When a series of health problems hit me in rapid succession in my mid-20s, I was floored. Up until that point, other than the usual bumps and breaks of childhood — a broken arm at age five, a sinus infection here or there — I had pretty well coasted along, hardly giving a thought to the good fortune of my good health. All of this came screeching to a halt, however, after the birth of my first child when I was 24. Though I’d enjoyed a textbook pregnancy, shortly after childbirth my health began to disintegrate.
When my son was 10 weeks old, I was rushed to the ER with pains that rivaled the labor I had so recently experienced. An ultrasound revealed that a melon-sized tumor was growing on my right ovary. Thankfully it was benign, but a drastic emergency surgery followed, leaving me with a C-section-sized scar and one less reproductive organ. During my stay in the hospital, I contracted the dreaded gastrointestinal infection C. difficile, so I spent my next six weeks running to the bathroom 8-12 times a day. (“Just what you want with a newborn!” said no one ever.) Once this unpleasant issue finally cleared, I began to have periodic episodes of more debilitating abdominal pain. A diagnostic test finally discovered I had a faulty gallbladder. Back I went for surgery number two. Then, after muddling through a second pregnancy plagued with pre-term labor, I developed mysterious daily muscle and joint pain in my arms, legs, hands, and feet. With no conclusive answers, my doctor tentatively called it fibromyalgia.
Needless to say, I felt like a mess. “I’ve been in very poor health,” I heard myself say to family members or friends when declining social invitations due to my physical problems — and even to my employer, when I eventually took a leave of absence from my job. But it wasn’t just to others I said these words. I began to say them to myself too. Slowly, I began to label myself as a Sick Person. My self-talk reflected this identity shift. Thoughts crept in that said, “Get ready to continue feeling this way for the rest of your life,” or, “You’ll never find answers for why you have so many health problems, so you might as well accept them.” I constantly feared the worst, wondering what terrible new condition would hit me next or telling myself that I probably had some rare disease doctors didn’t even know about. I saw my future as a highway of health woes with no exits.
Despite this defeatist chatter in my head, however, somewhere inside a spark of hope still flickered. Deep down, I desired to get better. I read numerous books on recovering from illness and chronic pain, including one called Healing Back Pain by John E. Sarno, M.D. Hundreds of reviewers online said the book had helped relieve them of various states of ill health, not just back pain. I decided to try putting Sarno’s unorthodox techniques into practice. His “biopsychosocial” approach proposed that that negative thoughts and emotions could perpetuate health problems (especially those related to pain). Talk back to your ailments and the part of your brain causing them, he encouraged. Tell your pain who’s boss. Believe you will recover. Over several months, I gave this advice (among many other mind-body techniques) my best shot. When I felt muscle pain from fibromyalgia, I would tell my pain it had no power over me. Instead of ticking off all the things I’d probably never get to do because of chronic health problems, I meditated on a future version of myself who was healed and whole. Rather than stay in the mental mire of believing my health would never change, I tried to adopt a new mantra: “I am a healthy person.” Meanwhile, to help myself believe these positive words, I made lifestyle changes like joining a gym and improving my diet. The story of my recovery is long and multi-faceted, but suffice it to say that as my mentality shifted, so did my health. I fully recovered from chronic pain and have not had any further surgeries, faulty organs, or other major health issues for years. These days I rarely even get a cold. I believe myself to be a healthy person — and I am.
As it happens, my experience isn’t really that unique. (Except for the melon-sized tumor on my ovary. That I can claim as pretty freaky.) Many of us can attest to the enormous influence of our mentality about our health over our physical state. Science confirms this connection. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical School found, for example, that even with a family history of heart disease, people with a positive attitude were one-third less likely to suffer a heart attack. Likewise, negative emotions have been shown to weaken the immune response. And a 2016 study revealed that people who believe they are healthy tend to live longer. In fact, self-perception of health outranked smoking, size of social circle, or number of medications a person took as an indicator of longevity.
Clearly, our beliefs about our well-being influence our reality. If you suspect your internal dialogue is bringing down your health, try adopting more optimistic self-talk. Choose a positive mantra to embrace when you experience pain or illness. Add a guided meditation for healing to your daily routine. Above all, remember to hold on to hope. You can’t predict the future, but with a brighter outlook, yours very well could be full of health, healing, and happiness. I know mine has been.
How do you see your self-talk affecting your health? Tweet us @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)
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