I began a personal healing journey in 2017, with no idea where it would take me. I certainly never expected all the spiritual and life lessons that I’ve learned along the way!
If I had known that I would be in 2021 and the journey would still be underway, would I have had the courage to even take the first steps?
I thought I would get the miraculous healing that when I reached a certain point it would be instantaneous. Instead, it has been a journey of a thousand steps, sometimes on spiralling stairs, rather than giant leaps forward.
Gut health challenges
Since about 2001, my health has been centred around my gut and immune system, with challenges of:
- Ulcerative colitis
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome – i.e. we have no idea what’s wrong)
- Coeliac disease
- Diverticulitis (caused by the Coeliac disease going undiagnosed for 10+ years)
- SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
All of these are gut issues and are closely tied with the immune system – that part of you that is able to easily mount defences to defend “self” against “not self”.
If I look at this from an mBraining perspective, the gut has the prime functions not only of digesting and processing food, but also influences:
- Our sense of identity: “this is who I am”. My lack of authenticity – trying to please other people – broke down my ability to identify “self”;
- Our processes of safety and security. This is our self-preservation. It begins physiologically as the immune system, but there’s also an element in there of the autonomic nervous system, which I failed to recognise, leading to an immune system in overdrive and hyper-drive, as I strove to keep myself safe psychologically and emotionally.
- Movement and motivation. We know physiologically of “bowel movement”, but if you listen to our language, we clearly speak about the fire in our belly that moves us forward. My trauma-informed dorsal vagal, however, was trained to sedation and hibernation in the face of danger, and while scientists know that this impacts the immune system, they are not quite yet sure of the exact effects.
A personal journey to healing: lifestyle changes
- Spiritual healing
- Psychological healing
- Physical healing
In order to heal my gut, I’ve had to recognise that every aspect of my life impacts how well this heals.
All of this requires lifestyle changes: because it’s impossible to solve a problem with the same thinking, habits and lifestyle that created the problem.
“The necessity of change makes healing a terrifying experience for many people.”Caroline Myss
He who knows to do right and does it not, to him it is sin
There were so many pieces to the healing journey and changes that needed to be made. Doctors glaze over quickly the role that stress plays, saying platitudes such as “you need to manage stress better”.
Who doesn’t know that?
The question is: what do we do about it?
Most of us – do nothing.
We ask for the pills that soften the blow of the symptoms, so that we can get back on with life, exactly as it already was. But we don’t make the fundamental changes that are required in order for health and healing to happen.
If we did, the pharmaceutical industry would be out of business. Imagine how many blood pressure medications would be taken off the market if patients would actually follow doctor’s instructions about making changes to their lifestyle.
Faith without works: changing habits
In my life, healing was not optional.
Change became mandatory, because I could no longer keep on keeping on. I was totally crashing and my body with it!
It’s not that I didn’t know ways of dealing with stress!
- Meditation & Silence
- Trusting the Divine
- Dealing with the root causes of anxiety & depression
Part of me was refusing to look at diet, beyond the obvious factors of avoiding gluten (wheat, barley, malt & rye). But I could do more, like accepting that corn totally irritated me, as well as rice making me feel bloated, and that I needed to adjust my diet to accommodate inflammation and SIBO.
I have been physically active since my early twenties and am no stranger to the multiple benefits of exercise, even when you don’t have energy. I know how good it is for the digestive system (just getting out for a walk helps your gut digest more easily), as well as helping to regulate stress.
Perhaps most importantly, I know the role and importance of forgiveness, letting go and release. What I didn’t know was the depth of work I would need to do, and how much I have buried and hidden away (even from myself), in order to be able to survive.
Part of the healing journey has been accepting that sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in a loop, when I am really on a spiral stairway that keeps coming round to the same issues, just at a different level. It might feel, at times, that I am just going around in circles, but progress is not always in a straight line.
Bad habits are decisions we refuse to make
Take a moment to write down, for yourself, three habits that you have right now that are impacting your health and wellness, and that you are making no attempt or haphazard attempts to change. How would healing be possible if you made these changes?
