It’s a New Year and a time when we often feel ready to try new things. Here are 10 tools for treating chronic illness. As an example, it has been shown that trauma in early life, in our ancestors’ lives, and occurring before the onset of chronic illness increases our chances of developing a chronic illness (see The Trauma and Chronic Illness Model), suggesting that working with trauma is a valuable – and under-utilized – treatment option.
Support for the tools that work with trauma and the other modalities I’m going to describe comes from what we are learning about brain plasticity (1)see The Brain that Changes Itself; here’s author Norman Doidge’s website, an article about the book in the New York Times and a post on wikipedia; Dr Doidge, a psychiatrist, has a new book coming out Jan 27, 2015 The Brain’s Way of Healing, which suggests tools for working with chronic illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, dementia, autism and more. It also comes from the way life events influence our physiology (see my introductory post on epigenetics and why chronic illness may be reversible) and from our increasing understanding of the nature of trauma (2)see The Chronic Illness Model, (3)see or download an in-depth review in a journal article I’ve published: Mead, V.P., A new model for understanding the role of environmental factors in the origins of chronic illness: a case study of type 1 diabetes mellitus. Med Hypotheses, 2004. 63(6): p. 1035-46, (4)see or download an in-depth review in a book chapter I’ve published: Mead, V.P., Timing, bonding, and trauma: Applications from experience-dependent maturation and traumatic stress provide insights for understanding environmental origins of disease, in Advances in Psychology Research, A.M. Columbus, Editor. 2007, Nova Science Publishers. p. 1-80.
Some people have been cured of a chronic illness using a few of the approaches I’ll be telling you about, and many others, like me, have had improvements even if we have yet to recover. I don’t know whether treating trauma, for example, can lead to a cure or remission, but the science suggests that it should. What I want to offer are options to experiment with that we can add to our existing treatments. I’d love to hear your stories, experiments and experiences as we help and support one another along our journeys to feeling the best that we can.
Here’s a list of books and therapies for working with trauma with a focus on the categories I describe below. If you have a chronic illness and have not experienced trauma these approaches are also highly effective for working with sensitivity to stress and the perception of threat that are frequent players in symptoms, flares and triggers so many of us with chronic diseases experience.
10 Tools for Treating Chronic Illness
Below is a list and brief summary of each treatment tool. I will write posts introducing them in a little more detail and will provide additional information, and links, over time. The introductory posts will give you resources, such as various approaches for working with trauma or symptoms that may reflect sensitivity to stress; directories for health care providers in these specialties, as well as books and websites. Where they exist, I’ll also cite research about people who have recovered or improved using these therapies such as in this post about causes and stories of recovery in Rheumatoid Arthritis / Rheumatoid Disease.
Working with trauma is the approach I am most fascinated with, perhaps because I see it as the most under-recognized contributor to risk. There is a surprising amount of research connecting trauma as a risk factor for chronic illness (you can learn more in my free ebook). These studies, which I focus on regularly on this blog, suggest that we should be incorporating the treatment of trauma as an important part of our treatment regimens and tool kits. Because there are different types of trauma, whose effects vary according to our age and level of development at the time they occur, I have divided trauma treatment into 4 different categories.
We experience all kinds of trauma in childhood and as adults. These range from war and natural disasters; to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect; to surgeries, falls and accidents, to name but a few. From our increasing understanding about trauma (5)see a post about Adverse Childhood Experiences, which have been found to increase risk for chronic illness decades later working with these kinds of events should help delay or prevent the onset of symptoms and chronic illness when done proactively soon after they occur. Treating traumatic events that trigger the onset of a chronic illness or lead to exacerbations following onset should also help with recovery from a chronic disease. Other benefits of trauma therapy are the reduction or resolution of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and symptoms such as anxiety, depression, uncontrolled rage as well as withdrawal and feelings of disconnection from life, self and others. The title links to an example of trauma therapy and recovery.
#2 Working with Trauma in our Ancestors’ Lives
The field of epigenetics is helping us understand how traumatic events such as famine and war in our ancestors’ lives affects our risk for chronic illness one, two and more generations later. I’ll introduce you to a few different methods for working with ancestral trauma.
#3 Working with Prenatal and Birth Trauma
Trauma that occurs to mothers during their pregnancies affects their babies’ risk for chronic illness (here’s a blog post introducing the science about perinatal risk factors for chronic illness). The timing of stress and trauma during the first, second or third trimester also affects risk for specific diseases a baby may develop. This process is affected by epigenetics and critical periods when growing organ systems are most sensitive to what is happening in the baby’s environment. Babies are also sensitive to stress and trauma while in the womb and during birth. They are affected by difficult events such as illness in their mothers or complications during delivery; delivery by cesarean and separation from their mothers in the first hours and days after birth. There are therapists who specialize in working with this type of early trauma. One such psychologist has succeeded in curing or greatly reducing asthma symptoms in children by treating their mothers for trauma that occurred during their pregnancies or when their babies and children were very young (6)Madrid, A. and D. Pennington (2000). “Maternal-infant bonding and asthma.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 14(3-4 (Spring: 279-289)).
