A New Way to Look at Stress to Improve Health Outcomes
Published on draxe.com on July 27 by Jonathan Ley
Every once in a while, if we’re really lucky, we might happen to come across an idea that radically changes the course of life in unimaginable ways. I came across such a thing many years ago that had amazing implications for how someone deals with stress and how this can not only improve health outcomes but also result in a person experiencing way more peace, joy, love and goodness in their life.
I have had the fortune of working with close to a hundred people with different types of advanced cancer cases and many hundreds more with a variety of other serious health conditions in my practice as a life coach and herbalist.
This last year, I had some time to reflect and look back at all the work I’d done with people, and I noticed something very curious I’d never seen before about my whole experience working with people.
What I discovered with the people with advanced cancer and other serious illnesses was that if they had a strong sense of purpose, desire and conviction to keep on living, all of them ended up finding a way to survive, recover and even thrive regardless of what treatment option they chose or challenges they had to go through.
Conversely, the people with very serious health conditions who were totally overwhelmed or confronted by life, who couldn’t find a further purpose, eventually died or numbed themselves right out no matter what treatment option or program they did.
This recent article published on NPR.org refers to a study which concluded a similar finding whereby there is a strong correlation between having a sense of purpose and positive health outcomes.
While this might seem obvious at first glance, it’s also something that rarely gets talks about. Instead, when you hear about someone turning around cancer or another serious illness, most tend to attribute their success to a specific program or some sort of medicine they took. When someone passes away from something like cancer, often people will say it was due to them doing the wrong treatment option and blaming it on the chemotherapy or radiation and that they should have gone the natural route.
For those who died going the natural cancer treatment route, there are others who think they would have survived had they done the standard allopathic treatment. These are certainly valid ways of looking at it. However, rarely do you hear — maybe the deeper reason they lived or died had more to do with them either having a strong desire and purpose to stick around or because they wanted or were ready to go.
I’ve seen all sorts of healing modalities work for people to turn around next to impossible conditions like late-stage cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and more. Although I would never personally recommend it just because of the significant side effects, I’ve even seen chemotherapy and radiation work with a small number of people with very advanced cancer.
For example, I have one client who was administered chemotherapy 20 years before I met her, and her doctors were incredulous that she lived — telling her that the amount of chemo that had been given to her would have killed anyone else. Yet she had an incredible conviction that it would work and she survived despite all odds. I’ve also seen people try all those same healing modalities and still not make it.
The thing that I consistently found as the more accurate indicator for whether someone was going to live or not was whether they had a deeper sense of purpose or desire to keep on going or not. If they didn’t, the treatments or recommendations might have helped buy them a little more time, but the person invariably went downhill and passed anyway.
So if having a desire to live is so important and obvious and has such a big impact on health outcomes, why is it something that’s so rarely touched upon in the relationship between the health practitioner and the patient? The primary reason is that to have this conversation would invariably bring up a lot of emotional pain that the patient hasn’t been able to process or deal with in their own life, which is very uncomfortable to look at. This is coupled along with the fact that the human brain is wired up to avoid experiencing things that are painful in order for us to survive.
The other thing is that we are very selective with who we feel safe to open up with and talk about what’s really going on in our lives. We can intuitively feel if it’s safe or unsafe to reveal more of ourselves to someone and can sense if they’ll be able to really “hear” us without judging, reacting or trying to fix or change us. Furthermore, most people are aware that doctors and health practitioners are generally not trained in the ability to help people with stress beyond prescribing a pill, natural medicine or doing some sort of physical therapy work.
So instead, the default option is to get into a discussion about symptoms and treating symptoms or recommending a health program that serves to distract the patient/client away from feeling the pain of any underlying stress and reach for some relief. The treatment or recommendation options could include anything from a chemical medication, natural medicine, physical therapy or energy work, which all help give some relief. Natural substances like cannabis and kratom are also becoming increasingly more popular as they become more legalized and easier to procure.
