A young woman who came to see me was suffering from severe cramping pains in her abdomen, diarrhoea alternating with constipation, and sleeplessness. She had consulted her doctor, and had been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She explained that as a child, she often suffered with tummy aches, especially in the mornings on school days, and had taken a lot of time off school. It was especially bad when she felt “under stress.” I asked her what kind of situation caused her stress, and she said anything where she had to “perform,” such as tests, exams, or PE lessons, which she hated. When asked what she hated about PE, she said that she was very self-conscious and didn’t like people to look at her body. She felt fat, ugly, and awkward, and it embarrassed her to be observed. She preferred to remain as invisible as possible, keeping out of the limelight, and staying in the shadows, not drawing any attention to herself.
The cramping pains became more persistent when she went to university. She had to make friends and get used to a new environment. She became sleepless with anxiety, often going over the events of the day, and reproaching herself for her foolishness, for something she had said, or not said. All these concerns added to her anxiety, and the bowel symptoms became more severe, and occurred more frequently, resulting in the diagnosis of IBS.
To help the patient, a physician must first understand the problem? What needs to be cured in this young woman? IBS is not a complete answer, as we can ask why did she have IBS? Besides cramping pain and the other abdominal symptoms, she suffered with anxiety, lack of self-confidence, embarrassment and sleeplessness. Anxiety manifested in the body by producing changes in the endocrine and nervous systems, and resulted in cramping in the digestive tract. Vital energy was being spent in avoiding being seen. This was a protection mechanism. Why did she fear being seen? Because she felt she was fat, ugly and foolish. Why did she feel this way about herself, and from where did this feeling arise? If the aim of medicine is to create health, rather than merely to control symptoms, then this is an important question.
We can ask: What must change in this young woman if she is to move towards health?
The cramping symptoms are the result of reactions in her nervous systems, which are caused by anxiety and embarrassment. If she didn’t feel so anxious or embarrassed, then the IBS would clear up. How could she stop feeling anxious or embarrassed? She would need to stop thinking of herself as ugly and foolish. Her own self-image is at the core of her problem. This root state, from which her disease has sprouted, comes from her ancestry, and was reinforced by childhood experiences. We are pre-disposed by our inheritance, and we unconsciously build upon these tendencies. As our inner problem develops, it separates us from the rest of Life. We feel limited and disconnected and an increasing yearning to return to wholeness – this is the true nature of disease.
Yet within us is the potential to become free of such limitations, and to live in harmony with the creative forces that regulate the natural world, the seasons, the moons, and the rhythms of the Earth. Self-healing is an intrinsic property of Life. The role of medicine is to guide, facilitate, and encourage change. The power to transform already exists within each one of us.
The progression towards health means becoming more who we truly are, and no longer who we thought we were. It means accepting ourselves. Living each moment, being more awake to what lies under the surface. It means acknowledging the deeper truth in others, and not flinching from difficult choices. As we move more towards health, we may feel more – if our emotions have been frozen by past trauma, or less, if we have been overly emotional as a form of protection. We would no longer comfort ourselves with addictive habits, substances, or friendships, but would prefer instead to trust ourselves on life’s open waters.