If you appear to be highly functional and have your shit together, but suffer with chronic symptoms, this post is for you. Let’s talk about the connection between your type of stress response and your illness.
In the world of chronic illness, there’s a peculiar irony that it tends to strike the ones who appear to ‘have it all together.’ If you’re that high achiever who seemingly juggles work, family, and life with remarkable grace, yet secretly battles chronic symptoms behind the scenes, then you’re not alone.
What does this curious link between chronic illness and the ‘freeze’ or ‘appease’ stress responses look like? Picture this: under the ‘freeze’ stress response, you might be grappling with decision paralysis or fatigue, all while keeping a brave face, ensuring the world sees you as the competent, composed individual you’ve always been.
Meanwhile, the ‘appease’ response has you bending over backward to maintain peace, potentially neglecting your health in the process. Perhaps you’re the CEO constantly overworking to please stakeholders or the parent forsaking personal health to cater to family needs. Sound familiar?
It’s not a coincidence that the same people often labeled as ‘overachievers,’ also wrestle with perfectionism and the ever-looming cloud of imposter syndrome. Striving for the impeccable and fearing exposure, you exist in a perpetual state of stress. This relentless cycle amplifies your vulnerability to chronic illnesses like ME/CFS, Lyme disease, mold illness, or long Covid.
Here’s the catch though: the very resilience and determination that bring you success also serve as your barriers to healing. You’re caught in the paradox of ‘functional suffering,’ always pushing through the pain, disregarding your needs, and internalizing the belief that you don’t deserve to rest.
One of the key pieces to healing chronic illness is using practices that create a baseline experience state of love and safety. Imagine feeling that the world and people in it are safe, ready to support you in whatever way you need, and are waiting to tell you how proud they are of not only your achievements, but who you are as a human being.
One of the best ways to start doing this is through mindfulness and meditation. These tools help you stay present, recognize and challenge destructive thought patterns, and soothe physical and mental stress. Together, they’re your secret weapons to foster an environment of safety, acceptance, and love, ultimately setting the stage for healing.
So, dear high achiever, if you’re open-minded and believe in the mind-body connection, give mindfulness and meditation a shot. Don’t let your chronic symptoms be the plot twist in your success story. Instead, let your healing journey be the empowering sequel where you redefine success, not just in terms of achievements, but also personal well-being and self-love.
- Mindful awareness and communication
Your body has a ton of intuitive information to share with you, all you have to do is listen. But how do you do that? A big piece of that puzzle is learning how to bring your attention mindfully to that spot and seeing what arises. To do this, bring your gentle attention to the body part you want to talk to and notice what physical sensations or emotions come up. The key is to be still and notice without trying to interpret, figure out, or make a story about what is happening. Start to notice any sensations or feelings and simply watch them. If anything sticks out to you, you can open a communication about it by gently asking your body, “Tell me more,” and seeing if there is a response or a change.
- Ho’ponopono (forgiveness and gratitude)
There is a Hawaiian practice of forgiveness and gratitude that can absolutely change your relationship with your illness and the energy around it when you practice it on a daily basis. It’s a simple 4 sentence mantra that has profound power. When you are mindfully sitting with your illness say the following: “I’m sorry. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”
“I’m sorry” is about taking responsibility for the way we’ve mistreated ourselves throughout this illness. Perhaps we push ourselves too far, or don’t ask for help when we need it. Perhaps we blame ourselves for getting sick and our inner critic pops up and says things like, “If you’d only eaten better and exercised more, this wouldn’t have happened.” Regardless of what it is, this gives you an opportunity to make amends with yourself and apologize for being anything other than understanding and supportive of your body, whether it’s healthy or ill or anywhere in between.
“I forgive you” is about allowing yourself to feel okay about whatever you were sorry for. You are doing your best and learning as you go, and that’s okay. Forgive yourself for any way you have not treated yourself with the utmost care and respect.
“Thank you” can be used here to appreciate your body and all it’s doing. Even if you are ill, there are parts of your body that are working well and you can send appreciation toward those parts. And even the parts that are ill or out of balance are trying their best to heal, so send appreciation their way for all they do to try to bring you back to health.