While there is sometimes a cost with some of these options in the form of side effects, I also don’t think there is anything wrong treating or recommending things for dealing with symptoms with any of these ways either. If people didn’t have these options for getting relief, they might not be able to handle the stresses of life or function at all.
People will typically employ these strategies until they don’t work for the physical and emotional pain and then they’re often faced with the choice of stronger and stronger treatments or having to face the stress head-on.
In my health practice, I often recommend medicinal herbs and dietary adjustments to those I work with. While these help in detoxifying the body for those who are just wanting some form of relief, I find I get far superior life-changing results with people when I work with them on what’s behind the stress (for those who are at a point where they are ready and willing to look at this). Helping them see other ways of perceiving and addressing their stress and emotions is key to bringing about change. I’ve found this is not just something that benefits people with serious health conditions but is enormously valuable for anyone.
Regarding stress, I know that most people would love to be able to offload and not be burdened by it. The reality is that there are few places where it’s safe enough for someone to open up fully and work through what they’ve been holding on to without being judged. Instead, people mostly go through life holding on to or concealing the things that they are ashamed about, thinking it would be the end of the world if anyone else ever discovered those things about them.
If someone is very lucky, they might have a friend or a family member with whom they can share more with, but it’s extremely rare for a person to have someone in their life with whom they can fully be themselves and talk about whatever is on their mind, trusting that the other person will just listen, won’t leave, will still love them, will not react or tell them that there is something wrong with them or try to fix them and still get behind and support all their goals and dreams. The thing I’ve found is the biggest gift by far for someone is for them to know that they’re lovable just the way they are and the way they aren’t.
I do a lot of this work nowadays with people and am continually amazed at the results I see for people when they get freed up from the burden of self-judgment and knowing that who they are fundamentally is okay and lovable.
All the time, energy and money people expend trying to conceal or fix something about themselves or compensate for some perceived deficiency or lack, can now be redirected towards other projects and things that bring a deeper sense of fulfillment in life.
I had a client who had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) by a psychiatrist. She had a successful career in health care but was becoming increasingly frustrated with many of her clients who weren’t following any of her recommendations, and they’d come into her office time and time again with the same problem and not making any progress.
What she really wanted to be doing was work with people who were more proactive and who took more responsibility for their health, but she couldn’t see any way out of her dilemma and was noticing she was having a harder time focusing on her work and gradually becoming more depressed. Taking stress leave from her work, she spoke with a counselor who referred her to a psychiatrist where she had been given the diagnosis of ADD and prescribed Ritalin.
When she sat down with me, she thought her problem was the depression and her lack of focus and was thinking that I’d have a diet plan and medicinal herbs that could help with that. As I listened to her story more, I realized that there wasn’t really anything wrong with her. The only thing that was off was perhaps was her own perception that there was something wrong with her and her being hard on herself for not being able to focus.
I saw that she hadn’t been “fully heard“ by the practitioners she had seen — and they had thought that there was something wrong with her that needed to be fixed with a chemical medication. Of course, this was a completely reasonable suggestion on their part and that would have given her some relief and helped her get back to work. She could have gone on treating her symptoms, learning to cope as best she could in her job and become more ingrained in the idea that she had a medical condition while dealing with the side effects of the medication and that would have been a reasonable way to go.
I took a different approach, letting her know that lack of focus and depression is a completely normal response for someone who is doing something that they don’t like to be doing. I pointed out that if I or someone else had been in the same situation, we might have responded in the same way. I also said that it was perfectly fine if she wanted to treat the symptoms with Ritalin and suppress the emotions and deal with the side effects from that.
Or, the other options would be to learn how to be more effective at having people take more responsibility or she could retrain and do something else. She didn’t get to choose her clients, so retraining was the next best thing, but the thought of doing that terrified her, and she had no idea what she wanted to do next or how she would survive financially while taking the time to reeducate herself in a different career.
One weekend, I invited her out to an event on living your life to its fullest. It was there that she had an even deeper experience and saw that she was okay just the way she was. After this, she started to see a whole new avenue she’d never considered before and found a way to make it work financially while transitioning at the same time.
