The Pull Towards Pills
Spirit of Change 20th anniversary issue reprint from May/Jun 1999
Pills have not always been with us, and yet people have always been able to recover from a variety of illnesses. Starting back in the 40s or 50s, we began to believe the “better living though chemistry” concept — that there would be a pill for every ill.
After all, there were tablets for sleep, for pain, for infection and for almost every symptom. Somewhere along the line, we became convinced that symptoms were our enemies.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Symptoms are no more our enemies than the gas gauge on our dashboard which tells us we are nearly out of gas. When parts of your life have slipped out of balance, your muscles may become tense, resulting in backaches, headaches, high blood pressure and so forth. But what is the real problem? Your aches and pains, or your lifestyle?
When you push mind and body too hard, structural components of your body become irritated and inflamed. This inflammation may appear as allergy, tendonitis or gastritis. The suffix itis means “inflammation.” Just as dermatitis results from the overexposure of otherwise healthy skin to the sun, the exposure of any organ to overuse tends to produce a flaring up, a reddening, a soreness, a hypersensitivity. It’s your body trying to tell you something.
When we experience excessive nervous stress, the mental parallels to inflamation are anxiety, fear, forgetfulness, obsessive thinking or insomnia. Such stress can amount to trauma in the central nervous system (the brain). The reaction we get to over-stressing the mind-body complex is the dysfunction-poor memory, low creativity, irritability, over-excitement, or sexual nonresponsiveness. It’s like a circuit breaker in your fusebox; it shuts off the power so you don’t have a fire. The problem is not the circuit breaker, but your excessive demand for electricity.
Jack was a hard-driving, senior businessman who came to see me about a problem with neck spasm. Using deeper relaxation and guided imagery combined with neck massage I was able to relax the muscles in Jack’s incredibly tense neck. When I finished, he looked amazed and said, “It feels as if I don’t have any neck at all!”
What he had been feeling and thinking was his neck, was in fact, the sensation of chronic muscle tension. He has walked around for years with that muscle tension, thinking that it was normal. Finally, the spasm progressed to the point that it produced tissue damage and pain in free nerve endings. Only then was he aware of his headaches. Jack had more healing work to do than he realized. He had to alter his lifestyle, not just take a new pill.
So here we have it in a nutshell. Excessive irritation leads to inflammation and pain, excessive muscle tension leads to spasm, excessive mental stress leads to anxiety and irritability. And if we look at the best known and best selling drugs, they turn out to be medications that treat precisely these conditions, all preventable by stress management. But our society, guided by (among others) the immensely profitable pharmaceutical industry, has adopted a tragically shortsighted orientation: at the first sign of imbalance, suppress all signs and symptoms of it as quickly as possible. This is what “a pill for every ill” has become. The problem with this approach is that our underlying health keeps declining towards disease and death. Our body keeps trying to fax us the urgent message, but we keep hanging up the phone.
Yes, the younger person can get away with over-stressing organs of their body — playing basketball for hours, staying up all night, drinking large quantities of alcohol, etc. — but when we get older we don’t have as much reserve and we get tension, spasm and inflammation (and the resulting aches and pains) much faster.
Pills are, at best, a temporary solution. When the pills stop working, we too often ask, “What medicine should I switch to” rather than, “Is this something that should be treated with a drug at all?”
When one medicine doesn’t work anymore, we gradually collect more and more medicines and move on to stronger and stronger ones. And, as with medication for pain, we can even become physically dependent or even addicted. Often this process is unwittingly aided and abetted by overworked doctors who don’t really know their patients well and aren’t likely to find out how many different medications they are taking. Unfortunately, doctors are more likely to give something to quiet symptoms rather than take the time to sit and discuss a person’s symptoms with them.