I’m going to mention a few habits that most of us have (at some level) and that we know better, and yet it’s easier to continue doing it, than to change. We give ourselves all kinds of excuses.
Eating on the go
Who doesn’t know that eating-on-the-run is bad for their health? This might be that you are eating:
- fast food while driving your car
- standing in your kitchen while fixing food for others or doing some chores, or perhaps
- sitting at your desk or computer, working.
There’s the risk of falling into a fast-food trap – with unhealthy ingredients, high sugar and high sodium. But it’s not just the ingredients, it’s the very fact that we are not allowing the body to go into “rest and digest” while we eat, but rather we are still eating while in motion (and quite possibly under stress).
All of these habits lead to:
- increased risk of cancer;
- risk of heart disease
- high blood pressure
- issues in the immune system
- and even memory loss.
Our bodies were created to rest and relax while eating, to enjoy the aroma and visual appeal – so that we get the digestive juices flowing. We allow ourselves the time and space to savour and chew. And to notice what we are doing, rather than having our attention focused somewhere else.
A lot of problems can be solved just by removingAnonymous
some food, and
from your life.
Our sedentary lifestyles
We’re warned enough about laziness and sitting around in Proverbs, but more than just being couch potatoes, it’s even the way we travel to work and the conditions in which we’re working that create challenges.
Sitting for so many hours a day, whether it be in a bus, on a train, in the car, at your desk is exhausting mentally, leaving us wanting to stay sedentary when we finally get home.
What does this create?
- high blood pressure
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
Exercise – or more importantly regular movement – helps us with our digestion as well as improving the blood flow to the brain. It naturally helps our body keep our blood sugar under control, and possibly most importantly helps produce oxytocin – our “happy hormone” that is produced naturally in the body.
Do you really need me to tell you all the ways that this shows up? Perhaps you snack when you’re not actually hungry, you give into cravings, or you are just eating too much generally. Eventually, your body stops sending you the hunger signals (since you ignore them anyway) and just lets you know the cravings.
We create our own health challenges through over-eating:
- heart disease
- acid reflux
These are just a few.
It could be as simple as wolfing down your food too quickly, so that you fail to notice the message that you are full. This, unfortunately, can lead to bloating, gas and acid-reflux.
If you’re eating too late, it may be interfering with your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
Not drinking enough water
Our bad habits are as simple as failing to drink water, and instead replacing it with energy drinks, soft drinks or coffee. But your body is 60% water, and we need the water for regular bowel function, optimal muscle performance and even for our skin.
When we fail to drink enough water, we run into:
- bad breath
- sugar cravings
- weight gain
- mental fog
- risk of stroke
- moodiness & irritability
- slower metabolism
All because we haven’t built a habit of drinking water.
Skimping on sleep
I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Yes, I have said that. I would burn the candle at both ends and then drink coffee (not water) to keep going. Skimping on sleep does more than just impair our judgement and compromise clear-headedness in decision-making.
It also causes:
- heart disease, heart failure & contributes to heart attacks
- high blood pressure
- weakens immunity and the immune system
- increases stress and cortisol levels
- causes weight gain
- increases the risk of diabetes
- fuels depression
I justified to myself the choices of burning the candle both ends and continuing with my lifestyle choices, even daring to suggest that this was Biblical (Proverbs 31 – the Virtuous Woman). She gets up while it’s still dark, her lamp does not go out at night, and she does not eat the bread of idleness. But I’m pretty sure that she didn’t drive herself into the ground either!
My personal healing journey: lifestyle changes
All five of these issues came up for me in my healing journey, to different degrees. But when we talk about “go and sin no more” – what we each have to address our the habits we have that are holding us back.
Each one of us has strengths and weaknesses (and for many our strengths are also our weaknesses), and it’s a personal journey of discovery and transformation.
In my personal journey, there were four principal areas that I had to address, most of them more than once and in different areas of my life:
- gluttony and over-eating
- murmuring & complaining
- laziness & failure to take responsibility, and
- holding onto anger, resentment and bitterness, rather than letting it go with complete forgiveness.