Within one year, she had retrained in another health modality she loved, started an independent practice which became very popular and successful, and all the symptoms of ADD went away by themselves without her ever having to take any medications.
One of the things I’ve found the most helpful for clients is helping them shift their understanding and relationship with stress. Most people relate to it as something bad that they need to manage, suppress or push away and this makes sense considering the design of the human brain and how it works to help us avoid pain to survive.
However, depending on your understanding of what stress is and what causes it, stress can also be seen as a tremendous opportunity to grow personally and become an avenue for someone to have a lot more joy, peace, fulfillment and satisfaction in life. It just requires gaining a little more awareness and looking at things from another perspective.
Remember back to the last time you experienced a high amount of stress, or if you’re experiencing it right now, take a moment and get present to how you feel in your body and ask yourself, “what am I feeling right now in my body?“ and “what am I thinking?“
What you’ll probably notice is that there are two parts to it:
- Some sort of emotion (usually some fear, anger, sadness or grief, with fear and anger usually being the most common), and
- Some sort of repetitive story or interpretation about a scenario where you can’t see any hope, where things look impossible, or where you lose something and it has sort of a “gripping” aspect to it (i.e., you can’t stop thinking about it).
Now, change your thoughts and put your attention on something completely different. Notice how the uncomfortable feelings and bodily sensations dissipate or go away immediately. When you go back to thinking about the same stressful thing, the bodily sensations come right back. The emotions are tied to your “perception” or interpretation of the situation.
Years ago, I started noticing something very curious that was happening with all my clients with cancer and other serious conditions. Whenever they had family or friends come over, they enjoyed spending time or when they went out and did events or activities they loved doing, all the pain and symptoms would dissipate or even go away. As soon as they were alone or stopped doing the activity, the pain and symptoms would come right back. This cycle started to become highly predictable. Nothing else had really changed in their reality except what they were thinking, what they put their attention on or how they perceived the world.
If someone can change the perception of a situation, this can have things start to change, but there’s an even more critical aspect that needs to happen for the stress to completely disappear. And this is so simple, we’ve almost all completely missed it.
I’ll use the example of relationships to exemplify the common strategies people have around dealing with stress. Then I will discuss how someone can use this new approach to make stress disappear completely.
Think back to the last time you were really stressed out about something that someone close to you did or said (perhaps an intimate partner or a close family member). It may have looked like it was the other person who was responsible for you feeling that uncomfortable and unpleasant emotion by what they said or did. Since the normal response of the human brain is to avoid pain, you unconsciously might employ any number of strategies in that situation.
You might try and change or control the other person to get them to do something different. Another strategy might be, rather than confronting them, to numb yourself out to the feelings by taking medication or consuming a substance, so you don’t have to feel the unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions. Some people might respond by eating more as certain properties in foods produce a sedative-like effect in the body which numbs the emotions.
Likewise, you could distract yourself from the unpleasant emotions with some sort of an addiction (which could be something as simple as constantly checking your cell phone or watching more TV or Netflix, which would have you thinking about something else). Finally, you could distance yourself from that person by not spending as much time with them, or maybe even cutting them out of your life. Sound familiar? We all do this to some degree.
These strategies all work and give some temporary relief from the stress, but by doing these, you may want to consider that you have set your life up to have your internal state of happiness and peace be dependent upon an external circumstance having to be a particular way (that you mostly have no control over). When things go the way you want, you’re happy and at peace, but when things don’t go the way you want, all the uncomfortable emotions come rushing back in and you feel an increase in stress.
These strategies might work for some time, but we all know that life isn’t static and things are constantly changing. When something major happens outside your control — the other person gets sick, they lose their job, they do something where the strategies you used to keep things under control don’t work anymore, etc., then stress can get really out of hand and have a massively detrimental impact on your health, energy and overall well-being. I’ve even seen this eventually lead to cancer in many cases.
