Thinking My Way Into Health

When I was 21 years old, and in my last year of college in Colorado, I developed what most naturopathic doctors would diagnose as chronic fatigue system and SIBO or leaky gut. I was experiencing abdominal pain, debilitating joint pain, and fatigue from morning to night. When conventional medicine failed to help me, I turned to a holistic medical practitioner who told me the solution to my problem was a change in my diet and introduced me to a different way of eating. He prescribed a therapeutic yet restrictive diet and recommended a few supplements to heal my gut. Within the first two weeks of changing my diet, my joint pain had reduced by 80%. Additionally, I performed a complete make-over on my lifestyle. I went to sleep early, made sure to sleep at least 8 hours, replaced all the plastic in my kitchen with glass and stainless steel, eliminated all chemical-containing body-care products from my bathroom, spent at least 60 minutes outside breathing fresh air and connecting with the earth, and performed gentle exercise in pool. I spent every spare minute reading books and articles on the topic of healing gastrointestinal issues. With this major conscience effort to implement healthy changes to my lifestyle, I soon began to experience an extremely beneficial shift in my health and vitality; however, at a certain point, I noticed my health improvements came to a plateau. After one and a half years of living this “impeccable” lifestyle, I continued to experience abdominal pain and fatigue on an everyday basis. I told myself the healing would continue to take time and that I just had to stick to my therapeutic diet. However, as time went on my thoughts grew to be increasingly negative about my situation.
“When am I going to be healed?” “I have been eating this way forever, shouldn’t I be better by now?” “Have I been doing something wrong that is keeping me from healing?” “Was that food I had this morning contaminated with something I’m sensitive to?”
I would allow myself to fall into negative spirals of thoughts that would ultimately lead to feeling badly for myself, feeling isolated, and feeling depressed. More significantly, I had fulling embraced identifying myself as “sick,” using it as an excuse to not participate fully in life.  Between attending appointments with health practitioners, grocery shopping, cooking three fresh meals a day, and constantly making homemade sauerkraut, kombucha, and yogurt to feed my gut bacteria, taking care of myself felt like a full-time job. On top of this, I was still a full-time college student earning my pre-med requirements. I became so serious about doing all the right things to heal that I would decline invitations to do things with my friends that I used to enjoy. I viewed innocent activities such as going out to a restaurant or a concert as interference to my healing process. At a certain point, I became a slave to my own persistent and obsessive thoughts about healing.
When the spring before graduation rolled around, I took a trip to Portland, OR to visit the naturopathic medical school I was planning to attend the following fall. Although traveling out of my comfortable bubble of my “healing sanctuary” of my home caused me stress, I did extensive research and found a hotel with a kitchen, so I could cook my breakfast and lunches (this, of course, was before the big boom of Airbnb). For dinners, I had hunted down restaurants that were able to serve a completely organic whole food meal that fit within my diet. The trip was completely planned out to a T to keep me “safe” from any potential hindrance to my healing. But as I toured around the city and envisioned myself living in this fresh new city next year, I started to feel extremely sad. I had hoped I would be feeling healthy enough to fully enjoy the city in its entirety, which to me meant enjoying the delicious farm-to-table restaurants, the music scene, the numerous outdoor activity opportunities, and so much more. I felt a longing to return to my previous way of living illness-free more strongly than I ever. I didn’t want to move to this exciting new place and simply continue my isolated way of living. I wanted to be free again.
On my flight home, a flash of insight hit me. A new stream of consciousness entered my head and said, “Hold on a minute, Susanna. You have been working your little booty off to live the most healthy lifestyle for the last year and a half. You are doing everything in my power to promote a healing environment in your body. You have been so conscientious about every little bite of food that you put in your mouth. Have you ever thought that maybe it’s not the lack healthy foods, supplements, sleep, etc., that is preventing you from healing? Maybe the one thing that is keeping you from your radiant health is the stressful environment you are creating in your body from the rigid way of thinking you have been holding onto. I mean, how do you expect your GI system to fully heal if there is a constant stream of cortisol coursing throughout your bloodstream?” I realized at that moment that the physical cause of my illness had fully been addressed with clean eating and healthy lifestyle. My gut lining had been repaired, my intestinal flora had been restored, and all other physically caused issues were completely healed. The issue now was purely in the mental/emotional level. A thought process that had once served me in creating and maintaining an optimally healthy lifestyle had gotten carried away and was now the sole contributor to my belly aches and fatigue. Having this extreme shift in my awareness of the situation, the solution seemed so clear to me. To heal to my symptoms once and for all, all I needed to do was let go of my rigid way of thinking, loosen the reigns, and allow a little more enjoyment back into my life.
I walked off of that plane that evening with a new bounce in my step and a plan to go straight to my favorite restaurant in town. Now don’t get me wrong, I did not all of the sudden go wild and start binging on junk food. I still maintained the healthy lifestyle practices and much of what I learned about nutrition in my every life, but I no longer restricted myself. As graduation drew near, I went out to parties with friends, went on a few dates, cooked myself some of my favorite ingredients that I had missed so much, began climbing again (a long-lost hobby), and just started enjoying life more fully. My remaining symptoms started fading away along my negative way of thinking.
If I ever observed my thoughts shifting back to fear or stress, I would remind myself that those stressful thoughts had fulfilled their purpose long ago and that I didn’t have to take them seriously if I didn’t want to. I could instead choose a different line of thinking – one of a much more positive tone.
I share this story because it so clearly demonstrates how my line of negative thinking persisted my illness. There was nothing more physically that I could have added to my treatment plan to heal fully. My symptoms were clearly originating from the mental layer, so the mental patterns needed to be addressed.
I don’t mean to say that healing is always as easy as telling yourself you are healed. The cause of physical illness is often multifactoral, including physical components, mental/emotional components, and even sometimes a spiritual component. To take a fully comprehensive approach to health and healing, the physical contributors of the disease must be addressed. In many cases a complete lifestyle makeover, much like the one I did, can be extremely supportive in healing from the physical issues. However, it is important to always maintain an awareness of what is occurring and shifting in the mental and emotional realms as the healing process progresses. No matter where you are feeling on the spectrum between optimal health and illness, take a moment to pause and objectively look at your general thought patterns.
The one message I want to convey very clearly right now is that although we don’t always have control over what thoughts come into our head, we do have control over how we respond to those thoughts. We can allow ourselves to get swept up in whatever tornados of negative thoughts come our way, OR we can choose to not take those thoughts seriously. They are just thoughts, after all. It is true that some thoughts we receive are true insight and wisdom.  But for the other thoughts that come in (especially those downer thoughts) ask yourself, “How is this thought process serving me?” If it is not serving you, then dump it! And use your brilliant creativity to come up with a thought process that DOES serve you. You’ll be surprised what wonderful and self-loving thoughts can come about when you’ve freed up some space those old outdated negative thoughts had been taken up for so long.
Knowing that at any moment you have the power to choose your next thought, do you want to move forward in life choosing thoughts that are health sabotaging or health promoting?
Susanna Alter, N.D.

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