As a physician I listen closely to my patients’ stories for clues to their diagnosis. In fact, 90% of all medical diagnoses are found in a good medical history. Questions such as: “Have there been any changes in bowel habits? Fever? How severe is the pain?” can help me to differentiate between abdominal pain caused by gas or constipation to a potentially life-threatening appendicitis. Once the most likely diagnosis is identified, a doctor can then order the appropriate tests to confirm or disprove her suspicions. When confirmed, the relevant treatment would be recommended. For most doctors, treatment usually consists of a medication – or sometimes a surgery – to fix the problem.
Barbara came in with a list of non-specific problems. A 51-year-old massage therapist and yoga teacher from California, she was struggling with fatigue, trouble concentrating (commonly called “brain fog”), gas, bloating, and constipation. She’d also recently developed anxiety and sleep troubles. She had been getting some headaches, too.
Before meeting Barb (as she prefers to be called) I did a thorough review of her medical records. No major health problems in her past. Two healthy children in her early twenties. She’s around menopausal age – hmm, ok, I think to myself as I naturally start to form hypotheses – maybe hormonal changes could explain the anxiety, brain fog, and sleep troubles. From my perch as a functional medicine doctor, I naturally think about her digestive symptoms because problems in her gut such as leaky gut or food allergies could be contributing to her problems.
But something else stood out in her chart.
Very Well, Fine, Poorly…
In the boxes where patients check off how things are going in their life on a scale of “Very Well, Fine, Poorly, N/A,” a lot of her checkmarks fell into the “Fine” category. I don’t know about you, but when I ask someone how they’re doing and they say “Fine,” I consider that less than convincing. Her checkmarks about marriage and sex dropped into the “poorly” range.
When Barb sat down in my office, her anxiety was palpable and in stark contrast to her cool, relaxed California clothing style – neutral colors and lovely linens and silks. She was clearly nervous. I proceeded slowly and gently, feeling that there was a story ready to unfold underneath the symptoms. At first she told me the facts. How often she was getting headaches, how much sleep she was – and wasn’t – getting, and so on.
Then I went a little deeper with my questioning. “So what’s going on in your marriage?”
As soon as the word marriage slid off my tongue, her floodgates opened. “It’s horrible. We don’t talk at all. Twenty-five years of marriage and I’ve realized that my husband is verbally abusive. I dread being around him, having conversations, hearing his voice. I am miserable in my life, and I am filled with anxiety all the time. And I think this is causing a lot of my health problems. I think I might have to get divorced to feel better.”
Tranformational Healing: Diving Deeper into the Roots Of Health Problems
Making dietary changes, treating Barb’s gut symptoms, and adding in some herbs and supplements to support her through menopause are all an important part of a plan to address the types of symptoms Barb came in to see me about.
But none of these are a fix for the stress that was going on in her emotional life and emotional stress can wreak havoc on our health. Stress, for example, leads us to make poor food choices; being anxious when we eat interrupts blood flow to our digestive system and interferes with gut health; stress prevents us from sleeping well, and can cause tension headaches.
Barb had been living her life as a “weather reporter.” She didn’t see herself as a change agent. Instead, she saw herself as the victim of what was happening around her. In order to get well – and be able to stick with a healthy food and supplement plan, she had to feel more in control of her life. So many people, women especially, get stuck feeling powerless, and when we’re in that place, it’s hard to feel we can take control of our lives, change our story, and GET WELL! But I’ve witnessed enough success stories to know we can.
I practice not just functional or integrative medicine, but what I call transformational healing. I know that many of us need not only physical shifts to transform our health, but emotional shifts to transform our lives! And sometimes without those emotional shifts, the physical improvements are slower to happen.
I shared my thoughts on what I was seeing with Barb and she completely resonated with my reflection. She easily admitted that she was stuck. She blamed everything on her husband. She felt she had no control of her life – her finances, her schedule, her happiness, and now even her health.
We talked about changes she could make to take more responsibility for achieving her personal, career, and financial goals. She recognized that she could become more of a “loving truth-teller” in her marriage rather than taking what she’d considered her only two possible roads — “stuffing down” and internalizing her emotions, or lashing out at her husband. She recognized that both of these patterns were affecting her physical health and mental well-being.
Then I wrote the following on my prescription pad for her: LIFE COACHING. I knew this would help her take the next steps in her transformation to wellness.
Taking Charge of Our Lives and Our Health
I thought that Barb might come back to her next appointment telling me she was getting divorced! Instead, she came back peaceful, happy, and hopeful. She’d discovered, in working with a life coach, that while her husband’s communication style wasn’t consistent with her fantasy, she was also part of the problem. She realized that she blamed him for her unhappiness without reflecting at all on what she was contributing to the dynamic – which she learned was a lot of goading him and a lot of blaming. She hadn’t been aware of the impact of her own communication style! Most of all she realized that she still wanted the marriage, but had been waiting for her husband to have a personality change in order for the relationship to improve! That would have been a long wait.
When she took responsibility for her side of the story, to her surprise her husband softened, explained the pressures he felt he was under, and affirmed his commitment to keep them from impacting the relationship. They discovered that they still really loved each other and wanted to heal what was broken between them.
In functional medicine, we know that sometimes physical health issues can actually cause or contribute to emotional and mental health imbalances. In my practice, all patients see a nutritionist and a functional medicine physician to address these core physical issues.
But we also know that taking charge of our lives – intentionally designing our health and taking out the emotional and mental garbage that gets in the way of healing, is an important aspect of creating total wellness.
Doing “the emotional work” is an important part of healing and something I incorporate into my practice both by directly working with my patients on emotional blocks and self-sabotaging life stories – and also by referring my patients to life coaches. I think of life coaching as part detox diet, part nutritional supplement for the mind and spirit!
If you’ve experienced health transformation as a result of making important changes in YOUR life please share your story below. I love hearing your powerful and inspirational stories. And if you’ve found this blog meaningful, please make sure to LIKE it and SHARE it with a friend.