The good news is that there is a whole other way of looking at the same situation that gives a very different result, and that is to consider that the emotions like anger, sadness, grief and fear that you have such a hard time being with were already there inside you even before that person showed up in your life. In other words, the other person didn’t cause the emotions in you, you already had the negative emotions in you when you were born. The other person was just doing what they always do and that triggered and brought up what was already inside you.
I had a hard time believing and fully comprehending this until I had my daughter … she used to laugh and giggle in her sleep a few weeks after she was born but never laughed when she was awake. This wasn’t something that she had learned or modeled from myself or my wife. It was something that she already came into the world with. Other times when she got angry at something in her very early years, it wasn’t a response she had learned from her mom or me either … it was something she already had in her. The circumstance served to trigger and bring it up in her.
Understandably, it would be more desirable to not be carrying around these negative emotions, especially since they can have a hugely detrimental impact on our health and our lives. Furthermore, most people would love to experience more love and compassion, which is really not possible when we’re consumed by anger, fear, sadness or grief. It behooves us to not be holding onto these.
Rather than being a victim of someone coming into our lives who triggers these emotions, another way of looking at this is perhaps they’re a gift in disguise. They are doing us the service of being able to see certain aspects of ourselves more clearly that we want to let go of anyways. This allows us the opportunity to become more loving, caring and compassionate. Yet, that still leaves us with the question of what do we do with the negative emotions when they arise.
If you look close enough, you might notice how life tends to keep on repeating itself, giving us the same circumstances over and over (as if it were somehow trying to teach us a lesson) until we learn to work through the challenge. In school or college, you don’t get to go on to the next level until you pass a course. In your work, you don’t get a promotion until you achieve certain performance goals or show a certain level of competence that most often required you having to work through a challenge. With relationships, you might notice that the same issue(s) tend to keep on happening over and over until you learn something from the situation, and there is a shift.
Think back to a time and area in your life where it initially looked like nothing would ever change no matter what you did and then one day something completely different happened, and life was never the same afterwards.
If you look back at that event, you might remember having had to take an uncomfortable risk, or telling the truth to yourself or another person about something that was uncomfortable to do, letting go of resentment and forgiving someone, or expressing love for someone when it was scary to do. These things most likely all involved you having to “feel” some uncomfortable emotion, face your fear, or feel and let go of anger, grief or sadness that you might have been resisting to do prior. Once you had felt the emotion, the circumstances changed in life thereafter, and you never had that same circumstance show up in life again.
I used to be terrified of asking women to dance who were very good at dancing. Even though I had taken dance lessons for a couple of years, I would go out on social dance night every other Friday night and sit in the corner most of the evening and only ask women to dance who were beginner dancers. This went on for over a year.
One day, I finally got up the gumption to go and ask someone who was a really good dancer to dance. Now, the entire time I thought I was going to die and could feel my whole body shaking. However, after about a couple minutes of dancing with her, the fear completely passed. From that moment on, I never had any issues asking anyone to dance. And just a few years later, I even ended up meeting my wife through dancing (and she was a much better dancer than me at the time).
Consider that the lesson is to feel the negative emotion so it can disappear. Once you’ve felt it and released it, you can now be in the same situation that always triggers you and be at peace and freed up to take a completely new action. Once this happens, usually the circumstances of life shift and things are never the same going forward.
Often it seems like there are some things in life we can’t have, but yet, if we’re open and willing to feel the emotions and experiment with new ways of looking at things, completely new solutions and circumstances can present themselves that often were unimaginable before.
Going back to the example of the relationship. So now you realize that you have had some negative emotion(s) in you triggered by the other person for you to see yourself more clearly. You could still go on what you’ve always done in the same situation, getting more of the same results, and that would be a completely reasonable thing to do. You could also recognize that the stress and negative emotions when they get triggered are slowly causing your body to fall apart and you now have an opportunity to have these disappear and be displaced by love and compassion.
Now it might initially look like letting go of your anger would mean you have to settle on never getting what you want, but now you’re also aware that perhaps there are other solutions if you are only able to change your perception and fully “feel” the negative emotion. There’s no reason that you shouldn’t get everything you want in the world, but perhaps there’s a different way to go about things that might yield a better result.