Gluttony & over-eating
I’m not going into sharing a rift of Bible verses on gluttony. It’s the internet – you can look them up for yourself.
My personal definition of Gluttony is slightly different, although it is certainly an excess of eating.
But what I consider an excess might be much more strict that what you are accustomed to seeing or hearing as “excess”.
So, I invite you to consider what your definition of excess might be.
For me, eating starts with the question (physical) – “Am I hungry?”. I’ve discovered over the past three years, that there are a ton of reasons that I might eat, when I’m not hungry:
- social constructs & pressure
- the power of suggestion – “I see food, so I eat it”
When I’m hungry, it’s perfectly possible to postpone eating for thirty minutes or more without getting hangry. Cravings and emotional eating, on the other hand, demand to be attended immediately. The question is “how do I choose to attend to these demands?”.
If I acknowledge that my body is a temple, how am I maintaining it with discipline?
If I’m not hungry, am I willing to deal with the root issues and causes that lead me to the fridge, rather than eating and stuffing all my emotional and mental issues right back down again, swallowing my tears, and refusing to sit in the discomfort of what I am experiencing?
Stress, especially chronic and ongoing stress, causes our body to produce cortisol. In a healthy situation of stress (i.e. where you literally ran away from danger), cortisol will make you hungry, so that you refuel your body. Unfortunately, my stress is not the result of running away from a tiger! The hunger signals are false, and I know this if I actually check in with my stomach.
What needs to change? When I’m honest with myself, this is about lifestyle, beliefs and choices that are keeping me in a state of stress.
- Where’s the inner peace that passes understanding?
- What happened to the faith that allows me to trust that things are truly working out for my good?
If I eat, I can ignore these questions, rather than addressing the root problem: one of faith. It’s very similar to eating when anxious. If I eat, I can focus on something away from the anxiety.
But aren’t I supposed to be “anxious for nothing” and instead to turn my requests over to the Divine and surrender? Eating bypasses the anxiety, rather than addressing the beliefs and faith issues. How do I expect physical healing when I am not addressing the spiritual?
Fatigue and being tired:
Another chemical process happens in our body when we’re tired:
- Our gherlin goes up (produced to let us know we’re hungry) and
- Our leptin goes down (produced by our fat cells to let us know we don’t need to eat – as it decreases our feelings of hunger).
So, when we’re tired, no matter the cause of our fatigue, our body asks for either rest or more fuel.
But what if the reason that we’re tired is because of bad sleep habits? It my case, it was caused in part by gut problems (bloating and discomfort, which lead to light and interrupted sleep). One habit that was effective in fixing this: eat before 6 pm, so that I sleep better. But do I change my habits and honour health?
We can feel the difference once again in our stomach between tired and hungry. If I really am tired, is what my body really needs healing rest?
Comfort eating and sweets:
Perhaps we eat comfort foods because they remind us of “being loved”. Or we need more sweetness in our lives, so we give into our sweet tooth.
But if what we need is comfort and connection, perhaps what we need to do is hop on the phone and call home. Are we hungering for a spiritual connection?
Whatever the reason for our cravings, when we eat, we block the request. The request has been attended to, but the underlying need remains unsatisfied.
Eating past the point of hunger into fullness
The challenge is not just to eat when hungry, but to stop at the right moment: when I am no longer hungry. There’s no need to eat into “crowded” or “full”, much less “stuffed”.
So why do we eat more than our body asked for?
- I’m enjoying this too much – we have scarcity and deprivation thoughts related to food or enjoyment
- procrastination – I don’t want this to end, because then I will have to go and take care of… On a more subconscious level we know: if I eat too much, I’ll be sluggish and tired, and have the perfect excuse.
- I was told to clean my plate as a kid, and I’ve never adjusted this belief around being able to leave something on the plate
- I feel the pressure of friends or family to “eat up”, especially when they want to offer a second helping.
But what if, instead, we chose to:
- Deal with what I’ve been avoiding?
