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Our Thoughts Do Not Cause Illness, We Cannot Think Our Way to Health

What’s the likelihood that the content of the community college meditation class I’m taking in order to qualify for student health insurance would infuriate me? Almost inconceivable, I would have thought, just as I would have thought it impossible that a PowerPoint could cause me to literally shake with rage. The first slide says:

“If you don’t want to be ill… Speak your feelings.

Emotions and feelings that are hidden, repressed, end in illnesses as: gastritis, ulcer, lumbar pains, spinal. With time, the repression of the feelings degenerates to the cancer. Then, we go to a confidante, to share our intimacy, ours “secret”, our errors! The dialogue, the speech, the word, is a powerful remedy and an excellent therapy!”

And it goes on slide after slide with similar explanations after each of the headings, “If you don’t want to be ill…”

  • “make decisions”
  • “find solutions”
  • “don’t live by appearances”
  • “accept”
  • “trust”
  • “do not live life sad”

Really? All I have to do is think the “correct” way and I won’t have chronic migraine? Gee, sure wish I’d known how easy it is to erase a neurological disorder. And I bet my doctors haven’t told me about this quick fix because they’re shilling for pharmaceutical companies.

Our thoughts do not cause illness. In case that’s not clear: OUR THOUGHTS DO NOT CAUSE ILLNESS!

As with so many widespread misguided notions, there’s a grain of truth in the connection between thoughts and illness. Stress, which is often intensified by thoughts, can exacerbate many already existing illness, including migraine and other headache disorders. Chronic stress can lead to ulcers, heart disease or adrenal failure. Still, stress is not solely perpetuated by thought, but also by circumstance. Furthermore, a genetic predisposition to a particular illness is usually present in those who develop so-called stress-related illnesses, and environmental factors can also contribute to illness. In other words, the connection is not as simple and clear-cut as this PowerPoint states.

Illness is fickle and cruel. It cannot be controlled, despite our greatest wishes. It can’t even always be treated. Our thoughts can make illness easier to bear (read How to Be Sickfor fabulous guidance on this), they can inspire us to keep trying, but they cannot, cannot cure us. Perpetuating this belief comes at the great cost of further alienating the sick from the healthy. People with illness do not need judgment and righteousness, but understanding and support.

Plenty of people are brimming with negativity and hatred, but are perfectly healthy. Many others are fonts of optimism and hope, yet are mired in chronic or life-threatening illness. We are not to blame for being sick, our thoughts are not to blame. No matter how many people, how many teachers, how many PowerPoints by doctors with unspecified credentials may tell us otherwise.

4 Responses to Our Thoughts Do Not Cause Illness, We Cannot Think Our Way to Health

  1. I could not agree more with your post. Although stress can certainly exacerbate a lot of conditions, it is misguided and cruel to assume that those with a chronic illness brought it on themselves because of their stress of negative thoughts. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Kate says:

    Wow. Kerrie, you are a great writer. I have to say that first; sorry if it’s beside the point. Your first paragraph had me in tears – laughing! – Laughing with recognition, of course. – Right before I took a moment to hold my ipad up to my forehead to let the cool metal soothe the stabbing pain over my left eye. DANG! I gotta work on my ATTITUDE, right? Then these migraines will go away! Like MAGIC!

    Yeah, I’d like to believe in magic, too. I’d like magic to actually WORK, that’s what I’d like. I tried all those kinds of things in the early years. There was a homeopath who thought that if I mended fences with a boyfriend from sixth grade, my core inner conflict would clear, and so would the migraine. And I’m pushing fifty!
    Sixth grade boyfriend my a _ _ !

    I get the mind-body connection, the effect of the relaxation response on nerve pathways, and many potentially useful “alternative” treatments. I’ll likely keep trying them when I’m up for it, when I have the money, etc. I just hate when people oversimplify it, get pushy with it, don’t know a THING about real illness, or JUDGE. And you made so many other excellent points.

    This morning, it might have made me laugh. But I can’t tell you how hurtful this type of treatment has been to me in the past, on a different day, etc. And you have to do this for health insurance?? – Typical. Crazy. SO demoralizing.
    I’m so sorry you are being put through this.

  3. Kate says:

    Wow thats ridiculous! There is such a huge difference between an illness being caused by someone’s thoughts and someone’s thoughts being able to make certain conditions worse.

  4. Larissa says:

    Thank you for this! I am taking a mindfulness course for chronic pain right now, which is good, but the teacher really focusses on difficult childhood experiences and destructive relationships as the trigger of illness and pain. This has been bothering me since the course started because I had a great childhood, and wonderful relationships – and yet I still have a migraine every day! As much as I recognize, like you, that stress can make illness worse, it is so important not to blame ourselves for our pain. I can get so caught up in blaming myself.

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