After all, if you look back at your life, there were times when things came easily and effortlessly to you in relationships … you just might not have been aware of what you were doing at the time that worked. Furthermore, there are other people out there who have figured it out as well, so it’s definitely possible. Not that you were doing anything wrong, but it might just be a matter of being open to learning something new, gaining more awareness and trying something different. In the meantime, you might decide that having more love and letting go of the things that are causing the stress is the way to go.
The wonderful news is that this model of perceiving stress as an opportunity can actually be applied to any area of life. For the most part, the rest of the world doesn’t really see it in this way. It’s incredibly easy to buy into the notion that we’re victims of other people and constantly changing circumstances in a hostile world.
And while there is not much peace that comes with constantly trying to control and protect oneself against factors that are largely outside of one’s control or constantly numbing or distracting oneself from the stress, there is certainly nothing wrong with living this way either. Everyone is free to choose how they want to play out their lives, and a life like that might be providing the perfect lessons and experience for someone.
On the other hand, for someone who wants to discover more peace and joy in their own life and is interested in changing their relationship to stress, for the most, it’s a gradual process. This process involves starting to discover what’s really right and good about life. Ultimately, the areas where someone has been experiencing stress have also been the biggest opportunities in disguise all along for someone to have more love, joy, peace, better health and goodness in their lives.
If someone is interested in learning to walk more on this path in life, I recommend working with someone who can just listen from an unconditionally loving place. Someone who doesn’t judge and can help them to see what’s really right about life as this can make all the difference in the world. Plus, it can shave decades off of the learning curve not to mention having the journey be more enjoyable. Gradually, this becomes a habitual way of seeing the world, and it’s quite a delightful way to live.
Jonathan Ley is a life coach, herbalist and detoxification practitioner dedicated to bringing active listening and unconditional love into the health practitioner/client dynamic and working with people to help them develop more conscious awareness around their health and a deeper sense of fulfillment in all areas of life. Find out more about him and his practice at www.painfreehappylife.com.
A Gentle Approach to Looking at Food Cravings and Addictions
July 25, 2019 by Jonathan Ley
Food and substance addictions get a really bad rap I’ve found and have people really beating themselves up about things. I’ve finally found a whole other way to approach this that takes all the judgment out of things for people. I’m starting to see that the addiction is actually more of a survival mechanism for people. . .and it seems to look this way with any addiction – even heroine, alcohol, cigarettes or whatever. It’s a way of not feeling and I often wonder if someone didn’t have the addiction, if the stress might wreak far more damage to the body than the addiction itself. . .coming from that perspective, maybe it’s even a good thing that a person developed that addiction because the stress might have killed them long before that otherwise.
I had a woman I’d been working with for over a year call me up recently wondering if she should take antidepressants which her doctor had prescribed. I’d notice she’d always get up to a certain point of improvement and things would fall apart and her health would go right downhill once again. I’d ventured on a number of occasions into the conversation about stress but every time had to back off because it was more than she could process. It was an interesting place to be in since the old me would have taken a dogmatic stance saying that there’s something wrong with the antidepressants and that she could go further into the detox, but she was in significant trouble at that point with the amount of inflammation in her body (and if she continued down the same road she was on, she might even start to develop atypical cells in her esophagus). She’d been eating 100% raw for awhile (by her own choice), doing the herbs and she’d also tried backing right off that and going a lot slower with a lot more cooked food in her diet and even meat at one point but still falling apart with significant systemic inflammation.
I had to explain to her that there was nothing “wrong” with doing the antidepressants and if she couldn’t balance things out around stress (if stress indeed was connected to state of her condition), and that the stress might be the thing that kills her. . .sometimes there is a time and a place for any pharmaceutical medication and best to keep an open mind. Taking a dogmatic or righteous stance can sometimes hurt our chances of recovering. I also shared that I knew many people who said that the antidepressants were life savers and really good that they found them.