“I love you” is all about sending unconditional love to our body, no matter what state it’s in. Just like I can be frustrated with friends or family but still love them, we can feel upset or frustrated with our body or illness and still love our body at the same time. When we sit in the energy of unconditional love, magical healing can occur.
- Look at your relationship with your illness
It’s almost impossible to have an illness or chronic injury and not have it affect your daily life in some way. We all develop coping strategies, feelings and make meaning out of having an illness in order to get by. In order to heal, we have to not only address the symptoms, but also let go of the coping strategies, emotions and other ways we’ve incorporated that illness into our lives. This may sound strange — who would want to keep the coping strategies and emotions around their illness? But our brains are hard-wired to stay with the familiar and avoid change, and if healing also involves a change to how we live our lives, there may be some resistance in our bodymind to that change. This is especially true if your income, type of work or relationships revolve around your illness. For example, if most of your close friends are also people with the same illness, what will that mean for your support system if you get better?
- Understand you’re part of a larger quantum field
There are numerous studies showing that when people become aware that they are not in this alone and that in fact they are part of a larger field of consciousness, miraculous healing can occur. Take some time to sit in the awareness that your body is not separate from all the energy of the universe, it’s a part of it. So, even if you don’t have all the answers, you’re connected to the “worldwide consciousness web” that has more wisdom than you do. Allow yourself to feel that expansion, feel how you are greater than just your mind and body.
One of the most important parts of healing is accepting where you are. If you can think, “This is where I am right now, how can I be more accepting and compassionate towards my body and illness?” it can do a world of good. We all know that no one ever makes lasting changes out of shame, guilt or feeling like they should be somewhere they’re not, and the same is true for your health. Practice having an intention of feeling better without attaching the desire to get there in any particular time or fashion. You are where you are, and you will probably be in a different place tomorrow, and the best thing you can do today, tomorrow or at any point in your life is to be compassionate and accepting, right now.
I’ve been going through a rough patch lately. My physical and emotional health hasn’t been the best and most days it’s felt like I’m having to push through. I think that’s true for a lot of us — I’ve heard from friends near and far about how burned out we all are and how it’s affecting so many areas of our lives. And while I’m reaching out to my network of healers, friends and family for support, it still sucks to go through a rough patch.
So, today I want to talk about suffering. Why do we have to suffer? And what can we do about it?
Let’s look at suffering from a macro, spiritual POV level and then relate it to what we can do on a more micro, daily, human basis.
Ram Dass has two quotes about suffering that seem at odds with each other at first glance, but taken together are actually one of the great esoteric secrets of enlightenment. Here are the two quotes:
“Suffering is the sandpaper of our incarnation. It does its work of shaping us.”
― Ram Dass
“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.”
― Ram Dass
In the first quote, Ram Dass is alluding to the rule of contrast, or the yin and yang. A classic example of this is that in order to understand the concept of darkness, you need to have experienced light. If darkness is the absence of light, then you can’t understand what darkness is without already having experienced what light is, or vice versa. In the same way, you’d find it harder to appreciate and deeply experience joy unless you’ve also experienced suffering.
Suffering creates gratitude for times of peace and joy.
One time, I had a particularly hard health challenge where I was basically bedridden for months. When I could finally walk again and first went outside, the sight of the trees, the sky, even the miracle of a sidewalk existing so I could walk on it (with all of the technological history and people needed to create it ) was so awe-inspiring that it brought me to tears of gratitude. I don’t think that without a few months of being inside and immobile, I would have cried at the sight of a sidewalk. The suffering shaped me into someone who appreciated things I hadn’t before. Things that we would take for granted as “normal” become a source of joy after we feel their absence. And the cool thing is, that sticks with you. I don’t cry tears of joy at every tree I see nowadays, but I remember that feeling and I can invoke levels of gratitude for things that I never would have before. That is sandpaper that has shaped me for the better.
Suffering also helps us develop compassion for those who have gone through similar experiences.
