During a recent webinar focusing on the multi-dimensional nature of pain, the presenter suggested that many chronic conditions may be “autoimmune” in nature, and I felt myself recoiling a bit. I had been taught that in these conditions the immune system, which protects us from disease and infection, attacks the healthy cells in the body by mistake. When I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, I would occasionally hear the condition described as a possible autoimmune disorder, and the idea that my body was self-destructing made me feel helpless and fearful.
Over the years I gradually came to appreciate that this description of what is happening in the body is not the absolute truth, but rather one perspective from Western medicine. In the Middle Ages, the study of the body was separated from the investigation of the mind and considerations of the spirit, and medical science grew out of the need to fight off infection. The definition of an autoimmune disorder is a good example of this focused perspective. Symptoms are a direct reflection of mistakes made by the immune system, and the purpose of this system is to protect the body from invasion.
Over the healing years I had many experiences that challenged this perspective and broadened my view of the body from a machine to an intelligent organism. I began to appreciate that my body’s symptoms often reflected what was happening in my mind and spirit too, and sometimes my symptoms were directly related to my beliefs, thought patterns and emotional state. I began to appreciate that my body was not creating problems or attacking me. It was always trying to do its best to survive even when it got stuck in fearful and non-productive patterns. My body was never the enemy, but sometimes it needed help.
Challenging our perspectives about the body can change our beliefs about our illness and alter how we go about helping ourselves to heal. For example, in the case of an autoimmune disorder, the body could be seen as a machine that is attacking itself or as a protector whose responses are in a state of heightened alert. With this second perspective, instead of feeling helpless and afraid, we are empowered and encouraged to find ways to calm and support the body and to give the mind messages that it is safe.
It is true that we are definitely biological beings and the body often benefits from medical intervention. This singular focus has lead to vast knowledge of the body and advancement in medicine. Perhaps we are now ready to recombine this knowledge with an appreciation of our holistic nature. With this new mindset, we can learn to use the connection between our body, mind and spirit to help us heal on all levels.