Nov. 16, 2022

chronic illness is not good - but healing is

This week I had the privilege of interviewing Josie Warren, a former therapist-turned-autoimmune disorder expert. Josie was once diagnosed with several chronic physical and mental health disorders, but found the road toward healing with one simple question: "why are you doing this to yourself?"

I think a lot of people would respond to that question with an understandably defensive stance. What do you mean to myself? I didn't choose this. This is completely out of my control. But for Josie, this was day one of a new life.

She realized how she'd been letting her diagnoses serve her. And honestly, this perspective really challenged me. I've seen a lot of people go as far as making their diagnosis a part of their identity as a person - more often, use it as an excuse to get out of things and treat other people poorly. I myself have chalked it up to "just the way I am".

In 2016 I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder after making an EKG appointment due to tightness in the chest (I then learned that this is how a good chunk of anxiety diagnoses are made). "Your heart is fine, you're just anxious! I'd recommend skills and pills" (yes, direct quote). 

The more attuned I became with my relationship with anxiety, I started to realize it'd always been in my pocket. In 1st grade I had to stay inside for recess after being disruptive during a lesson. When I got home, my mom asked who I played with (so in hindsight... she totally knew I lied when I told her my friend Beth). Four years later, as a 5th grader, I'm in bed with nausea, riddled with guilt that I lied to my mom as a 7-year-old. I lost so much sleep over this for months, as I promised God I'd come clean to my mom about it soon, followed by reciting 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys (can you tell I was raised Catholic? What gave it away, the prayer choices or the guilt level? Hallelujah). I honestly don't think I never told her. But today, at almost 30, she would be significantly more blown away not that I lied at 7, but that something she likely forgot about gave me so much grief. And as a clinical kid therapist, I now look back at myself as a child and recognize that this was far from normal. I had anxiety far before 2016.

In my time with my last therapist, I discovered that anxiety had become my comfort blanket. It'd been around for so long, I had trained myself to fall on it in uncertain times because it gave me a false sense of control. This is how something I claimed I didn't want or ask for actually served me. Once I realized this, my focus became symptom management: daily affirmations, reframing activities, self-care. But Josie brings up a good point - why do we settle for symptom management when the goal could be healing?

Disclaimer: not all healing journeys are the same, as we are all very different people with very different biological makeup - and this outlook will, of course, not work for terminal or degenerative conditions. However, there is one thing we have in common that makes for a good starting point, and this is where Josie bases a lot of her work: our nervous systems.

Our sympathetic nervous system is triggered in stress - this is our fight or flight mode. The parasympathetic nervous system serves to rest and digest. When we experience chronic stress, we sent our sympathetic nervous system into overdrive - pretty much telling our body that it's always in danger. This is linked to a lot of mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression, but also physical disorders. Our vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic, is basically the reset button of our body - and it's connected to several organs: our heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, our digestive functioning. It's no wonder our bodies become train wrecks when we're stressed. It's why anxiety leads to increased heart rate, nausea, and let's be real, nervous poops (don't act like it's never happened to you). It's why so many people get EKGs like me to find out they're anxious. I think of so many friends who have experienced digestive issues who also experience a clinical level of anxiety or depression.

I found this comparison chart incredibly interesting. It shows what functions each of our nervous systems are responsible for. If you look at it, you might be able to connect an issue you're experiencing with an overreactive sympathetic nervous system. And if that's the case, a good starting point would be determining ways you've been neglecting the parasympathetic - in other words, are you giving your body the restorative rest it needs? 

Does doing so bring complete healing? Josie firmly believes so, and has seen incredible change in the health of her clients with this perspective. As someone just learning more about it, I can see how it could make a significant change - spending time doing things that trigger our resting state cannot in any way do harm, or make our health worse. 

Regardless of our health state, our bodies and minds deserve care - and part of that is recognizing just how interrelated they are. Although it may not fix everything, the next time we find ourselves questioning the physical functions of our bodies, we might first discover answers through evaluation of how we're caring for ourselves - our whole selves.

I hope you're good - and I also hope you're healthy.

- MJ