As a child, I keenly observed firsthand the myriad of human responses to illness as I witnessed my mother dealing with psychological issues stemming from infertility, anxiety, TMJ, back problems, and cancer, until she died of a brain infection at an early age. I’m sure my curiosity and experiences regarding illness, injury, identity and control led me to seek professional experience with health related psychology and mind-body approaches, (e.g., among these a hospital, cancer center and fertility clinic).
Long term illnesses, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, infertility, genetic disorders, etc., impact all aspects of one’s life. From diagnosis, to treatment, recovery and after-care, the experience is intense. There is also, however, typically a point when the “crisis” fades away and the condition represents just another set of circumstances. The ways in which both the initial crisis and long term are adapted to are significant predictors for health and well-being.
Psycho-oncology is the study of how people respond to cancer (and I am applying to other illnesses) and specialized intervention techniques designed to assist in coping. Research shows that the subjective experience a person has regarding their chronic illness is very influential to their physiological healing. This is not to say that there is a direct literal link between negative thinking and illness, or, conversely positive thinking and wellness. However, the ways in which we think, trust, believe, act and are responded to by others in regards to the illness is all highly influential.
Many of my clients over the years, typically high achievers, who, when diagnosed with an illness, e.g., cancer, infertility, MS, start off by feeling guilty. They assume they have done something to “cause” their illness. They feel shame and see their illness as punishment. Often, these clients are reluctant to voice any grief or anger out of fear that it will negate the “power of positive thinking” and deter their recovery. Moreover, healthcare professionals often share in the overemphasis on positivity, in an effort to help and protect their own vulnerability. As a result the patient’s appropriate feelings of loss, anger, pain and disappointment can be repressed.
This repression of the negative is actually very stressful as it requires the body to clamp down, clench, block out, and ignore. This does not contribute to a relaxed, healing state of body-mind. 1
I believe that an optimal state of healing is more likely to be achieved when one is relaxed and open, not in a defensive or repressed state of mind. Psychotherapy allows a healthy release of appropriate negative feeling. When a person allows themselves an opportunity to fully express their “negative” feelings without censorship or judgment, there is a natural sense of release. The body exhales.
In addition, psychotherapy also provides a place to learn skills in meditation, guided imagery and breath-work which directly impacts the way the nervous system responds to stress.2 Often illness gives some people, for the first time, the opportunity to slow down and observe their natural response to stress, how to deal with their anxiety better by regulating their nervous system and their thought processes.