Message in A Body

Message in A Body

by Susan Downing

Today’s post is a tale of a stubborn patient with hypertension, an insistent doctor with a prescription pad, and the insights that finally helped relieve the pressure.

Okay, I’ll start by admitting that the stubborn patient just happens to be me.  When my doctor told me at the end of last summer that my blood pressure was borderline and suggested I start medication, I said, “No way.”  She was surprised by my resistance.  I said I didn’t want to start putting chemicals in my body for a borderline condition.  So we made a deal: I’d come back for a follow-up appointment in a month, and in the meantime, I’d try various “lifestyle” changes to see whether they’d make a difference.  Well, after a month of almost no salt, more exercise and losing a few pounds, my blood pressure was pretty much unchanged.  We had the same conversation: “Would you consider taking medication?” “No.”  So we made another deal: I’d take my blood pressure regularly at home and come back in six months.  I wasn’t sure what the point of this was supposed to be.  Maybe my doctor was just tired of arguing with me. But strangely enough, there did end up being a point…

I took my blood pressure every day for about… three days.   Then I stowed the cuff back in the bathroom cabinet, where it gathered dust until about mid-February.  At that point I realized I would be going back to the doctor in a month, so I decided it would probably not be a bad idea to check my blood pressure every day.

Well, the tale my monitor told was not heartening: my blood pressure really was pretty consistently high, often higher than the upper levels considered borderline.  Hmm.  I had to admit it.  But I did not want to take medication.  I just did not!!  Over my entire adult life, I’d seen my mother struggle with one medication after another and the side effects they caused.  I wasn’t about to go through that.  I didn’t want to allow a doctor to bully me into taking drugs.

But then, suddenly, it occurred to me to ask myself why I was so resistant to doing something about my blood pressure, so resistant to even admitting that it would be a good thing to address.  I take such good care of my health in every way, that you’d think I’d definitely do the same with a chronic condition that seems so potentially dangerous to the health.  So, it’s when I saw my own reticence that I sat down to do some inquiry into what really happens in and to the body when blood pressure is high.

For several years now, I’ve been in the habit of looking at any physical ailments or injuries I experience on the metaphorical level, because I believe that illness and injuries are our bodies’ attempts to communicate to us about our habits of body, speech and mind that are not serving us well.

This is a pretty radical way of approaching illness and its symptoms: instead of seeing them as enemies and rushing to mask symptoms or eradicate disease through medication or surgery, we can investigate the symptoms and see what they’re trying to tell us about our lives. Usually they are trying to show us ways in which our lives are out of balance. The body communicates metaphorically, and once we start learning to understand this language, we can begin to see our illnesses not as enemies, but as kind and patient teachers –  I say patient, because the body will persist in sending us messages as many times as necessary in order to get our attention, often in different ways, through different parts of our bodies, through a variety of illnesses, all of which generally have one underlying theme. (For a detailed guide to this approach, see The Healing Power of Illness, by Thorwald Dethlefsen.)

Once we fully understand what our body is telling us and accept our symptoms as an accurate reflection of our habits, if we stop resisting our symptoms’ messages, then we can find that our life comes into balance on its own when we make gentle adjustments to our thinking and actions. This approach isn’t always effective.  Sometimes, if the illnesses are more complex or chronic, we may find it harder to fully understand or accept and integrate our body’s messages.  And in those cases, surgery or medication really might be the best approach.  But when we are able to pay attention before an illness becomes really serious, then we can find that our symptoms and illness fade. They fade because the body has gotten our attention and we’ve listened, we’ve accepted what it has to say instead of resisting listening.  So it no longer needs to keep jabbering at us.  It’s like this: say you go to visit a friend and ring the doorbell.  Once they open the door and invite you in, there’s no need to keep standing on the porch ringing the bell.

So, I began my inquiry because I figured my body had a message for me. What could it possibly be?

I began by looking at the physiology of the flow of blood through the blood vessels and what happens to the blood vessels and the organs of the body when the blood pressure is high.  (You don’t necessarily have to look at the physiological side of your illness or symptoms, but I find it can help, and I loved the anatomy and physiology classes I took a number of years ago, but you don’t have to go this route if you don’t want to.)  Here’s a condensed version of how my thought process went: what struck me was that with high blood pressure, the overzealous action of one part of the body has a direct negative effect on one or more other parts of the body.  Specifically, it’s like one part of the body putting excess pressure on another part of one’s same body. Or, maybe I could phrase it this way: having blood pressure was kind of like me placing pressure on myself.   Oh.  Me placing pressure on myself.  Hmm.  That thought got my attention, right away.  Suddenly it all seemed very obvious that that was the metaphorical message my body was trying to send me, or at least part of it.

Once I had found this metaphorical interpretation of my symptoms that resonated with me – and it resonated very strongly – I was able to do some serious thinking about the areas of my life in which I have consistently placed pressure on myself.  It was like a bunch of puzzle pieces falling into place. By reflecting on how I was placing pressure on myself and why, I gained deep insight into patterns of behavior that have guided me for nearly my entire life.  This was not an easy process or a pleasant one, but in the end I felt that I had not only gotten the message my body was trying to give me, but had also, through my reflection, understood why I had developed this approach to life in the first place.  What’s more, I also saw how it had negatively affected certain areas of my life.

At this point I also got why I had resisted accepting that my high blood pressure was a problem at all: at the core of my approach to life lay my habit of putting pressure on myself.  It was my defense mechanism against all possible bad outcomes.  No wonder I couldn’t accept the idea that high blood pressure was a problem, much less the idea that it would be good to take drugs to reduce it – I couldn’t imagine surviving without that level of pressure.  But once I understood the metaphorical significance of my high blood pressure, I also realized that although this approach to life may have been useful at some point in the past, there was no longer any need for it.  I saw that it was no longer a useful way to live.

This process of inquiry, reflection and insight played out over the course of about three days, during which time I was both on edge and exhausted. During these three days, when I measured my blood pressure, it was even higher than it had been before!  But then, finally, one day I awoke feeling refreshed, relaxed, and energetic.  I checked my blood pressure.  It had dropped to well within the normal range.  And although it has fluctuated some since then, and it’s not always as low as my doctor would like it to be, I am most comfortable with approaching it this way, because I’ve already seen big improvement. So, I continue to do inquiry on this topic, because I’ve discovered (through using Dethlefsen’s approach) that high blood pressure is a remarkably rich metaphorical treasure trove, encompassing not only questions of pressure, but also resistance and restraint.  Leave it to me to come up with such a complex symptom!  That is so like me.

I decided to write about this process because approaching illness and symptoms this way – by interpreting them metaphorically – is turning out to be very powerful for me, and I thought it might appeal to others, too.  It feels so right to consider my body’s aches and pains as well-meaning teachers instead of enemies to be resisted.  They help me gain insight into where my thoughts and actions are out of balance, and they help me see weaknesses I might otherwise overlook or actively refuse to consider.

Certainly this approach is not for everyone. Sometimes medicine and conventional procedures really can be good options.  But for those of us who enjoy reflection and inquiry, engaging in this kind of work can offer us a new way to approach our symptoms and illness: we can invite them in, have an insightful conversation, and then walk them to the door when that conversation comes to a natural conclusion and part as friends.

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