply be in the process of sending the bodymind a signal of safety. Safety looks like ease. Trust. Curiosity. And even surrender. It’s not a fight. It’s not a battle. It’s a cooperative exchange and an exploration. It’s becoming more of our whole selves because we are becoming less fragmented and self-evasive. We stop hiding parts of our personhood from our awareness. We embrace it all in order to heal.

I now look for the story in any physical symptoms that arise in me, and in the physiologic specifics of my patient’s conditions. Exploring these stories often reveals the key to true wellness.

14 COMMENTS

  1. It’s certainly alright to speculate and continue research efforts to better understand the physiology and psychology of depression and mental illness. What’s not alright is “professionals” touting new evidence based on limited trials or pseudoscience, embellishing the limited evidence, and selling new forms of “treatment” to suffering people.

    What I also find astonishing, particularly among doctors and scientists, is the hubris and arrogance with which they approach the problem of “solving” mental illness. The human brain has evolved over millions of years and has resulted in us being the dominant species by a long shot. To claim or even imagine that we have been able to unravel millions of years of evolution within the most complicated organ on the face of the earth in the last 50 years is comical. And this is coming from guy with two masters degrees in engineering from MIT. But what do I know, except that at the age of thirty I’m disabled because of exposure to several psychotropic drugs that I was told were “fixing a known problem” in my brain.

    • It is criminal that the “mental health professionals” are lying, and attacking the best and brightest now, Dave. A lunatic school social worker wanted to drug my son, because she was confused when he got 100% on his state standardized tests. Sorry you were harmed, but hopefully time will help heal you.

      I agree, Kelly, the solutions to people’s problems and distress are in their stories, not in the scientific fraud that is the DSM. I’m amazed that an entire industry of people could believe such a “delusion of grandeur.”

  2. Hi Kelly. Thanks for the article! It reminds me of Gabor Mate’s work.

    My question to you though is, is this knowledge and the services that arise from this knowledge affordable and accessible to most people?

    I wonder if there are ways it could be framed so that it is more accessible to people without higher ed degrees.

    I’m saying this because, as a therapist (working towards Licensure) it is my hope to bring more holistic, somatic, alternative medicine, integrative, transpersonal, etc., approaches to the community mental health population in an affordable, accessible, and culturally relevant, sensitive, and competent manner.

    • Hi Naas,

      What you say is interesting. I’m based in the UK and there are lots and lots of facilities available to everyone BUT they might come under a DIFFERENT heading.

      For example I’m over 50 and if I wanted to I could attend yoga classes for free (A friend of mine is a yoga teacher and she told me 20 years ago she had arthritis in her knees so bad, that she couldn’t walk – and now she says she is okay).

      I know another chap who leads community CBT groups which anyone can attend on any basis they like. He swears that a person cannot be depressed if they don’t think in a depressed way :- I don’t know if this is true, but I have observed this man over the years and he is a very happy person ( originally, he studied CBT for his own benefit).

      Besides this in the UK there are plenty of genuine buddhist fellowships that promote stress reduction and quality of life improvement – and these groups are only supposed to charge on donation.

      I’ve had free counselling from MIND the mental health organisation, from trainee counsellors (- which was excellent).

      There’s also self help groups in the community that a lot of people swear by. Myself I would avoid any official groups or psychotherapy.

      Years ago when I was attached to the medical services I would have cost in today’s terms in dollars about $70,000 + per year, and according to my records I was ongoing sick. My move to community solutions meant that I no longer cost anything, I contributed – and I remained consistently well.

      The $70,000 + per year from the State was a “white collar fraud”.

  3. Right now I’ve been having trouble balancing, on my left side. Don’t know what is going on. I look for other symptoms to explain it. Some dental issues, might cause it. Some swelling around my left eye, eye glass problems could cause problem. But still not sure. Now today I also feel left side facial swelling, probably eustachian tube plugged up. This I believe could do it. Rest, more careful dental hygiene. See what happens. Ear infections I am accustomed to, and also to flu symptoms, but not loss of balance. Some numbness in my left leg, nerve pinch? Circulation problems? Still need to pay attention and see what is up. Hope I don’t have cancer in the right side of my brain!

    We do have to be attentive to ourselves.

    But having said this, our streets, jails, mental hospitals, and homeless shelters are crammed full of people who have been told that they have something wrong with them. And then zillions of regular 9 to 5ers are on psych meds. And then countless others are in psychotherapy, wasting their time and money and being manipulated as they disclose their personal affairs.