Compassion is the root of nonjudgemental love and divine action. If we can have compassion for someone, we can see suffering at the root of their actions rather than judging them for those actions. From this place, we can meet them with our common humanity. We are all learning and remembering what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience. Who we are in the world (a.k.a. how we love and care in the world) is shaped by our suffering. In a world where our culture, corporations, and even our genes encourage us to try to “otherize” those who are different from us and “find our tribe,” compassion reminds us that all humans, animals and even the planet are all “our tribe.”
The second quote, “The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering,” is a bit more esoteric and harder to practice in the moment. I’d heard some version of this concept for years before I finally got it on a level that I could use to find peace in times of stress. I’d read the saying “desire is the root of all suffering” in many Buddhist texts and at first I thought it meant desire for material goods, people or situations that we coveted. But it’s not that kind of desire. It’s more like the desire for things to be different than they are in this moment, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant this moment may be. The key is to accept whatever is happening and not desire it to be any other way right now. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t desire things in your life. In fact, I think that intuitive, inspired desire is one of the ways we figure out our life’s purpose. This is why I like this version by Ram Dass. “The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering” means that if we can accept whatever is happening right now and not wish it to be different or better, then our suffering is greatly diminished.
Let me give you a few examples (like I said, this one is harder to grasp as a practice). When I was going through cancer treatment, I had some of the worst days of my life. My body was so weak and damaged that I almost gave up and died. However, this is also when I first started the practice of giving up resistance to what was happening. When I would get bad news from the doctor I thought to myself “Now, this is happening” and find the calm grace of acceptance even in the face of terrible news. I started using it to mark the good things, too, like when my puppy would curl up next to me in bed I thought, “Now, this is happening.” (Side note: I got this phrase from Jack Black in the movie Anchorman, proving that you never know who your spiritual teachers will be.) As I used this mantra more and more, I started to develop a powerful mindfulness, a part of my body-mind that could observe the situation without judgement and with full acceptance of what was arising.
Here’s another example. Recently, I started on a new medication that started causing anxiety attacks after a few months of use. It took a while to figure out that it was this particular medication that was the cause, so for months I was having unexplained bouts of severe anxiety attacks for hours at a time. One of the tools I used to get through was mindfulness meditation. I would lay down, close my eyes and do my best to simply observe the anxiety in my body as it was happening. At one point, I felt my consciousness almost split in two. There was the part of me that was anxious, with my heart racing, panicked thoughts, hot and cold chills and the painful feeling of adrenaline pumping through my chest, and then there was another part, a part that transcended that human experience as I had the thought, “this body is experiencing anxiety right now.” That second part of me suddenly felt so peaceful and all-knowing. I found that I could shift my awareness, or almost lean in, to that peaceful, wise part of myself. In that space there was no suffering at all, there was simply the acceptance of what was happening, which somehow dissolved the desire for it to be any other way. In that moment, acceptance was peace. Even in the face of a panic attack.
Which brings us right back to the first quote — suffering is the sandpaper that shapes us. Without this anxiety, I wouldn’t have been able to deepen my meditation practice and wouldn’t have discovered how deeply I could find peace in acceptance. Those few months of anxiety were the sandpaper that shaped me into someone who practiced mindfulness enough to find peace and calm somewhere that I never thought it could exist, in the midst of a panic attack.
So while I do not wish suffering on myself, you, or anyone else, I do understand a bit of why it’s part of our incarnated human experience. However, even though I know this as true, I routinely forget it and fall back into the desire for things to be different than they are. But the key is remembering at some point — if it’s 2 seconds or 2 days into the pain — that you can experience the pain without resistance, and therefore without suffering. And to become aware that this pain is shaping you into a more compassionate, loving and understanding person. As you understand pain, you will open your heart to others and take this newfound understanding and compassion with you into the world from this day forward, helping those who could use a bit of it directed their way as they make their way through their own pain and suffering.
It’s been a chaotic last couple of years, hasn’t it? Global pandemics, the rise of fascism, and disconnection from so many of the people and things that keep us sane and grounded. So many familiar things are falling apart, and I know that I’ve had to figure out new ways to find happiness and connection in these unpredictable times. As with anything new, it’s been a bit of trial and error.
But there are 4 things that I know will help and that I keep coming back to over and over.