Years ago, had someone said something like this, I might have flipped out as I was pretty righteous about the whole thing. But now I’m coming more from the place of thinking that the food addiction is just part of a survival mechanism. The “beating oneself up about the addiction” and “trying to white knuckle one’s way through it” sometimes works but often doesn’t seem to serve people in the long run I’m finding as they bounce back to old habits.
However, it might have reached a point where the addiction is now starting to kill someone if they continue to hold on to it and there is now a need to change. The best way through this dilemma I’ve seen seems to be “owning all aspects of oneself”. . .even the things that people are most ashamed or embarrassed about – including the addictions and the stuff that people don’t want to look at and have an addiction so as to not feel certain things.
When I got upset at people not being able to let go of an addiction, I saw that it almost always was mostly about me not being ok with my own addictions, and the aspects of myself I was hiding from others. I started sharing with some of my close clients the things that I was reluctant to want to reveal or things that I was embarrassed or beat myself up (as part of my own process) and noticed it had the effect of creating a safe space them to say a lot more about what was going on for them that they didn’t feel comfortable talking about with anyone or trouble owning. We could finally have a much more “real” conversation.
I think there’s a reason we get dealt the had we’ve been dealt. . .there are no mistakes with this. The more we make ourselves wrong or try to “push” away or deny those aspects of self, the more these things tend to hang around with us. . . which is probably why food and substance addictions tend to keep on coming back over and over again.
Conversely, I find if I can really get right with something just the way it is and isn’t, I find something completely new can come in. This is something I found cannot be faked or something that the “head / mind” can orchestrate by saying “I’ll be ok with this aspect with myself in order to get somewhere else”. . .it doesn’t work like that. . .I really have to be 100% ok that something might be a certain way for the rest of my life if that’s what the Universe intended for me, owning all of it – and then open to whatever the Universe / God has in store for me next. I can make a request, but have to trust that whatever the Universe wants is probably better than anything I could come up with in my mind / head.
The Art of Having a “Sane” or “Real” Conversation With Someone About Cancer
Published in Medium.com June 27, 2019 by Jonathan Ley
I have found that I can’t have a “real” or “sane” conversation with someone about cancer until we’ve considered that it’s just a valid a viewpoint if they want to die as well and that’s okay if they want to go that way and nothing wrong with that. After all, we all have to have something that takes us out of here at some point when we are ready to go (and that’s something that’s normal or inevitable – and can actually even be seen as a good thing because keeping in one’s awareness that we will for sure die, has us take more risks in life, let go resentments, express love for others – because we can’t take any of that anger, fear, etc along with us when we go). In a case where someone is truly ready to go, what’s wrong with them having cancer?
I find once someone realizes that I’m not attached at all to whether they stay or go, they start to open up and get way more “real” about what’s going on in their life – all the stresses, frustrations, anger, fear, challenges, etc. that they have no clue how to work through and may look way easier dying than staying. Up until the point where I was attached to the idea that people live, I found that the people I worked with with cancer would never completely open up and say everything that was going on for them because I wasn’t living from a completely unconditionally loving a safe space where whatever choice they made could be honoured. This is kind of the pink elephant in the room and has the “emotional charge” around cancer disappear when this gets revealed.
At that point, if someone wants to stick around, I find it’s more a matter if someone wants to expand their awareness to see life from another perspective that could have them move through their challenges. Or they might not want to do this and find that life is too hard and it’s better going (which is a reasonable choice).
That being said, I always find that there are no mistakes at all why someone has the life, the parents, relationships and circumstances they are in in life. Someone might not be able to see it, but there is a whole other context to see things from which can give someone tremendous freedom with all of the suffering. . .some incredible lessons to learn this lifetime (and if you look really close, what you might notice that life keeps on throwing the same challenges our way again and again. . .but when the lesson is learned, you don’t have to go through the specific horrible stuff anymore and life can shift in beautiful ways and often faster than could possibly ever be imagined if someone is really surrendered. . .I have seen cancer and other conditions completely disappear for some people in a matter of weeks even) However, it came down to a personal choice on their part if they wanted to do the awareness work to stay or not.
