If you prefer to listen to this post as a podcast episode, you can do so here: Inner Work 144
It’s 2022 and I’m finally recovering from an illness – called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) – that I’ve had for the past 6 or 7 years. The symptoms of this illness got progressively worse until I was no longer able to maintain my regular work and life schedule.
So-called chronic illness – for which modern medicine says there’s no cure – is traumatic. You feel paralyzed, frozen, shattered, devastated when you’re diagnosed with something terrifying and told you will never heal.
I lived in this traumatic state, frantically looking for solutions, for a long time. I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening and wasn’t able to articulate it in a conscious or useful way.
Now I am. So I’m writing this post.
*I guess this is a spoiler, but let me say it loud and clear right here: I’m recovering and healing now, so my so-called chronic illness was not really “chronic” at all. I don’t believe we’re put on this Earth to suffer. Your body and Soul have a powerful, nearly infinite ability to heal, to regulate themselves, to restore balance where it’s needed. Please don’t ever give your power away by buying into the belief that you can’t heal.
In these years of illness, I tried anything I could to feel well. I tried many, many things: radical diet changes, supplements, naturopaths, nutritionists, conventional medicine, acupressure, energy healing, psychotherapy, detoxes (heavy metals, mold, etc), purifying my environment and switching to all things fragrance-free, organic, as natural as possible.
While some of these things helped, others made things a lot worse or had no measurable effect.
Eventually, I had to face reality: nothing and no one outside myself was going to heal me.
This is something I often say to clients and students: no one can heal us except ourselves. The process of recovering from a chronic illness, which I’m still going through, has challenged me to deeply live and embody this truth.
Along the way, I’ve learned 10 – or at least 10 – major lessons in healing. I’d love to share these with you now that I can put them into hopefully meaningful words.
HEALING LESSON #1: Healing is not linear
This is another thing I often hear myself saying to students and clients. And on my podcast.
Healing is not linear.
The challenges of healing from chronic illness have also emphasized this truth for me… time and time again.
Whether you’re healing your body, your emotions, your mind, your nervous system, your heart, your trauma, your relationships, your way of being in the world… it won’t be a linear process.
Healing happens at the rate and rhythm that our bodies and nervous systems can handle. This is completely different and individual for each of us. It can’t be predicted.
If you approach the healing process with the expectation that ups-and-downs will happen, and with the knowledge that ups-and-downs are ok and normal, this can make all the difference when you’re experiencing a “down” moment.
HEALING LESSON #2: Slower is faster
The key to my physical healing has been threefold: (1) brain retraining to calm my overactive amygdala, (2) nervous system regulation to shift my inner perceptions of safety and danger, and (3) trauma work to address unresolved trauma in my system.
All of these approaches require persistence, repetition, and – above all – moving slowly and gradually.
In this kind of healing where we’re getting to the root of the issue and addressing many layers of our being, going slower actually means, in the long term, going faster.
We can’t rush or speed up the process. Trying to rush tends to result in flare-ups, blocks, resistance, exhaustion. Your body, mind, and energy system collapsing or getting overwhelmed.
Slow and steady means giving yourself adequate time to rest, to integrate the healing insights and shifts that are happening, and to take care of your other needs such as eating, sleeping, tending to your children or family, and playing.
In the end, going slower in a paced way results in gentler, subtler shifts that compound beautifully over time.
HEALING LESSON #3: Keep planting seeds… they will bloom
On the healing journey, it can often feel as though you’re planting a lot of seeds and not really seeing the fruits of your labor.
Seeds you plant might include committing to a regular meditation practice, doing affirmations, learning a new form of breathwork, journaling, seeing a healer or therapist, changing your diet (if you choose), going to bed earlier than normal when you’re really tired, setting boundaries, asking others for more support.
It might feel like you’re doing a lot of inner work but not seeing the rewards or shifts in your outer reality yet.
If this is where you are, I encourage you to not give in to frustration. Keep going.
Each seed you plant really matters, and sometimes those seeds take a while to bloom.
Those seeds might need more nourishment, or light, or shade, or a different fertilizer. They might just need more time, as they wait for their ideal season to bloom.
Trust the wisdom and strength of your seeds. Trust that everything you’re planting is alive and pulsating and slowly growing beneath the surface of that soil – even if you can’t see it yet.
