The Medicine of Self

My personal health journey has seen me labelled with conditions such as “anxiety” and “depression” by incredibly well-meaning and knowledgeable health professionals.  At the times when I was offered these diagnoses, in my early 20s when my path of healing really began, I had the where-with-all… shall we say inner wisdom? To desire to reject these diagnoses.  Not to say that these symptoms I was experiencing were not real and often quite debilitating, which they very much were!  And as far as these professionals were concerned, I absolutely fit the criteria that they could access through their large volumes filled with psychiatric conditions.

Somehow, though, I couldn’t quite connect with their belief that because I was having these symptoms meant that I was “broken” and needed “fixing”, be it via proffered medications or the promise of cognitive behavioural therapy to “fix” (get rid of, banish) these troublesome thoughts that would cause my being to go into fight or flight or freeze.  The result of which, in my case, would be anxiety and panic or if that got to be too much, freeze: depression.  For me it was never quite the “satiation depression” that we often hear about, where both serotonin and dopamine are lacking and one can’t get themselves out of bed, can’t eat, loses interest in life, etc.  For me it was more of an “arousal depression” that resulted in low serotonin but reasonable dopamine so that no matter what I could push myself through and robot around through life, feeling flat… but still getting stuff done: therefore on the surface looking totally put together and ‘normal’ (incidentally, what even is normal??).

As a result of a very troublesome team of crazy people living in my head since the age of 12 (I am sure you can all relate.. you are all human after all and subject to the same types of conditioning that I have had: societal, cultural, familial, ancestral, etc.), it has been necessary for me to weed through these voices to find my inner truth.  Depending on which voice I listened to at any given point in time I could have found myself binge exercising, binge eating, seriously depriving myself of sufficient food, over-consuming water (yes, at one point my obsessive self and worked herself up to 12 liters a day, no joke!  I am so lucky my heart didn’t stop!), over-working, over-studying, etc.  Insert the generally societally-acceptable coping strategy-turned-addiction here and I likely had it.

I tried various routes to “fix” myself from these problematic behaviours, to “fix” myself from my thoughts, I tried harder and harder taking all the right supplements, doing all the right things, for many many years.  Some helped, some hindered, there didn’t always seem to be a rhyme or reason… until I learned about the medicine of compassion.  Specifically self-compassion, though step one is being held in the space by someone else who is fully in compassion for you, exactly as you are messy and unhinged, yet fully accepted.

Kristin Neff speaks at length on the subject, in fact she has a phD in it!  I use her work a lot, first in my own personal life and now that I absolutely witness the benefits, it has bubbled over into my practice.  Not only holding others in a place of compassion (which feels like a given! Though sadly it is not our reality in most cases in our experiences with medical professionals), but also teaching the principles of self-compassion and how to put it into practice.  And I have found that its cultivation truly leads to the turning point in our health.  The reasons for this are multi-fold:

  • First and foremost, it is that when we are held compassionately, with complete acceptance, by ourselves or another we feel safe. The feeling of safety, true deep safety, is a feeling that most of us don’t even realize we don’t feel most of the time.  We don’t realize we move through our lives with an underlying current of anxiety/ urgency/ kind of a “holding our breath” sort of energy.  Once we have the opportunity to “drop in”, we experience a literal and metaphorical “exhale”.  Muscles become softer, breathing deeper, emotions often rise to the surface.  This is the relaxation response (rest, digest, heal, reproduce/libido) that is only activated when we finally feel safe.  Because healing truly doesn’t happen when we are in the fight or flight nervous system… why would it?  We are just trying to survive!  Physiologically, the activation of the relaxation response promotes the inner biological mechanisms of repair: better digestion, improved wound healing, reduced pressure in blood vessels, lower inflammation, lower stress hormones, more feel good neurotransmitters.. I could go on and on because every single tissue of our body is benefited by the relaxation response… therefore.. self-compassion literally heals!
  • The second major advantage to growing self-compassion is that in this space we are more likely to make loving choices for ourselves. Health becomes a blessing we offer to ourselves. It no longer feels cumbersome to nourish ourselves with healthy foods, we no longer feel compelled to act violently towards ourselves by over-eating/ indulging in self-sabotaging behaviours, etc.  I know this takes time, but conceive of believing it is possible.

Maybe I am just lazy, and if that is the case then so be it!!  Or maybe it is just that I am choosy about where I spend my energy, as truth be told I am very dedicated to my health, mind body and spirit.  I love moving my body and working out, balancing it with yoga and relaxation practices.  I spend time every single morning in some sort of prayer/ meditation/ quiet time.  I eat well.  And yes: I LOVE coffee & wine and have no intention of giving them up (unless one day my soul asks me to!), though I also enjoy a healthy relationship with their consumption.  Nurturance vs. abuse/ addiction vs. white-knuckled abstinence.

I have done the two latter way too much in my life and it is exhausting.  The former, nurturance is my medicine now.  So I am definitely not lazy!  I just really don’t want to be over-restrictive with extremely limited diets (plus those could easily re-activate my past trauma history of sordid relationship with food.. no thanks!  I have come to far!), I really don’t like taking tons of supplements nor spending the money on them.  Not that they aren’t helpful and often necessary… but truly, they are the condiments, not the main course.  I am so inspired and interested in spontaneous healing and sacred medicine and how healing our minds and spirits can and does absolutely lead to physical healing.  This is my passion and this is truly what has worked for me and helped me work through anxiety, depression, bipolar symptoms (that diagnosis has also been offered, a story for another time), “irritable bowel syndrome” (that is one of my LEAST favorite labels!!), amenorrhea, body dysmorphia, disordered eating patterns, insomnia and I am sure others.  Our bodies are always giving us clues to listen up and pay attention, and if we treat them as warning lights pointing towards something else, rather than problems that need fixing in and of themselves then we will listen when they whisper and they are less likely to scream.

So YES! Absolutely diet and supplements are extremely important tools for sure!  And sometimes they are the solutions unto themselves, provided we are interacting with them in a life-giving way, rather than having them invoke yet another stress response from us.

If this speaks to you in anyway, I invite you to learn more:

Dr. Kristin Neff on The Science of Self-Compassion

Dr. Lissa Rankin MD, author of Mind over Medicine

And if you are interested in exploring your own inner landscape further, in a group setting, check out some of my upcoming offerings   Including “Journaling for Life” on September 29th, 2021.

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