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Identification with One’s Illness Worsens Disease

In earlier posts, I presented theories of suffering, describing several mental patterns in which the untrained mind can easily become trapped, contributing to unnecessary suffering. Here I will tighten the lens and examine unnecessary suffering specifically as it pertains to people living with chronic health challenges.

Jackie Gardner-Nix, MD, PhD

Much of the suffering in this population is related not to the symptoms, but rather to identification with the symptoms, and to identification of oneself as an ill person.—Jackie Gardner-Nix, MD, PhD

 Pain, disability, and fatigue do cause suffering, but our suffering is magnified when we fail to recognize the thoughts related to symptoms as transient brain secretions. When we are fused with those thoughts, mistaking them as factual, we create a level of suffering that is unnecessary and preventable. Fortunately, we can learn to de-fuse from those thoughts.

It is common to hear people talk about my cancer, my Crohn’s disease, my Lyme disease, my pain, my fatigue, or my disability. It’s also common to hear people say I’m depressed. Assuming ownership of an illness or a state of mind takes a terrible toll emotionally, and from a psychoneuroimmunology perspective it is very damaging to one’s health because the emotional distress results in physiological stress. Identifying with our illness is one of the quickest ways to exacerbate it, which is why mindfulness training, which enables us to see this identification as a mere thought, is such an essential skill for those of us living with day-to-day health challenges.

The reality of chronic illness is that most of us will never be cured of our disease or condition. While it is true that through dedication to mastery practices we may be able to improve our health—and certainly our quality of life—attachment to a return to full health will only cause further emotional distress and physiological stress as our cognitive fusion with this ideal collides with reality. And it leads to the “life on hold” syndrome I’ve described previously. 

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