A healing crisis is any event in which you feel worse on your way to feeling better. Seeing your healing crisis as a nonlinear journey will help you arrive at the destination of improved health.
Your body knows how to heal itself, but healing is not a linear process. You’ll often experience a healing crisis along the way.
When I was young and facing one major health crisis after another, it never occurred to me that my barrage of painful symptoms could be a positive thing.
I had absorbed the cultural messaging that my body was broken and I needed doctors to fix me. The thing is, they never did.
Year after year, I went to medical doctors in search of help. And year after year, my existing symptoms worsened and new symptoms arose. Years of surgeries, prescriptions, and puzzled dismissals only caused my health to deteriorate further.
Eventually I looked to other healers, people who understood the human body’s innate ability to heal. I read one book after another on nutrition and holistic health. I consulted with functional medicine doctors, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and psychologists. And slowly, I began to heal.
What Is a Healing Crisis?
This term encompasses a broad range of causes and processes. Basically, a healing crisis is any event in which you feel worse on your way to feeling better. From this perspective, every flu or sprained ankle could be viewed as a healing crisis. Healing is nonlinear, and it doesn’t always feel good in the moment.
Believe it or not, every symptom that you experience is your body working in its own best interest. For most of us, this is a major paradigm shift away from the prevailing mentality of health and disease. Most doctors work to suppress symptoms without pausing to consider what the body is trying to accomplish or communicate.
Let’s take the common cold as an example. Our society, always so quick to revert to an us-vs.-them mentality, frames this process as a battle. The body has been infiltrated by invaders, evil germs that are causing us to cough and sneeze. Most people will pop some over-the-counter meds to suppress their symptoms and get back to work.
But there’s another way of understanding things, one supported by ancient healing modalities and the latest science. In recent years, we’ve learned that microbes are vital to human health. The bacteria and viruses that make up our microbiome outnumber our human cells, and they’re vital to our wellbeing.
Zach Bush, MD, is an expert on the human microbiome. He explains, “We don't make antibodies to kill bacteria. We make antibodies to bring ourselves into balance with bacteria.” Without the dynamic relationship between human cells and microbes, human beings wouldn’t exist at all. These microbes may trigger a healing crisis, but not because they’re trying to harm us—think of them as a cleanup crew, removing diseased tissue so that you can heal.
According to this new way of understanding, a runny nose isn’t a negative symptom or even a byproduct of our body’s battle with bad bacteria. It’s a sign that the body is working to expel accumulated toxins. Fevers facilitate the mobilization of toxins that have accumulated in cells, allowing them to exit the body in phlegm and mucus.
If you suppress the symptoms of a healing crisis with pain meds or decongestants, you’re thwarting your body’s efforts to heal itself.
What Causes Healing Crises?
Sometimes a healing crisis is triggered by bacteria or viruses working in harmony with your cells to clean up shop. A healing crisis can also be caused by a healing intervention or supplement that helps your body get things moving again.
“As cellular metabolism picks up,” explains Dr. Bush, “you're going to feel fatigued because the accelerator pedal just went down on the gas.” Healing takes an enormous amount of energy, and fatigue is a normal response.
Most people today are overstressed, undernourished, and exposed to a higher toxic load than their body can cope with. Let’s look at depression, which is one of the most common healing crises that people can get stuck in.
The conventional model will tell you that your feelings of depression are due to some innate disease, and that you’ll need to manage it with pharmaceutical chemicals for the rest of your life. The brain is endlessly complicated, and this theory of bad brain chemistry has no basis in reality.
Depression is often caused by chronic malnutrition—ongoing nutrient deficiencies that prevent the body from functioning as it should. It’s then exacerbated by lifestyles that are radically different from what our biology expects. Constant stress, isolation, and sedentary lifestyles all contribute to depression.
When you feel depressed, it’s because your body is trying to force you to slow down and take the time you need to heal. When we aren’t eating enough healthy food, exercising in the sunshine, or surrounding ourselves with a supportive community, our bodies decide that the wisest course of action is to shut down and conserve energy.
Here’s the problem: when we don’t give our bodies the support that they need to emerge from a healing crisis, it can devolve into a chronic condition. Your system is likely to stay in that depressed state until you begin to give your body what it needs to heal: deep rest, nourishing food, healthy movement, and human connection.
It’s also possible for healing interventions to cause a healing crisis. Starla Rae LAc is an acupuncturist with over twenty years of clinical experience. She explains, “Pain is the body’s way of getting our attention, and inflammation is the extra energy that our body sends to deal with an injury.” When that buildup of energy is released, there might be even more pain for a short period of time.
When you visit an acupuncturist, your existing symptoms may get worse before they get better. Pain in your shoulder may flare while your body mobilizes its resources to heal the underlying problem. You may feel fatigued as your body works to heal, or you may even feel an overabundance of anxious energy as your body swings back into balance. Rae tells her patients not to plan anything strenuous after an appointment; it’s best to take it easy so that your body can focus its efforts on healing.
How to Manage a Healing Crisis
In all but the most extreme cases, no medical intervention is needed. Colds will run their course, fevers will burn out, and inflammation will recede.
What you want to do is support your body’s natural healing processes in every way possible.
Rest. Nourish yourself with foods that are easy to digest: rich broths, ripe fruit, and fresh vegetable juices are all excellent choices. They will provide you with the hydration and nutrients that you need to heal.
If you’ve been neglecting your health for years and suppressing or simply powering through your symptoms, the path to health may be longer and more complicated. But if you catch a healing crisis the moment you feel symptoms coming on, it may take no more than a bowl of soup and a good night’s rest to return to vital good health.
Are you having a healing crisis? Continue the journey at S&H.