How to Speak the Language of Chronic Illness or Injury


How to Speak the Language of Chronic Illness or Injury


When the medical system fails to heal chronic illness or chronic pain, we may find solace in a spiritual understanding of our lived experience.

Most of the time when we get hurt or sick, we rest, take medicine, and heal within a few weeks. Occasionally, however, healing isn’t that easy. Acute issues are often easy to solve with the help of a doctor, but chronic issues tend to be more mysterious, less studied, and have less obvious treatment protocols. With a chronic illness or injury, we may feel abandoned by the medical system, sometimes even told our symptoms are “all in our head.” However, even if we can’t find a cause or diagnosis, that doesn’t mean our symptoms aren’t real.

When we’ve exhausted the support we can access from the medical system, it may be time to think about a spiritual understanding of a chronic illness or injury. What might our bodies be trying to tell us that we do not yet understand? What is the spiritual meaning of these chronic issues? Let’s practice some ways to learn the language of illness and injury so we can understand them (and ourselves) better.

The Birth of Your Illness or Injury

Let’s start by asking ourselves some basic questions. You can simply reflect on these or you can journal as you work through these questions.

  • When did the illness or injury you’re currently experiencing start?

  • What was happening at the time these issues began? What was your life situation or state of mind?

  • Is the illness or injury connected to an experience of trauma—some unhealed wound in the psyche?

  • If you experience flare-ups, is there a pattern to them? Do they tend to be triggered by a specific emotional state?

  • Do you experience intergenerational trauma that may play a role in how these chronic issues have been passed down to you?

If you discover a connection between your illness or injury and a certain emotional state, there may be a lesson you still need to learn about how to manage that particular type of stress. For example, did the issue flare up at a time when you were repeatedly saying" yes" and you really needed to say "no"? Did your condition get worse when you felt overwhelmed and had no one to turn to, or when someone betrayed your trust? How do those fundamental issues play out for you now, especially when the issue flares up in the present?

The Function of Your Illness or Injury

Sometimes chronic illness or injury functions for us if we haven’t quite figured out how to function for ourselves. Let’s consider what an illness or injury is actually doing:

  • What happens when you have a flare-up of illness or pain?

  • What does the issue allow you to do or not do?

  • What gets pushed away when you are in a flare? What is drawn closer?

Flare-ups often function to make us slow down or stop. Sometimes we are forced to feel our feelings, ask for help, or withdraw from the stimulation of the world around us. What if we could do these things before we experience a flare-up? How would the body react differently to a trigger if its physical, emotional, and spiritual needs were being met in the first place?

Imagining the Absence of Your Illness or Injury

Take a moment to think about what life would be like if this issue were completely gone.

  • What would it feel like in your body to be free of this issue?

  • What would you be able to do?

  • What would you not be able to do anymore?

  • Who in your life would stick around or even come closer?

  • Who in your life might go away?

Notice if any resistance or anxiety arises when you think about what would change in your life if the issue were gone. For example, if you were free from the experience of being ill, you might want to leave your long-term job or partner (or start looking for a job or partner). That kind of change might feel really scary, so your body might be trying to protect you and maintain the status quo. This doesn’t necessarily mean that making that big change would cure the chronic issue, but it may provide a clue to the pattern the issue exists within and the way we manage the stress of the fear of change.

The Chair Method for Your Illness or Injury

A fascinating strategy for understanding your illness or injury better is to imagine it having its own personality, opinions, and desires. You could imagine yourself sitting in a chair across from it and having a chat with it, at some point switching roles and speaking from its perspective. You could also write a letter to the issue with your dominant hand and write back from the issue’s perspective with your non-dominant hand. This could also simply be a reflective exercise. Here are some key questions to ask during whatever form of this exercise you try:

  • What does your chronic illness or injury want?

  • What does it need?

  • How is it trying to help or protect you?

  • What does it think would happen if it were no longer there?

  • What would it need from you to no longer have to do what it’s been doing?

All these practices are wonderful ways of learning about how your body and your nervous system are trying to communicate with you. Chronic issues are still very mysterious, but they do seem to be intricately connected with the nervous system, which means it has something to do with the way we metabolize stress.

The nervous system regulates hormonal balance, digestion, the immune system, our pain response, and all those places where our chronic issues tend to show up. Our nervous systems are also influenced by what happened in childhood, in the womb, and even in the nervous systems of our ancestors. Doing this work is not necessarily a magic pill (though you never know!), but it can teach us a lot about what our bodies need and how to manage stress in new and healing ways.

If you’d like to learn more about the connection between stress and chronic illness, you may want to read Gabor Mate’s When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.

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How to Speak the Language of Chronic Illness or Injury

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