What do you gain from your illness?

Sometimes I like to do a thought experiment in consultations. It helps me figure out the cause of a problem and why it exists. I ask myself; how does this illness benefit the patient? How does it change their lives in a way that is beneficial to them? I believe that in a weird (usually ironic) way, our illnesses are always an attempt by our body to help us somehow. A request from our subconscious perhaps. This may sound ridiculous or make you feel angry when you read it but just bear with me and see where I’m going here.

Take for example my own anxiety. I occasionally experience anxiety and have done for about a year. I am usually on transportation in to London or in a social gathering of people. When I get anxious I usually excuse myself and either go home or take some time out somewhere quiet like the bathroom. Ultimately this is removing myself from the situation and I inevitably feel fine almost exactly at the same moment that I decide to leave. So if all I really want, is to leave, the question becomes; why don’t I want to stay? Why do I need to experience anxiety to remove myself from a situation? Why don’t I just decide I’m no longer interested in being there… and go?

Knowing this has helped me explore my anxiety more. Now if I get anxious I will play with the idea of NOT leaving. I ask myself if there is a way to change where I am which makes me feel more comfortable? Maybe I need to sit in a different seat, maybe I need to travel to work in a different way, maybe I just need to put my headphones in while I travel. It can be so simple.

Take another, more serious, example. Someone may experience fibromyalgia (a long term pain condition) in a way which prevents them from being able to tolerate touch. Whenever they are touched they experience pain as their nervous system is so very sensitive, hyper-reactive really. But what do this person have to gain from not being touched?

I wondered if they were afraid of intimacy. I wondered if they found it difficult to stop touch from becoming more than they wanted. I wondered if they had experienced touch which went wrong for them in the past. How had touch hurt them in the past? Why is touch and pain synonymous in their subconscious, and now their body?

This is one example and there will be many other things which someone might benefit from a condition like fibromyalgia. By no means, will everyone with fibromyalgia have a history of abuse. Each person moves past their symptoms in their own way and I support them in this process but it is incredible what will simply melt away when we become aware of something and hold it delicately in our mind with compassion. The simple act of bearing witness can be the best medicine there is.

You can’t move past something until you can accept it exactly as it is. In fact, some would say that all  mental pain and turmoil is caused when we fight with reality.

I’ve seen this in my practice. When patients fight with the pain they’re experiencing it gets worse. This is called secondary pain. You make your suffering worse by thinking “I really don’t want to feel like this!”. Sometimes my patients work with the thought “This is what I want” and find their symptoms transform. It can seem morbidly ironic to say to yourself, when you’re writhing in pain, “this is what I want” but try it some time. It’s quite free-ing.

In conclusion; this advice won't work for everyone but it's an interesting way to think around the problem. Just as I have done for myself, once I know what a patient gains from their illness I try to find other ways to fulfil that need and see if their symptoms go away. Sometimes they completely go away and other times they just feel much better.