#4 Working with the Influences of Childhood Relationships
The nature of the attachment bond between children and their parents affects risk for chronic illness. Working with the relationship patterns that develop should therefore be helpful in treating chronic disease. An added benefit from doing this work is that it also helps improve the relationships we have as adults, enabling us to experience more connection and joy with friends, greater flexibility and empowerment with professional colleagues, and more trust, support and depth in our intimate relationships.
Learning to recognize and follow impulses for pleasure, play, and rest among others, are keys to activating the calm-connecting, tending-and-befriending aspects of our nervous systems. Resources provide balance to the ways our brains react and interact with the world, and accessing joy in our lives is an innate and natural way of healing trauma. Acting out is a way of working with your fight and flight energy in pleasurable ways. Following impulses to rest, play and connect is another. This reduces ours states of hypervigilance and feelings of despair and hopelessness in manageable ways. This is how healing old wounds supports the process of recovering and healing from chronic illness. See more posts on this topic: Making Time for Resources, Chronic Illness Christmas Lite, How Befriending Chronic Fatigue is Changing the Journey, Self Care and a Frozen Parody.
#6 Walking for Oxygenation rather than for Exercise
When I was bedridden from chronic fatigue 5 years ago a health care provider recommended that I start walking in order to help my body oxygenate. It was the first time someone had recommended activity with a different objective than doing it for exercise, which always caused exacerbations. I was surprised to find that, when I paced myself and listened to my body, I often felt a little better during these walks. Walking has become a part of my daily routine and I wonder if a prescription for oxygenating may also be appropriate for people with different chronic illnesses.
A year ago I made a drastic change to my diet after an explosion in symptoms and because food intolerances I’d been trying to manage with a healthy diet and by (mostly) avoiding the culprits for 9 or 10 years, had failed. I’ve been slow to incorporate major dietary changes into my life despite all the evidence (here’s a post on how it took me 10 years to make dietary changes (7)this is also the post I link to in the title ) and now, a year later, I’m experiencing the first improvements with certain symptoms I’ve had in years. Dietary changes affect epigenetics. Stories of recovery from chronic illnesses of all kinds abound in the literature. These include recovery from Cancer (8)see Gerson Therapy and one of their books on amazon with reviews by readers who have included their stories of recovery, (9)Michio Kushi helped introduce macrobiotics to the US, and here’s and one of his many books (here is a recent summary of how diet makes a difference in cancer treatment), Heart Disease, Type 2 Diabetes and Prediabetes (10)such as described in Dr Dean Ornish’s book on Reversing Heart Disease and Ornish’s over 30 years of research; see an overview of their work with low fat diets and other lifestyle changes, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (11)biochemist Elaine Gottschall’s daughter was cured of IBD on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, originally developed by Dr. Sydney V. Haas and which she popularized; here’s one of Gottschall’s books, Multiple Sclerosis (12)see books describing the dietary protocols these doctors have designed following their recoveries from MS: Dr. Terry Wahls, an internist; and Dr. Ann Boroch, a naturopath, as well as Autism, ADHD, and Autoimmune diseases of all kinds (13)the GAPS protocol, developed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a former neurologist, which is the dietary approach I’m working with. Rather than there being one diet that fits all, I suspect that different dietary approaches work for different people.
Meditation and mindfulness practices (#10) appear to affect epigenetics (14)Kaliman, P., et al. 2014. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology 40: 96-107. I find it challenging to meditate, in part because I have a chronic illness that already feels so “containing” and limiting and so I use mindfulness as my form of paying attention and being in the present moment. Mindfulness involves compassionate awareness in which I hold curiosity and nonjudgment as I observe my day-to-day life, symptoms, flares, sensations and other experiences as they come up. This helps me identify triggers, hold and test a context for making sense of my symptoms, and enables me to work with symptoms rather than get fully caught in them – at least much of the time. It is an ongoing practice.
Our bodies speak through sensation, images, and feelings. Learning to listen to these clues and messages is under-appreciated in our culture, yet it can lead to conversations that lead to insight, self-compassion, and moments of inner calm despite outer chaos. Listening also gives us access to guidance about what to follow and what to leave behind. Intuition is a great help in selecting what tools to try, following feelings such as curiosity that invite us and help us hone in on tools that our bodies crave or are open to experimenting with. Here’s the more detailed post on intuition. It’s called “Intuition, and Why I left Medicine.”