HEALING LESSON #4: There’s no roadmap for healing
Because your body, mind, nervous system, trauma history, and personal circumstances are so unique to you, there’s no cookie-cutter roadmap you can use to heal.
No one can give you this kind of roadmap.
Healing at a deep, core level requires us to give up our desire for this kind of certainty. For a linear, clear, guaranteed map that we can easily follow step by step to get to where we want to be.
True, deep healing requires you to tune in to your intuition and inner compass. To be willing to try things and have them not work out as you’d hoped or expected. To course correct along the way, as you follow your heart.
Healing in this way requires you to trust yourself and your inner guidance. In fact, learning how to trust yourself again (or for the first time) is often an underlying purpose behind an illness or loss. Maybe without that illness or loss as our catalyst, we would’ve never dared to learn to trust ourselves again.
HEALING LESSON #5: Listen to your body & follow your healthy impulses
Since there’s no clear-cut roadmap for healing, listening to your body is a key practice.
Our bodies are wired for healing and thriving. When we release resistance and help our bodies come back into regulation and coherence, our cells must thrive. That’s just the natural direction they’re always moving in, or trying to move in.
The more you can get out of your head, out of your rational mind, and into the wisdom and “mind” of your heart and body, the more your cells can return to their ideal balance and functioning.
Listening to your body, especially if you’ve been overriding its messages for a long time, requires a focused awareness in the present moment.
If your body has learned not to trust you, or that you will not honor its needs no matter how loudly it speaks, you’ll need to spend some time re-building that trust. You can do this by paying more attention to your physical sensations. To the subtle and overt ways in which your body communicates with you.
For instance, how does your body communicate tiredness to you? How does it communicate hunger, thirst, a desire for activity or movement, a need for rest, a need for sunlight or fresh air?
Notice as much as you can, on a moment-by-moment basis, how your body is speaking to you. And make sure to honor your body’s healthy impulses, which can take many forms such as:
- an impulse to take a short (or very long!) walk
- an impulse to get up from your computer and stretch
- an impulse to dance in your kitchen
- an impulse to turn down the volume or glare on your TV/computer
- an impulse to leave a meeting or gathering early
Often, these impulses are communications from your nervous system about what’s most needed and what would be most supportive for you. Pay attention. Honor your impulses towards healing and towards health.
HEALING LESSON #6: Balance rest with activity
When you’re dealing with any type of illness, it’s so important to understand your unique, moment-by-moment needs for rest. Noticing and honoring your limits is key. This can be challenging for those of us with type A, go-go-go tendencies.
In recovering from my own illness, I’ve also discovered that sometimes activity can be just as nourishing – or more needed – than rest. There’s a delicate balance we need to strike between resting and using our energy for activity.
The bottom line is that we can’t wait until we’re completely healthy, totally healed, and “perfect” in some other way before we start living.
Feeling like a sick person all the time and treating myself as though I was fragile, weak, and about to break made my hopelessness and dejection much worse.
In my case, it’s been really important to balance rest with activity and to sometimes slightly push beyond my self-imposed limits of what I can/can’t do. To not see myself as fragile, but rather as someone who’s building up her resilience more and more each day. Someone who’s moving through a major challenge with courage and self-compassion.
Choosing to do a meditation, go for a light walk, or sit outside in the sun instead of wallowing in the physical symptoms or forcing myself to rest more when my body needs to move has been an important part of the healing process for me.
HEALING LESSON #7: The nervous system needs time & space to come out of fight-flight-freeze patterns
I owe a lot to my dear friend Rachel Hardy and everything she’s taught me about how the nervous system works, and how to heal it.
Above all, Rachel has taught me to connect with and heal through physical sensations instead of jumping to the “narrative” or story behind my trauma and experiences.
(Side note: As a heady person academically trained to tell and break down narratives and stories, this has been pretty challenging for me! I also learned through many years of traditional psychotherapy how to babble on and on about every detail of my experiences, which looking back perhaps hasn’t been so helpful. I’m most comfortable telling stories of what has happened to me, and processing things at that mental level… so shifting to a body awareness has taken me outside my comfort zone.)