Gaining Personal Power Over Pills
In recent years, there has been more and more interest in what has become know as “Alternative Medicine.” One reason, unfortunately, may be because it has become so difficult for a patient to get to see a doctor at all! In addition, there is a growing general dissatisfaction with the impersonality of “mainstream medicine” as it becomes more and more of a business than a profession, with its directions and decisions made by the money managers of Wall Street instead of by the professional integrity and commitment of one’s personal physician. As highly paid money mangers carry out the delicate surgical operation of dissecting patients away from their dedicated, caring family physicians, people don’t feel listened to, heard or understood, and health care deteriorates even further.
The mind-body approach to health care subscribes to a different set of beliefs: what people say is important, that they need to be listened to, that each is the best expert on his or her own body. It pays careful attention to how people think and feel, as well as the way their body acts. Although the concept of mind body interaction is one that is very much accepted scientifically by the medical field, the truth is that this acceptance is honored more in the breach than in the practice. In this era of managed health care, doctors don’t usually have time to discuss mind-body issues with patients. Alternative healers rely on the mind-body connection to take the place of drugs, and must take the time to make it work. It is my belief that one of the most important reasons people’s symptoms improve when they see an alternative practitioner is that a relationship develops; the persons’ thoughts, feelings and beliefs are paid attention to, something is done to help with the emotional and stress-related health factors.
A Short History of Medical Marketing Practices
- 2000 B.C. Here, eat this root.
- 1000 A.D. That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
- 1850 A.D. That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
- 1940 A.D. That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
- 1985 A.D. That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
- 2000 A.D. That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root.
Herbal medicines have become big business. Mass marketing has pasted a label over even the humble herb making it a celebrity, a magic bullet. Instead of looking to a drug from a chemical factory to make them feel better (the magic bullet, the magic pill) they are looking to the magic new herb to do the same thing.
And in the process they neglect the use of the most powerful medicine they have — the powerful mind-body connection. Using imagery and deep relaxation, we can change the way the body functions in ways we probably never thought possible. That three pound powerhouse between your ears called your brain is the gateway to the mind-body connection, and by knowing how to use it, you can work miracles.
Your mind can function in three main ways:
- It can cause tension. Physical/emotional ailments can be caused by mental tension, anxiety, fear, depression, etc. The mind-body contribution to our ailments has been well demonstrated in countless scientific studies.
- It can relieve tension through intentionally induced deep relaxation and imagery. Even if a symptom is not stress related, even if there was no mental tension or anxiety involved in its production, so strong is the mind-body connection that both symptoms and the underlying source may respond to these techniques.
- It can work holistically to prevent and heal disease in ways that are beyond our current comprehension. Once you understand that the mind and emotions are the fulcrum upon which balance the various organ systems of the body, you can act to restore balance, relieve dysfunction and treat both symptom and disease.
Notice how you respond when you encounter challenges in your daily life. Notice how your muscles respond in stress situations. Do you tense up your back? Your jaw? Your neck? Your arms? Your buttocks? Your chest? This information provides you with a kind of early warning system for identifying when you are on the verge of stress overload. Ask yourself, is there any correlation between life stressors, where in your body the tension occurs and any health problems you may be having. If you have headaches, consider that they may be related to beck and back tension. If you hold tension in your stomach, do you also have digestion problems?
Armed with this information, try to become aware of ways in which daily stressors may trigger symptoms. Write down affirmations and stories which inspire you to keep a balanced perspective, so that you don’t give in to the negative mind set associated with your particular stress. Take note of situations which chronically cause you stress, whether they are work-or family-related. Then ask yourself if the ability to relax deeply at will wouldn’t vastly enrich your life in this area.
Lastly, are you aware of some of the self-help programs in your community which deal with your particular health issues? If so, why not check them out? The only thing you have to lose is your pain.
If you come away from this article with one thing, remember this: The mind-body has great preventive power, and an ounce of brainpower is worth a pound of pills.
For more information on body-mind medicine and the ideas expressed in this article, read Dr. Emmett Millers new book, Deep Healing: The Essence of Mind-Body Medicine (Hay House 1997). You can find Dr. Miller on the internet at http://www.DocMiller.com.