- Accepted that there is abundance and I can have more enjoyment at another moment.
- I give generously to those in need and don’t have to prove it by clearing my plate.
- I serve myself smaller portions, so that I can finish with nothing left on the plate, and
- I told the people that I love how I feel about them and how I appreciate them, so it’s not necessary to show this by eating more.
Unmet needs, desires & wants:
All of these examples simply go to show that we have unmet needs, desires, fears and wants. These may be mental, emotional or even spiritual.
The lifestyle change that was required for me is being willing to tackle them, rather than choosing to stuff them down with food.
I had a major turning points in my healing journey in 2017, when I first listened to an old interview with Stephen Levine on YouTube, called Conscious Living, Conscious Dying.
It is so easy, especially when your illness comes with physical pain, to allow our grief and pain to turn into bitterness, anger, reproach and despair.
We are told to bless those that curse you. How about blessing your body and your pain? If you feel cursed, because you are carrying an illness or disease – are you blessing it?
Are you cursing your body or that part of your body that appears to be letting you down?
Is your heart raging against the Divine because of this cross that you have to bear? Are you raging against yourself for all the life choices you’ve made that lead to this point?
Perhaps complaining feels easier!
Ask and you will receive
In her book, “Unbound: A woman’s guide to power“, Kasia Urbanjiak talks about how behind every complaint is an unspoken request. We complain because it feels more acceptable than asking for what we really want.
Where is my faith in
- “ask and you will receive”
- “making your requests known”
- “asking according to Divine will, because the Divine hears” and
- “you do not have, because you do not ask”?
Of course… perhaps I’m not willing to take up my bed and walk! Maybe I’m too scared to get out of the boat, in order to walk on water.
It’s so much easier to murmur and complain, rather than to ask and then be responsible for my actions.
Let’s be honest – complaining is socially acceptable!
“Nothing unites people more strongly than a common dislike. The easiest way to build friendship and communicate is through something negative.”Trevor Blake
Complaining impacts your health!
Health impacts of complaining:
- creates more stress
- worsens anxiety & depression
- it rewires your brain – in a bad way! The habit of complaining reduces the number of neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for problem-solving and cognitive function. Actual shrinkage!
- Neurons that fire together, wire together – and you are creating a habit of complaining. So, you are likely to be creating new things to complain about and attracting to you people who like to complain!
And so, you find yourself in a place – that you have built – clinging to resentment, pain & trauma. You have become what you have focused on.
What would you like to focus on?
But as I said, you don’t receive, because you don’t ask. Complaining reinforces the idea “I’m a victim and there’s nothing I can do to change this situation.”
“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”Professor Randy Pausch
I finally reached a point where I had to ask myself:
What if this disease is happening for me, not to me?
Can I search for the blessing, strengths and lessons that it has to teach me? What might I be grateful for in this journey? How does Divine Presence show up in my life through this illness?
And this takes me into the third thing I had to address: being willing to take small steps forward.
Laziness and the desire to stay a couch potato
Synonyms for laziness are indolence and sloth. Indolence derives from the Latin indolentia, ‘without pain’ or ‘without taking trouble’. Sloth has more moral and spiritual overtones than laziness or indolence.Neel Burton M.D. “The Psychology of Laziness“
Anyone who’s taken time to read Proverbs or Ecclesiastes knows what they say about getting stuck under the covers! But sometimes, with chronic illness, there’s more than laziness to deal with.
Allow me to clarify, that when I talk about the desire to stay as a couch potato and be lazy, I am not referring to:
- Chronic fatigue and the need to rest
- Clinical depression and how it drives you to inactivity
- Shutdown caused by the dorsal vagus nerve
- Resting to recover from illness
While I mention that my healing journey has required that I face my personal laziness, it would be unfair to myself and others to write everything off as laziness.
Most people with chronic illness deal at some point in time with chronic fatigue. I’m not talking about ME, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, although I can identify with every one of the symptoms listed for it:
- brain fog, problems with clear thinking, memory loss, and even muscle twitching
- disrupted sleep
- aches & pains in joints, muscles and the body
- heart palpitations
- gastrointestinal changes: nausea, bloating, constipation & diarrhoea.
