Jeanne Achterberg, PhD was a world-renowned authority in using the mind for healing disease.

Altered States of Consciousness for Health

One of my mentors, physiological psychologist Jeanne Achterberg, PhD once told us: “All healing takes place in an altered state of consciousness. This means that the state of consciousness in which the illness began must somehow be distanced from in order for the person to get well.”

Change Something

When something we’re doing to improve our health isn’t producing the desired results, the wisest thing to do is to change the treatment or self-treatment plan. Changing something is probably the single most efficacious path to the development of mastery. 

Even Mindfulness is Not Always the Answer

Even though it is the crux of the system I present in my writing and speaking for enhancing health and well-being, this is even true of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a life-long practice that is not known for immediate results, and if it somehow is resulting in increased suffering in the near term, I recommend changing something. This is because emotional suffering impairs physiological functioning and impairs immune function.

Within mindfulness practice, what you change could involve trying a new teacher, registering for a residential retreat, reading mindfulness books, or possibly even switching to a very different mindfulness practice, such as from vipassana to Zen, or from a Tibetan practice to a Theravada practice. Conceivably, you may not want to do any sitting meditation practice, but instead switch to hatha yoga or chi gung. These are very different practices that produce different results, but they are all very valuable and each is ideal for certain people.

What You Change Can Be Purely External Because Everything Changes The Mind and Brain.

Doing something different can involve inner mind-training practices such as these or something external and as simple as spending more time with people around whom we feel loved, appreciated, energized, and fulfilled.

When I had a psychotherapy practice dedicated exclusively to people with chronic illness or who were cancer survivors, my goal was to help my clients develop skills that would help them to live with greater conscious intention and psychological flexibility. Where health is concerned, however, any behavior that results in feeling more upbeat, joyful, optimistic, and hopeful is healthy behavior; all of these and other positive emotions serve to improve physiological functioning.

Do Something Different

To increase the odds of experiencing improved health, it is important to have as a practice doing something different whenever you experience negative, unhealthy emotions. This is not necessarily the best way to develop the skills that lead to greater psychological flexibility—which I believe is fundamentally the most health inducing state in the long term—but it is the best way to improve physiological functioning in the current moment. In other words, both are important at different times. Sometimes the healthiest thing is to fully experience unhealthy emotions and at other times, it is healthier to distract or dissociate from them.

For example, there are times when I go into the den of my house to listen to music or watch an upbeat movie because it improves my symptoms for a brief time. Then, after perhaps an hour, I’m often rejuvenated enough to go back to my work. At other times I garden, meditate, do mental imagery, or nap in order to feel better and to improve physiological functioning by changing my behavior to something that has helped me in the past. 

2 replies
  1. Gianna
    Gianna says:

    I love reading your work…it really deeply validates my journey.

    At the end of this piece you essentially talk about the healthiness of distraction which I learned a long time ago…all things in moderation…all things have a time and place….and sometimes so does “avoidance!”

    I want to share a piece with you…not sure you’ve looked at my work or not. I was reminded of this piece today because a friend shared this quotation by Reginald Ray:

    “You develop a level of mindfulness through being sick that ordinary people don’t have and it becomes incredibly refined.”

    I’ve certainly found that to be true…I replied to her: “yes…it’s rather astonishing…what a gift…even if it has a high price.”

    and then I thought of this piece I had written that I want to share with you:

    Life as a meditation: my contemplative adventure

    in any case the altered state idea too is so important and I’m learning much about that now…it’s premature for me to talk about my own experience about that just yet, but this article came at just the right time.

    thank you.

    • Larry Berkelhammer
      Larry Berkelhammer says:

      I notice from reading your material that you too are on the path of doing what works. For example, meditation can take many forms as we have both pointed out–not just formal sitting. I think most of us living with chronic conditions are learning to continually change what we’re doing. Obviously, if we found one thing that worked completely all the time, we would no longer have chronic illness, and no longer be talking and writing about it anymore. It’s nice knowing there are others on this path.

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