The Miracle That Listening and Unconditional Love Can Have For People With Cancer and Other Serious Health Conditions
article published in Medium.com March 5, 2019 by Jonathan Ley
Years ago, I had the great fortune of getting to train with a well-known naturopathic doctor who had a very high success rate turning around serious medical conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and much more.
I had the chance to learn a unique approach to helping people detoxify their bodies using a combination of dietary recommendations and medicinal herbs as well as helping them develop a greater awareness of how they lost their good health to begin with. This approach made way more sense than anything I’d ever come across before, and I thought that if could just align myself with what he was doing, I’d be able to replicate that same level of results.
As I got out into the world teaching this methodology, developing my practice and taking on more and more clients, my level of effectiveness and success gradually went up to the point where I was working with a lot of people with advanced cancer and other serious health conditions all over North America.
I saw people having some of the most remarkable recoveries but on the flip side there were also people that I worked with who didn’t recover no matter what I did with them, which is something that health practitioners seldom like to talk about.
I never had bought into the idea that there is such a thing as an incurable autoimmune disease but rather inherited the belief system that it is possible to turn anything around if someone has a strong enough conviction to live and is willing to do whatever it takes to heal . Even though I was very effective as a practitioner by most anyone’s standards, if some of my clients weren’t getting better, there was still more for me to learn.
So I redesigned my practice, developed better ways of helping people change their diet and working through food cravings. I also started using different natural remedies, and incorporated other alternative healing modalities in my practice. As a result of these changes, my level of results went up again, but I still had health clients who weren’t getting better.
Around the same time, I was working with another brilliant mentor who suggested that I try “active listening” in my practice.
Although I had heard this term mentioned before and understood the importance of listening, I still didn’t quite grasp what he meant by that. After all, I thought I had been listening to my clients . . . they would come into my office, list out their symptoms and ailments, and I’d get them to write out in detail what they were eating and the food cravings they had. I’d ask them about sleep patterns, their home environment, and would even ask them to list out what stresses they had in their lives.
He said that active listening isn’t just about listening to a report of their symptoms and life circumstances. Rather, it is about creating a safe enough space for them to open up and share a lot more about the sensitive or delicate areas of life that aren’t normally discussed and to be an unconditionally loving witness, feeling where they’re at and what they’re going through without reacting, or necessarily jumping to fix any of their problems or giving advice.
He expanded on this further suggesting that perhaps a big factor to why people are unhealthy is due to being stressed out or feeling stuck or powerless in particular areas of life where they are jammed up with emotions or feelings they’d been unable to fully feel, express or release.
One of the biggest gifts someone could offer them would be to listen to them fully and give them the space to feel and process their way through these emotions. He added that if people could feel their way through things, this could potentially open the door for miracles to happen with their health.
I resisted the notion of doing this for a long time. With only a limited time per appointment, the idea of taking the extra time to find out a lot more about where they were at, along with taking on their energetic burden seemed like opening up Pandora’s box and more than I could handle. Furthermore, I could tell that many of my clients just wanted to get in and get out with a quick solution to have some relief and weren’t really looking to open up about what was going on in their lives. But then there were others who I sensed were looking for something more and yearning for someone to just listen to them.
I also had read and studied enough about the mind-body-spirit connection to know that people’s health conditions are often connected to the stresses they are experiencing in their lives, and I’d seen countless examples of that happen where someone’s symptoms would flare up the worst when they were under high amounts of stress. Experience had told me that unless some of those underlying stress factors got addressed, there was a good chance that whatever medicines, dietary changes, or other recommendations I made might not make much of a difference at the end of the day.
When I was finally ready to try this out, I remember working with a woman who had been diagnosed with endometriosis which is atypical or abnormal cells in the lining wall of the uterus. Her doctor had also found precancerous cells in her cervix.
She desperately wanted to have another child but her doctors were considering recommending she have a hysterectomy (surgical removal of some or all of the organs of the female reproductive system) which would have ruled that possibility out. When I first started working with her, I could feel that she had a huge amount of anger and frustration bottled up inside. She’d been to many other allopathic and alternative health practitioners with no results to show and it seemed like no one had been listening to something she had been trying to say.