Being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and Coeliac disease, these are all part of the fatigue I’ve had.
Another symptom (commonly found with other chronic illnesses also) of Coeliac disease and ulcerative colitis is depression. For me, this was caused by two things:
- a natural side effect of having a disease in the gut that affects the ANS, immune system and gut microbiome.
- ignoring my grief and sorrow, trying to soldier on, without allowing myself to acknowledge what I felt I had lost.
For many years, I attempted to fore happiness and pretend nothing was wrong. “I’ve got this”. I was pretending to be strong, rather than finding inner strength. And if you’re any good at this, you can do it for years.
During this time, I failed to acknowledge all the sources of my depression: gut health & microbiome, emotions, mental, chemical and even the dis-regulation of my ANS.
Shutdown & avoidance as self-preservation
Until recently I didn’t even know that one of my primary survival instincts (those habits you create to survive, that later become your Achilles heel), was shutdown and avoidance. The body is an amazing thing – survival first.
While some people go into fight-flight when faced with danger, I learnt as a child that those were not options. The safest option was to be neither seen nor heard. It’s freezing like a possum that plays dead or the turtle that hides safely in its shell.
So why on earth, if I’m battling these three challenges, would I even mention laziness as a habit to be overcome?
Being lazy: disinclined to activity or exertion
It’s so easy when life is overwhelming to get stuck in “there’s nothing I can do about this”. As I said before, if I had known that returning to a healthy life would take so long, would I have even tried?
In most cases, it is deemed painful to expend effort on long-term goals that do not provide immediate gratification. For a person to embark on a project, he has to value the return on his labour more than his loss of comfort.Neel Burton M.D. “The Psychology of Laziness”
I was not completely helpless. There were things I could do that would make a difference, but that required some effort on my part.
- Intentionally resting: rather than watching TV or playing computer games or mindlessly scrolling social media, I needed to sleep deeply, giving my body a chance to heal. To do this, I had to remove foods that interfered with deep sleep, remove caffeine and add in magnesium.
- Find out which supplements, vitamins & minerals would restore health. Some of these tackle inflammation, while others support the nervous system and neuro-processes, giving me clearer thinking and raising my energy levels.
- Build my own personal support network and groups.
I wanted people around me that were positive and believed restored health was possible. I needed accountability, not people that would listen to me complaining. Most importantly, I wanted to be surrounded by those interested in “being healthy“, rather than those whose mindset was “how do I live with this illness?”
I want to be healthy in spite of this illness
It takes exertion, motivation & discipline to make the changes (habits & lifestyle) that restore health & wellbeing. I constantly battle my innate survival mode of withdrawal and hibernation.
- “I’ll deal with the mental, emotional and physical issues later – right now I’m just going to finish binge-watching this series on Netflix.”
- “I’m sick. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
- “I can’t run, so there’s no point in going for a 5-minute walk.”
- “My joints & muscles hurt, so I’m just going to stay here.”
If I listen to that, I don’t even bother going to the kitchen to take the supplements that help relieve the inflammation & pain.
Laziness doesn’t just refer to being “a couch potato” – but it’s the state of mind of being stuck, unable to even move a single rung up the ladder.
Yes, I still want the magic pill of miraculous healing that allows me to bypass all this work and all these individual steps! But would I really have made the changes and addressed all these issues any other way?
Change the habits & lifestyle, so that the miracle can happen!
Medically speaking, it’s impossible to heal Coeliac Disease and ulcerative colitis. So far, they are vastly improved, but not healed. I’m not sure if it will be possible, or whether my personal healing journey will simply be one of discipline & habits.
But I finally reached a point where I am willing to continue the journey, irrespective of the final outcome.
And so I come to the last healing lesson I want to share with you: forgiving myself and others.
Learning to Forgive: letting go of anger, resentment & bitterness
Forgiveness and reconciliation are two entirely different concepts. Unfortunately, as a child I learnt a very skewed example of forgiveness and reconciliation.