- Mindfulness. The ability to be in the present moment and have the ability to access two parts of me (the part that is having the experience and the part that is compassionately observing the experience) has been invaluable. When things are rough or when things are good, I can witness myself having that experience from a place of wisdom and compassion. When I am feeling scared I can be scared and at the same time, send compassion and love to the past of me that’s scared. When I’m feeling joy I can actually register that joy and make a mental note of how happy I am, which rewires my brain to seek happiness. It’s sort of like a magic trick – being two places at once – and it’s one of the best tools I know for coming back and caring for yourself in hard times. It can create a new perspective that’s different from the trauma reactions you’ve had in the past.
- Learning to love your pain. I know, I know. That sounds terrible. But hear me out. I know mental anguish sucks. Anxiety, loneliness, feeling out of control, it all sucks. But those places where we feel pain are signposts to where we need to let in love. Doing shadow work and finding the places where you’ve been hurt can also be seen as finding the places where you can open up to love. This can be self-love (goodbye inner critic!), love from others like friends, pets, etc, or a connection with source, the ultimate field of unconditional love. It’s not easy, and we often put up barriers in those shadow places because we’ve been burned in the past, but as Rumi says, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
- Being kind to yourself. I don’t know about you, but I say horrid things to myself that I would never dream of saying to anyone else. Years ago, I made a vow to myself that I would not say anything to myself that I wouldn’t say to my best friend. I’ve found that when times get tough and we feel like we’re not doing a good enough job, those voices can get stronger. Anyone feel like they’re not doing enough when really, it’s a pandemic + past trauma + late-stage capitalism + a society focused on disconnection under the guise of hyperindividualism? Coming to love ourselves takes work in the face of all of this is an intentional act and takes patience, love and care.
- Having a spiritual practice. You can call it God, source, the universal field of consciousness, or the flying spaghetti monster, but the ability to tap into this energy and feel it in your bones and feel how much love and support there is for you out there is key. No one can do it alone. But sometimes we don’t have the perfect people around at the perfect moment to help us. That’s when a spiritual connection and a deep knowing that all of this will be okay can come to the rescue. You are part of something so much larger than whatever is going wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a pit of despair and the only thing that gave me relief was the sense of grace I get when I meditate and intentionally connect to that field of consciousness. We’re all just little holograms of God, running around having incarnate experiences. And those incarnate experiences can feel BIG and overwhelming at times, but it is not all that we are. We are so much more than that and you can access that expansive feeling anytime you want through your spiritual practice.
If you want to know more about any of these 4 tools or want help learning how to use them in your own life, I’m teaching a course all about them and it starts next week. If you’re curious, drop me a line or check out the webpage here: https://megancaper.com/uth
Feeling disconnected and unmoored is one of the most insidious aftereffects of trauma. Whether it’s 2+ years of pandemic isolation or the result of a childhood in an emotionally detached family, feeling disconnected and alone is such a common experience.
I know that personally it’s been a lifelong work in progress to feel the support and care around me after growing up in a family that was emotionally disconnected and spiteful. Even with good friends, loving partners, a solid found family and a community around me, that feeling of disconnection or like I’m going to have the rug pulled out from under me can come on at any moment.
A few years ago, I was meditating through this feeling and I felt myself sink into a warm, soft energetic embrace. There was a feeling of calm and safety, and in that moment, I knew everything was alright.
And it was. In that moment, as with most moments of my life, I was safe. But I usually can’t access that feeling.
The problem arises when my brain reverts to a pattern of hypervigilance and anticipation – after experiencing so many moments where I had to look out for emotional or physical danger, my brain and body have been trained to be prepared. And that state of hypervigilant preparation certainly does not feel like calm and safety, and it doesn’t feel like everything is going to be alright.
But in meditation, I can drop the worry and sink into the moment of what I’m doing – being still, observing my body and mind, in a place and time of my own creation, which is free from any potential threats.
