Our current medical model of “symptom management” tends to make us look at symptoms as negative health factors that need to be suppressed. But here it is helpful to note that the word “symptom” comes from the ancient Greek word for “happen”.
In other words, symptoms are the momentary happenings of our bodies and minds, the current events of our relationships and interactions with our environment.
Taken purely as information about what is happening at present, our symptoms do not necessarily imply either positive or negative outcomes. But they are sending us valuable messages constantly. To the best of our ability it is our job to make sure we are exercising our capacity to listen and respond.
Fearing the unknown is natural, but ignoring it can be fatal. When we become aware of sudden changes in our symptomology—our physical, mental, and emotional expressions of what is happening right now—our first reaction does not need to be denial or a terrified “Oh, no!”.
Instead, we can exercise our powers of curiosity.
We can break down our instinctive fears of illness, aging, and death into bite-sized pieces of information that we can address effectively right now.
We can begin doing this by asking questions like:
- What do I notice that has changed?
- Can I detect any recent reason why this might be happening now?
- What has become imbalanced in my life (food choices, use of medications, relationships, work schedule, stress levels, lifestyle)?
- How long have I been aware of this pattern?
- How might I be contributing to this pattern, directly or indirectly?
- What can I do differently so I experience different results?
- How can I educate myself to make better choices moving forward?
- What are the best choices I can make right now to support my health?
The more we can ask questions and not fear where they are pointing our attention, the better we become at refining them and noticing more and more specific details of our bodies, minds, and lives. Our questions can then lead us to new learning, more supportive daily habits, and new relationships that encourage and guide us toward greater engagement and connection.
From Passive Patients to Proactive Participants
Let me be explicit: at Zenshin Institute, we are not anti-doctor or anti-Western medicine.
But society has taught us that whenever we see a bump appear on our skin, feel a pain, have a sniffle, notice our energy flagging, or feel depressed, we should scurry off to a doctor for treatment. This knee-jerk habit causes us to surrender our powers of observation, critical thinking, and self-care. It makes us passive, dependent, and fearful about our health.
Doctors are indeed knowledgeable specialists of human physiology, but they have precious little time to investigate an individual patient’s history or lifestyle patterns (the average patient contact time is still less than 7 minutes per visit).
Most doctors today have also been trained in the medicine of symptom suppression. Their therapeutic tools generally start and stop with fast-acting pharmaceutical interventions. So doctors are not necessarily asking “What long-term patterns might be causing this symptom?” or “What personal habits are you willing to change?”, so much as “What is the best drug to arrest the expression of and discomfort caused by this symptom as quickly as possible?”. Many doctors will even ask you if you’d like an antibiotic “just in case”, or if there is a particular drug you’ve heard about that you would like to try out.
Of course the main problem with drug therapies is that they have unavoidable side effects, many of which can cause as much damage to the body as the original symptom being treated.
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For example, Metformin, one of the most commonly prescribed medications for blood sugar regulation in Type-2 diabetics, has been linked in recent studies to significantly increased risk of vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease in patients taking it for more than 300 days (most patients are told to expect to take it for the rest of their lives). Antibiotic use, which is still ubiquitous, is well known in scientific studies to impair vital digestive, cognitive, and immune functions and increase susceptibility to drug-resistant strains of bacteria.
When we passively accept prescription after prescription without question, we are inevitably adding more and more stressors to our systems that accelerate the long-term decline of normal functions.
There are certainly times and circumstances when the expertise of medical doctors is invaluable. They are especially vital to the treatment of traumatic injuries. If you break an arm or are in a car accident, go to the ER—don’t foolishly hope that positive thinking, herbs, and supplements can reset bones or reverse major tissue damage! Medical doctors also have access to a range of techniques and testing methodologies that can find out where and how disease conditions are impacting the body once they are full blown and detectable.
With some notable exceptions of doctors that have studied broader daily factors of health, like Drs. Mark Hyman and David Perlmutter, the important roles doctors play do not necessarily make them go-to experts on healthy lifestyles or personalized prevention of illness. And we shouldn’t expect them to do something they are not trained to do. Would you seriously ask your hair stylist for legal advice, or your lawyer to give you a stylish new hair cut? Would you ask your CPA to fix your car’s transmission, or your mechanic to prepare your taxes?
If we want to see our health improve and remain optimal for our lifetimes, each of us has to step up and take greater care and responsibility for both our daily and long-term needs. We need to ask questions, trust our guts, and seek more information when we don’t understand what we are experiencing or what to do next. While doctors have assumed the role of fixing what is broken (or preventing the damage from becoming worse), it is our primary job to care for ourselves and maintain our own bodies to prevent unnecessary injury and premature breakdown.
No one else but us has such a direct view of our daily experiences, and we can’t expect anyone else to care more for our health than we do!
The Power of Questions
Sometimes it is difficult to face changes in our symptoms because we know—or at least suspect—that we’ve played a direct role in creating them. It can be hard to forgive ourselves or treat our bodies with love. But as long as we are alive, our bodies are giving 100% of their available resources to restore balance and heal damage. That means it’s never too late to start caring more for them, even when they may seem beyond repair.
It helps me to remember that everything in our bodies, emotions, minds, and lives is connected. So when our symptoms change or intensify, it means that something is at work behind the scenes that is shifting us away from normal, healthy function.
It could be something we are doing (or not doing) in our daily routines and habits, or something impacting us from recent or long-term stress, or exposure to environmental toxins. Sometimes the source is screamingly obvious. Often it’s not clear at all and it just takes time and care to be revealed.
Whatever the source of your changing symptoms, the basic questions are the same:
- How much can you detect and notice contributing factors that you have the power to change?
- Is your condition or situation intolerable enough for you to make the necessary changes to turn it around (a “10 out of 10” on the I Can’t Take It Anymore scale)?
- Can you look at your current condition as a passing obstacle to overcome rather than an illness that marks you as a “sick person” or a failure?
- Can you stay curious about it long enough to educate yourself and do something proactive to improve your condition?
- Or will you wait until your condition worsens to the point where it requires a doctor’s intervention?
Asking questions is the only way we can open new doors of possibility. Otherwise, all we can ever see is what we have learned to expect from past experience.
If you really want to improve your expression of health, face your symptoms right now, and you will begin to understand better what is happening in your body and in your life. You can take back your power to be self-aware, self-caring, and responsive to whatever arises.