Mindfulness has to do with coming into the present moment and paying attention without judgement or blame. Together with intuition, mindfulness has been one of the most useful tools I’ve found through the years. Observing sensations and emotions has helped me identify patterns and reactions in my day-to-day life. As a result, I’ve found different ways of thinking about chronic illness, discovered research that supports it, and experienced new ways of being with and treating chronic illness in my life. I see this tool as important for all of us, whether we have a chronic illness or not.
Using these Tools with my Chronic Fatigue
Over the years I have gradually incorporated these 10 tools into my daily life with chronic fatigue. Even though experiencing positive effects has been a slow process with long periods of little to no evidence of progress, I have been seeing gradual improvement. The progression of my CFS has slowed and seems to be reversing course after 15 years. Even though I’m still overly tired, the death-like quality of my fatigue has been softening. I am less uncomfortable, less limited and no longer bed-bound. I am gaining not only self-compassion with a slowly quieting inner critic, but am also experiencing less fear with symptoms and exacerbations.
The fact that I have an illness for which there is no known cure, yet from which others recover, has been a strong motivator for exploration. It has inspired experimentation and research. So has the fact that our understanding of chronic fatigue, like so many other illnesses, remains murky. I’m excited about introducing you to these ideas.
Picking and Choosing
These approaches seem to offer a pathway through chronic illness. We, along with the medical and research communities, have tended to overlook them for many reasons. In part because they are complex and cannot be narrowed down to a single equation, enzyme or simple cellular function. In part because they cannot be studied or measured in large studies with ease. And in part because they are not quick fixes.
I think it may also be that using these tools requires effort. And time, which can be a scarce commodity. Working with these tools involves listening to ourselves and our deepest longings. And fears. And yet those of us with chronic illnesses and chronic pain and all kinds of symptoms face these very challenges every day. We have often been growing this skill set despite ourselves because there is no greater motivator for trying something that scares us than the experience of pain that scares us even more. For when the pain (emotional, mental, or physical) becomes intense or long-lasting or scary enough, as it has for me over and over again, we find the willingness to take the risks, reach out of comfort zones, and try different strategies. And we have to keep risking: risking failing, risking side effects, risking exacerbations. Yet we keep trying – again and again and again, because ultimately, we really just want to recover and to feel better.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||see The Brain that Changes Itself; here’s author Norman Doidge’s website, an article about the book in the New York Times and a post on wikipedia; Dr Doidge, a psychiatrist, has a new book coming out Jan 27, 2015 The Brain’s Way of Healing, which suggests tools for working with chronic illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, dementia, autism and more|
|2.||↑||see The Chronic Illness Model|
|3.||↑||see or download an in-depth review in a journal article I’ve published: Mead, V.P., A new model for understanding the role of environmental factors in the origins of chronic illness: a case study of type 1 diabetes mellitus. Med Hypotheses, 2004. 63(6): p. 1035-46|
|4.||↑||see or download an in-depth review in a book chapter I’ve published: Mead, V.P., Timing, bonding, and trauma: Applications from experience-dependent maturation and traumatic stress provide insights for understanding environmental origins of disease, in Advances in Psychology Research, A.M. Columbus, Editor. 2007, Nova Science Publishers. p. 1-80|
|5.||↑||see a post about Adverse Childhood Experiences, which have been found to increase risk for chronic illness decades later|
|6.||↑||Madrid, A. and D. Pennington (2000). “Maternal-infant bonding and asthma.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 14(3-4 (Spring|
|7.||↑||this is also the post I link to in the title|
|8.||↑||see Gerson Therapy and one of their books on amazon with reviews by readers who have included their stories of recovery|
|9.||↑||Michio Kushi helped introduce macrobiotics to the US, and here’s and one of his many books|
|10.||↑||such as described in Dr Dean Ornish’s book on Reversing Heart Disease and Ornish’s over 30 years of research; see an overview of their work with low fat diets and other lifestyle changes|
|11.||↑||biochemist Elaine Gottschall’s daughter was cured of IBD on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, originally developed by Dr. Sydney V. Haas and which she popularized; here’s one of Gottschall’s books|
|12.||↑||see books describing the dietary protocols these doctors have designed following their recoveries from MS: Dr. Terry Wahls, an internist; and Dr. Ann Boroch, a naturopath|
|13.||↑||the GAPS protocol, developed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a former neurologist, which is the dietary approach I’m working with|
|14.||↑||Kaliman, P., et al. 2014. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology 40: 96-107|