There’s a form of meditation called Settling the Mind in its Natural State where “the activities of the mind gradually subside so that the mind comes to settle in its ‘natural state,’ which manifests three core qualities: bliss, luminosity, and non-conceptuality.” I would add the word “connection” to that list of effects because in that state I found the connection I was looking for. It wasn’t dependent on a particular person or circumstance, but was already a part of who I am. Since my “natural state” is being connected to universal consciousness, I am always connected to the one consciousness that runs through all of us.
In those moments of meditation, that connection becomes real, and (if I meditate daily) it becomes a part of my daily reality, as well. As a result, my nervous system changes, my brain rewires, and eventually my experience of being connected and safe become the baseline instead of something I have to strive for.
I still experience those post-traumatic moments of disconnection at times, but having a meditation practice where I know I can bring myself back to that natural state of bliss and connection at any moment has been such an important part of my healing.
If this practice of feeling connected, safe and cared for sounds like something that you’d like to learn, then I’d love to invite you to join my group program Unconventional Tools for Healing starting April 25. It’s one of the many tools I teach in the class to help you cultivate the emotional balance that we all crave.
See you there!
Mindfulness is one of the bedrocks of mind-body healing. Without it, you can’t accomplish any significant healing on a physical, emotional or spiritual level. I want to look at what I mean by mindfulness and then give you some examples of how it integrates with other healing tools.
Mindfulness is really two different things: the ability to be in the present moment AND metacognitive observation of this moment.
Being in the present moment means you are only experiencing what is going on right now in your environment, body and mind. Mindfulness is our natural state when we are feeling calm, relaxed and connected. When you are mindful, you don’t get swept away in thinking of a conversation you had earlier today, or lost in worry about how things may turn out in the future, you stay grounded in what is actually happening right now.
Metacognitive observation is the gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s going on in the present moment. It’s observing the situation and our reaction to it without adding any mental chatter about why it may be “right” or “wrong”. When you are mindful, you notice thoughts come up and say to yourself something like, “Ah! It’s worry. I’m worried about how my presentation will go tomorrow.” In this way you are not getting lost in spiraling thoughts about the worry, but rather you observe the worrying thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.
Mindfulness is a prerequisite to almost any other type of healing work because without the ability to be present and observe what’s going on and our reaction to it, we won’t be able to identify or change harmful thoughts, belief systems, or patterns of reactivity.
Mindfulness is the tool we can use to self-diagnose our own maladaptive patterns.
Without mindfulness, we’ll continue to engage in these patterns unconsciously, and the true nature of our difficulties will remain hidden from us. Doing healing work without the foundation of mindfulness is like going to the doctor and asking for treatment without having identified any specific symptoms other than “I don’t feel well”.
Mindfulness is the basis for the best healing tools for stress and trauma. For example, thought work is based on being aware of both our thoughts and our emotions at any given time. Cultivating our inner caregiver can only happen if we can catch our inner critic when they’re in action. You can only develop your intuition in a present and open state. Even physical healing from illness or injury only happens in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system state. (Note: if you’re curious about any of these tools, I’ll be talking about all of them in the next few weeks!)
Not only that, but mindfulness is incredibly healing on its own. Observing your own emotions, thoughts and reactions from a place of gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance can be the key to undoing years of bullying, emotional neglect and other trauma. Being in the present moment allows us to look around and see what’s good, safe and inspiring right now in both our internal and external worlds.
However, if you’ve experienced chronic stress or trauma, mindfulness may be much harder for you. You may feel pulled out of the present moment by anxiety, depression, hypervigilance or dissociation. For people with anxiety or depression, it can be challenging to observe our thoughts and feelings without internal mental commentary. People who dissociate may not even be registering what’s going on at all, and it’s impossible to observe experiences that you aren’t even aware of. In fact, people who have experienced chronic stress or have C-PTSD may spend most of their time in these other states, which can make both mindfulness and all of the other healing tools that stem from it that much harder to access.
If you’ve tried mindfulness or meditation before and it hasn’t worked for you, then I’d like to invite you to join me for my upcoming group course “Unconventional Tools for Healing” where I’ll teach you my trauma-informed take on mindfulness, and teach how to finally be able to get to that calm, relaxed and connected state even if it’s eluded you in the past. And from that state, miraculous healing can occur
Click here to learn more and feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the course or if it’s right for you.