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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.

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Broadway Play Examines Issues of Illness

Drawing on her mother’s lifelong illness and her own childhood illness, playwrite Lisa Kron explores the blurred lines between wellness and illness in Well, which opened on Broadway in March.

“‘If you’re blessed with good health, you can say, ‘I did it.’ But if you lose your health, you know that external forces beyond your control can get in your way.'”

“Healthy people tend to act as if beneath every sick person is a healthy person trying to come out — that, as Ms. Kron put it in an interview, ‘people who are sick are just not trying hard enough.’ Those afflicted by serious depression are often told by others to ‘pull yourself together,’ ‘snap out of it,’ as if they deliberately choose to suffer.”

“In the play, Ann [Kron’s mother] herself says: ‘You blame yourself. Wasn’t it Susan Sontag who pointed out that whenever the cause of an illness is mysterious, it’s assumed to come from psychological problems or a moral weakness? And once science finally figures out the medical root of the illness, that assumption disappears.'”

“Will we one day have a better — that is, more scientific — understanding of ailments like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, Gulf War syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities or any of the other current ‘wastebasket’ diagnoses that many medical and lay people consider psychosomatic?”

Visit Lisa Kron’s website for video and audio clips from the show. You can also read excerpts of the show on her site.