We were made to say “I’m sorry“, with the threat of punishment hanging over our head if we didn’t. And if we received this unrepentant sorry, we were equally forced to say “I forgive you“, with that very same threat of punishment. At least we were equally afraid of the punishment that would be meted out if we failed to say sorry or I forgive you.
What lesson was that really in forgiveness?
There was not open-heartedness or vulnerability. There was no true desire to repair the relationship. We merely feared the greater punishment that awaited if we failed to say those words, no matter how meaningless.
I grew within myself a heart of stone, because it wasn’t safe to be vulnerable and open. Feelings were not safe and were certainly not to be expressed.
I’ve had to come a long way in my own journey of forgiveness, leaving meaningless words behind and delving for myself into the heart of the matter. I no longer rush to forgive (going through the motion) or minimising my emotions and feelings. And I don’t need the other person to even be aware that I am forgiving them.
In order to truly forgive another, you have to acknowledge what you’re feeling. And those feelings might no be pretty. They might be more than pain and hurt or disappointment. Perhaps you feel angry and resentful. Worse yet, you might have allowed it to fester and turn into bitterness.
But until you can actually unpack your emotional baggage, and hang it in the sun to air and for you to see clearly, you won’t truly forgive. All of the feelings that you stuffed down, stowed away, and hid in the darkest corners of your memory have to be released and let go.
Forgiveness isn’t just spiritual, it’s also physical:
If we want to heal physically, we have to practice forgiveness – of ourselves and others. Whatever it is that we are holding onto.
…unresolved conflict can go deeper than you may realize—it may be affecting your physical health. The good news: Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress.Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It
,,, Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, … changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.
When we hold a grudge, our attention stays focused on the past and it plays a role in the present moment, even in depression. This anger or resentment, when stored for long enough in our body, can even show up as pain or more illness.
Studies show how suppressed anger – that which we haven’t been willing to even acknowledge, much less vent – is showing up in cases of patients with cancer. Suppression takes a toll on our bodies, as we pretend that we aren’t hurt and angry. (Anger and Cancer: Is There a Relationship?)
On the other hand, when we hold a grudge, we create the feelings each time I mind replays the situation. So, now when I think of “forgive and forget”, I am turning off the “replay” switch in my mind. It’s not that I completely forget the situation, as if it never existed, but rather that I refuse to give the reruns “air time” in my mind.
I refuse to relive the stress of the memory over and over again in my body. I will not rehash – in this present moment – an event from the past. That is simply poisoning the present.
Among the many harmful effects that this loop has on your health is cognitive decline, dumping cortisol (the stress hormone) back into your blood stream, and affecting once again appetite, sleep patterns, heart rate and blood pressure.
“Living in a chronic state of tension disables your body’s repair mechanisms, increasing inflammation and the stress hormone cortisol in the body.”Angela Buttimer
“Forgiveness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your immune system function more efficiently and makes room for feel-good hormones like serotonin and oxytocin.”
Forgiveness has a slew of health benefits as well:
- improved mental health
- less anxiety & stress
- lower blood pressure
- fewer symptoms of depression
- a stronger immune system
- better heart health.
I recognise that I’m still not done with the this process. But I’m finally willing to sit with emotions as they arise. I’m finally able to see how the spiral works in healing, no matter how long the journey.
And the truth will set you free
Not just knowing it… but truly living it! I started off with a video by Stephen Levine, where he talks about healing, not just physically but also emotionally.
Over these past four years, as I’ve worked on restoring my physical health, I’ve had to admit to the truth of where I am at and what changes and habits I have not been willing to change that have delayed the healing process.
I finally have begun to understand Jesus’ admonition to the man he healed “go and sin no more” – because I realise the effects that my lifestyle had (emotionally, physically, mentally & spiritually) on my health & well-being.
This has been the greatest gift of this illness: recognising that I have choice about how I choose to live in the presence of the Divine and how I choose to let it shine for and through me.