Our nervous systems need time and space to come out of survival patterns. If you’ve spent the last decade or most of your life in a fight-or-flight or freeze response, your nervous system will require gentle persistence and somatic-based work to shift out of those patterns. (If this type of work interests you, please look up Somatic Experiencing or sensorimotor psychotherapy.)
The good news is that every time you do listen to your body and honor its needs, every time you have a kind or caring interaction with another person, every time you set a healthy boundary, every time you give yourself a bit more compassion than you would have in the past, your nervous system is registering a new sense of safety.
And recognizing, gradually, that you don’t have to fight, flee, or freeze as a knee-jerk reaction anymore.
HEALING LESSON #8: Find peace & bliss along the way – don’t wait for a perfect outcome or destination
It’s such a common tendency in our culture to yearn for a magic pill or quick fix. For something to make things all better for us, to fix us, to get us from point A to point B without having to do any work to get there.
I was guilty of this myself for the first couple of years of my illness! I got really angry when conventional medicine failed me, and then I got really panicked when even alternative and holistic healers weren’t able to “fix” me.
Waiting until you get to some perfect destination, some perfect outcome or place in your life, to be happy and to be at peace is one of our greatest delusions as humans.
We convince ourselves we can’t be happy right now for so many reasons:
- because we don’t have a “perfect” relationship/marriage
- because we’re not at some “ideal” weight (culturally and socially determined, of course)
- because we don’t have that degree or training or certification
- because we don’t have the house of our dreams yet
- because we have a chronic illness or diagnosis
- because of something that happened in the past
- because it’s cloudy and we needed it to be sunny today (or the opposite)
Breaking through this delusion is one of the most healing and liberating things you can do. Give yourself permission to be happy right now, starting today, because you’re alive. Because you can breathe. Because you have water to drink. Because you’re well enough and safe enough to be reading this right now.
Don’t wait for a perfect outcome, result, or destination to feel peace and bliss in your life.
HEALING LESSON #9: A good friend or healing buddy can lighten the burden
A support network can make a huge difference on your healing journey. At the same time, these days many of us have gotten disconnected from each other or just find it hard to connect with like-minded, soul-aligned people.
In my years of illness, my social and support network considerably shrunk as I found it harder and harder to venture outside the house – not only because of limited energy levels and extreme food intolerances but more so once the pandemic hit. This closed down my world even more, as it did for most of us.
Despite these challenges, I’ve made a conscious effort to stay deeply connected to a handful of people who really make a difference in my life. I’ve thought of this as quality rather than quantity. I’m slowly starting to expand my social network again as I heal physically.
Having at least one person in your life who really gets you, who sees you and hears you, who can listen to you with empathy, is a huge asset on the healing path. Especially if this person understands where you are in your healing and can share vulnerably about their own experiences with you.
This can considerably lighten the burden and help you feel supported as you walk your journey.
If it’s been difficult to find a kind, open-minded, compassionate person to walk with you on the path, I invite you to listen to my podcast – I’d be thrilled to be your healing companion, at the very least in this format.
HEALING LESSON #10: No one outside of yourself can heal you
We come full circle here, with a very similar lesson to where we started: no one outside yourself can heal you. There’s no healer, guru, spiritual teacher, doctor, shaman, naturopath, priest, or “savior” who can heal or fix you.
At most, what a really good doctor or healer can do is help you activate your inner healing power. And perhaps guide you towards treatments or approaches that have been proven to create a healing environment within the body.
Ultimately, your body has everything it needs to heal. In so many ways, your body is actually a reflection or projection of your mind, your energy, your belief system, and of any unresolved trauma or stuck emotions.
This is why inner work, trauma work, shadow work, and other forms of internal transformation can have such massive, life-changing impacts on our physiology.
For me, healing had to happen from the inside out. Any approaches that work from the outside-in (like diet changes, supplements, lotions and potions, etc) weren’t sufficient for me to heal.
Looking back, I can see it was like this for me because my illness was here to teach me to reclaim my full power and light, to stop diminishing myself, to stop giving my power away to authority figures (like doctors), to stop questioning what feels right (and what feels wrong) to me.
My illness, and my recovery from that illness, have also taught me to fully live and embody what I say to my clients and students: that there’s a powerful healer within each of us, and under the right conditions our bodies and hearts and souls must thrive.
That you have the power to heal, to get better, to feel better, to be happy and fulfilled in your life. Starting now.