    And then children are being used in this. Deleuze and Guattari say there is only one real mental illness, neuroticism. And it is incurable and it is fatal. I agree with them, and I put myself at the head of the list as one of the afflicted.

    They are quoting someone else, but I don’t remember who. And I don’t know that it is really incurable, as moving to living on the edge seems to be a cure.

    And then children are getting used in this. Neurotic people are making babies and then taking them to doctors. When this happens there should be court supervision and the child must be supplied with an attorney. Middle-class child abuse usually revolves around doctors.

    I had a friend who used to teach the gifted class for 6th grade. He said that with gifted kids, when you have parents who are very calm, all goes well. But when you have nervous parents, then it can be a disaster. I feel that this is in general true. And then one of this guy’s students, with this second type of parents, committed suicide.

    All I know is that we need to act. Of these people who have children in order to use them. Can’t do much about that before the fact. But after? Solution is simple, take all their money away from them and put it in trust for the child. That will stop it. That will stop the scapegoating and stop the creating of people with no legitimate identity.

    Of the psychiatrists putting kids on drugs, Crimes Against Humanity, International Court.

    Of the psychotherapists convincing people that there is nothing to do for redress, just have to live with it. What they do is so similar to what the Christian Evangelicals do. We must stop our government from licensing them, and we need to start putting some of them out of business. I am just itching to do this.

    After I have done a few, then probably I won’t be neurotic anymore.

    Nomadic

    • Nomadic
      For the left side stuff google DAMS stands for dental amalgam mercury solutions . Also google Paracelsus Klinic and
      http://www.drrauway.com There’s a good chance your problem is with dental amalgam ,root canals , and or test for cavitations gum area above the upper teeth or below the lower ones . You’ll need a Hal Huggins trained dentist , they have 2 years more training then regular ADA dentists . When you find the DAMS link phone call Leo ( he publishes the newsletter Dental Truth) for his imput on finding a qualified dentist as mentioned above . When you get the dental work done by the right advanced Hal Huggins trained dentist all left side problems you mention should become history . Just my opinion from much lived experience . I don’t get a kick down. Just a humanitarian gesture . Take it or leave it . It is possible I am wrong but I doubt it . I wish this kind of care was available for all in need for free . It’s really corrections of pseudo science ADA dentistry run amuck and the same old guild self protection and denial of truth. good luck , take care ,Fred

      • Thank you Fred for the info. Such things are possible, as I am having dental problems, but I think it is more of the periodontal type, “cavitations gum area “, and just general tooth decay, but not mercury amalgam linked. I need to take better care of myself. I have found that gum massaging does do a great deal to eliminate cavitations. It really does work.

        But also in the week since I posted the above I have decided that what is causing me to lose balance and have a hard time walking, is not related to ear issues, or anything dental or facial.

        My left leg was getting numb, then my right leg also started to as did my entire body. It is some sort of flu like thing. It was exacerbated just by not getting enough sleep and getting run down. The numbness has retreated mostly to below the waste now. And my over all ability to balance and walk is about 2/3 restored. I just need to sleep and talk it easy, and take care of some dental issues.

        But those of us who have survived the middle-class family have still not started standing up for ourselves. We are still being lectured to about psychotherapy and recovery. All that is is a continuation of childhood abuses.

        And those opposed to the Murphy Bill are still taking a pity seeking approach. We must reject all therapy and recovery, otherwise we are just letting ourselves be abused. Instead we must go after perpetrators, the parents, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists.

        And we cannot let things like ADHD, Aspergers, Autism, Bipolar, or anything else be used to stigmatize us. Anytime one of us accepts something like that, we are exonerating perpetrators and denying ourselves social legitimacy, while guaranteeing that the children of today will be abused as we were.

        Nomadic

  4. “In fact, we don’t even need to know why this multilevel approach to healing works, or how. We can move beyond the chemical theories, the complex analysis, and simply be in the process of sending the bodymind a signal of safety. Safety looks like ease. Trust. Curiosity. And even surrender. It’s not a fight. It’s not a battle. It’s a cooperative exchange and an exploration. It’s becoming more of our whole selves because we are becoming less fragmented and self-evasive. We stop hiding parts of our personhood from our awareness. We embrace it all in order to heal.”

    Absolutely beautiful paragraph, I really love this. I agree, we don’t need to know how a process works, we know whether it is working or not from how we feel, moment to moment, and as a general trend. Safety, ease, trust, surrender, all such relaxing and soothing energies which support healing and wellness. Whereas fear, effort, lack of trust, and the need to control will only keep things stuck or make them worse.