I created a safe enough space for her to open up and eventually she felt comfortable enough to let me know that she had been sexually abused by someone in her family over a decade ago. . .something she had been terrified to talk about with anyone. Although the incident had happened a long time ago, it was as fresh in her mind as if it had happened yesterday. I just listened and felt where she was at. As wave upon wave of anger, guilt and shame came up for her to feel her way through, she eventually came to a new level of clarity and peace.
The results were nothing short of amazing. She eventually took it upon herself to forgive the family member who had abused her (which was one of the most challenging things she had ever done in her life) and the anger was replaced with love and compassion.
A month later she went in for another medical scan of her uterus and cervix and the doctors couldn’t find any sign of the inflammation and atypical cells anywhere! She never had to go through with the hysterectomy procedure.
Shortly after that, I worked with a woman with stage 4 cervical cancer after she had been given a terminal diagnosis by her oncologist and told she only had a short time to live. Stage 4 cancer essential means that the cancer has metastasized or there are tumours in more than one location throughout the body. The most serious tumours were compressing her ureters, which are the tubes in the body that connect the kidneys with the bladder. Urine is produced in the kidneys, goes to the bladder via the ureters, and then is eliminated out of the body. As the tumours continued to swell and grow, this blocked urine from going into the bladder and getting out of the body and she was very quickly losing her kidneys.
At that time, she was having her bloodwork taken every single day in the hospital to check her level of kidney function. If someone’s kidney function gets too low they can quickly die or go on dialysis.
When I first met her and her family, she and her husband were quarrelling incessantly. They also had a special needs child. Needless to say, there was a tremendous amount of stress in the family in addition to what she was going through with the cancer.
She wasn’t really able to hold down much food or medicinal herbs and, in the beginning, one of the only things I was able to do was just listen to her and create a safe space for her to talk about what was going on in her family life.
Listening to her without reacting was incredibly challenging as she had a tremendous amount of anger in her, but I continued to make it okay for her to express herself and the most remarkable thing happened.
Each day after we talked when her bloodwork came back, we could see her kidney function improving with the only variable that had changed being that she was opening up and communicating a lot more about all that was going on in her life. But then she’d get to a certain point of improvement, get into a big fight with her husband, and her kidney function would start going down again which we could see almost in real time through daily changes in her bloodwork.
At first I found this hard to believe, and I thought it must be due to some other factors, but as it continued to happen like clockwork even when there were no changes in diet and medicines, I finally started to see the connection of how powerful a healing experience it was for someone to have the experience of being heard and loved unconditionally.
Her kidney function trended up remarkably for a few months doing this gradual yo-yo sort of thing with her processing out a ton of anger and other emotions during this time, but she reached a point where one day said she’d had enough and passed shortly after. During this time, however, she let go of a tremendous amount of her anger to the point where there was a lot more peace and love in her relationship with her husband and she departed on much better terms with him.
In no way am I suggesting that active listening is a silver bullet solution. Although most everyone wants to feel better, the reality is that most people perhaps aren’t at the place where they’re ready or wanting to start doing the work of changing their diet or looking at some of the more troublesome or stressful aspects of life and making changes at these levels. For these people, maybe it’s the right thing to do to take a pill, natural remedy or have a procedure which acts to “suppress” or “manage” the symptoms even if there are potential undesirable side effects that come with this approach.
I also realize that it would take a lot for doctors and alternative health practitioners to reinvent themselves and their practices to include the option of working with some of their patients and clients in this deeper sort of way spending a lot more time listening to them and giving them space to open up instead of prescribing a medication or giving a treatment right away.
For the patients and clients who are really wanting to share more about what’s happening in their lives beyond just reporting symptoms, I’ve seen how giving them the experience of really being heard can sometimes produce miracles where nothing else seems to be working. Putting this into practice I found to be incredibly enlightening and pointed to a whole other way of working with people that, my sense is we will see a lot more of in years to come in health care.