    I think this is the great journey of healing toward wholeness and alignment, going from the latter to the former. Learning how to get from fear, effort and control to safety, ease, and surrender–along with calling forth our hidden selves and embracing ourselves wholly, light and shadow–is, both, an emotional and spiritual journey which illuminates our healing and growth path, along the lines of our own self-healing and self-guidance. And it’s an awesome journey to take, magical. Well-being, clarity, and manifestation abound.

  5. These “critics” do not all claim its all mind not body. I for one, amongst many others, claim that it’s a complex interplay between both. The problem is your inability to be criticized about your continued support for psychiatry as a profession, and the role you, and others who recklessly promote reductive and nutritional psychiatry without considering the completely violent history of psychiatry and it’s ability to shape shift to stay alive.

    Psychiatry is a vicious plague on humanity and it must be abolished.

    Does fighting against a certain model within a vastly violent and murderous system give you peace of mind?

    I appreciate the efforts and work you do but are you concerned about any damages to human life that continue to occur as a result of psychiatry not being abolished? Do you think it can be controlled?

    • To PsychiatricHydra:

      Hey, I agree that this article doesn’t really take a hard-line against psychiatry. But, nutrition-based remedies for Madness are STILL a big improvement from the torturous and iatrogenic pseudoscience that currently passes for “psychiatric treatment”. Give Dr. Brogan a break!

  6. There is a really excellent book I read awhile back: You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. She lists many physical ailments/symptoms along with attitudes and personal outlooks they seem correlated with. Often (though not always) when I am experiencing something physically, and look it up, the corresponding attitude rings true. When that’s the case, changing my attitude/outlook often clears up the issue significantly. Sometimes pain and ailments are happening for you, not just to you.

  7. Kelly,
    Considering the present climate if only all who wished to wean off of pharma psycho making drugs had someone like you to protect and help them under your credential umbrella as well as being able to get personal feedback as wanted from lived experience successful weaner offer’s of drug cocktails as they attempted to realize their dream ,of freeing themselves from DSM(DUMB SHIT MORONIC)
    psychopharmachiatry , organized coercive suspended psychotropic animation ECT etc. For each person actual finding out for themselves the real actual unique cause picture of their predicament would be helpful to them .
    Kelly as I read your blog it screams out to me that you yourself don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be more effective. Go to http://www.YuenMethod.com If you learn YuenMethod from the developer himself or someone he recommends to you it will multiply your understandings to a level that will delight you far beyond your most optimistic expectations . I speak from lived experience and really understand Kam’s wish that at least one member of each family could learn it. Deepak Chopra after a 10 minute session with Dr. Kam Yuen writes in one of his books how amazing was the result . Once learned personal freedom is at a new level. I’m sure it’s one of the most advanced and effective user friendly teachings available on the planet . As Dr. Kam Yuen teaches “something either works or it doesn’t” and even when it works he will say “That’s one approach”. The skills that Dr.Kam Yuen teaches are most compatible with the uniqueness of each individual . It needs to be experienced to be believed and it’s multifaceted levels of non coercively strengthening life forms including human beings of any age and animals etc, which you can learn to do yourself is honestly at the cutting edge of real scientific exploration for the benefit of all people. Is something strengthening you or weakening you at any level ? A weakness can be made strong in the amount of time you believe it can at a subconscious level which you can learn to access and adjust for yourself . When some weakness is of long duration it may take a longer time because more layers like on an onion have been built up over time on top of the original on any unique combination of 6 levels spiritual, psychic, physical, mental, emotional , psychological. Even a child can learn to use this system easier then an adult because many of us adults most especially the pseudo scientifically educated experts with recognized guild credentials , as they pile up the do re mi, have special difficulty shifting perspectives as real individuals discovering important truths all over the planet have to deal with stumbling blocks financed by the resources stolen from the people and wielded by the “top” part of the 1 percent in eugenic cartel enterprises many disguised , advertised , and spun as beneficial to humanity .
    I also wish you Dr.Kelly Brogan would reply to commenters here sometimes because as anti-psychiatry as I am I can still understand the value of many of the natural modality’s which have influenced you . I know of people close to me that could be helped by you. If only there were someone brave and honest like you near where I live in Oregon to protect so many from the coercive psychiatry matrix. Best Wishes, Fred
    If only Health Freedom existed and was non coercively available and affordable for everyone to take or leave as they saw fit. I’m someone almost 70 years old, At least 50 some years of which I was swept away by 3 different guild varieties of coercive pseudo scientific “health care” for profit and suffered like hell. It is truly miraculous the resilience of the human being when we are able to recognize pseudo-science forced or otherwise and walk our own true path away from it even if we are only giving nature half a chance .