Emotional Illness

Let’s get one thing straight: emotions do not cause disease. The fault of your physical illness very likely lies with something other than you. The whole notion that anything from kidney stones to cancer could be traced back to an emotional block, repressed anger, wrongs un-righted, or any other random psychological hurt from this life or a past one, is so corrupt that it should never be given credence by any rational being. Yet throngs of people with well-intentioned sounding titles like “life coach” or “healer” spread these malicious little bits of victim blaming as if they were offering salvation in a bottle of snake oil.

That said, I want it to be clear that not everyone who identifies as a healer is guilty of either victim blaming or willfully misleading those who they are trying to help. I’ve known incredibly sincere, warm, compassionate people who do their absolute best to improve the health and well-being of others through a wide swath of tools and approaches, arguably with strong results. And, frankly, many people need some form of guidance in their lives and have relied successfully on many such “coaches” to get where they need to be. I’m not condemning whole industries or forms of practice or even job titles here; this isn’t about valid occupations, but rather about those who choose to exploit the fears and insecurities of patients under the guise of offering miraculous cures through attitude adjustment.

The Sins of Our Former Lives

When I was in my early-20s, I sat through several sessions with a self-proclaimed psychic healer who specialized in past-life regressions and identifying the trauma that contributed to current-life illnesses. To me, the techniques were laughably obvious. While the past lives of people in the room inevitably included several famous historical people, the sheer level of made-up nonsense was impossible to overlook. I wish I had recorded it, but of course, that would have been frowned upon. The experience did, however, offer me a lot of insight into how abusive con-artists can be, and provoked me to look more critically at any claims of the supernatural — which was sad, because at the time I was in the midst of an open-minded spiritual inquiry and enjoying a genuine sense of wonder about the “unknown” and potentially unknowable. [I’m not entirely cynical about these things now, but my position has shifted toward “pragmatic” rather than just being full of “wonder.”]

Learning to identify con-artists was a healthy and useful skill. Although I write about it in my Wellness Warrior posts, I generally try to focus my energy on more positive areas. Sometimes, however, an issue comes up that needs to be addressed. And hearing someone talk about how a particular patient’s cancer must have been caused by an unresolved relationship issue or a past-life infraction is just enough to push me over the edge. Few things rile me as much as victim blaming, especially in the case of diseases like cancer. Perhaps I’m touchy because I have lung cancer, and this flavor of cancer is especially prone to victim blaming thanks to its association with cigarette smoking.

Let’s face it, we all know now that smoking cigarettes is bad for our health. Sure, the vast majority of smokers with cancer began their habit before the link was painfully clear, and certainly, the tobacco industry obfuscated the truth of their culpability to a variety of health issues for many successful years. And it is a highly addictive habit if you are genetically prone to that sort of thing. But with regard to lung cancer, or bladder cancer, or at least a dozen or so common cancers associated with tobacco use, we really should be talking in terms of associated “risk” rather than “cause” or “prevention.” There are many things that we encounter daily that increase our risk and there are many behaviors we express that reduce risk, and somewhere in the middle is our own genetic predisposition and a giant helping of freak chance.

But nowhere in the equation of a person’s overall health does emotion play a role in cancer. And in no way does a person who engages in socially acceptable practices, who merely goes about the business of living life and engaging socially, deserve a life-threatening disease. (And while I am at it, let’s also include people who engage in practices that may not be acceptable to others based on moral stances, but who are not doing anything ethically wrong.) It is bad enough that patients are stigmatized for relatively innocent actions that they had no idea would contribute to their illness, but to compound that stigma with emotion-shaming is vile, indeed.

Real Emotional Problems and Solutions

Meanwhile, mental illness remains a very real problem for millions of people. Depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and a wide range of other conditions contribute to far too many deaths each year.  Emotion-shaming contributes to the stigma associated with these conditions, compounding them with the added fears of how they might physically affect those who are already suffering enough.

Yes, stress is a problem. Yes, it can cause the release of hormones that can contribute to or exacerbate health problems. Our emotions can have transient effects on our bodies — our blood pressure may spike, migraines might be triggered, even digestion is easily affected. Stress caused me to have a tiny trans-ischemic event back in my late 20s, and again, to a much larger degree, in my early 30s. I had to learn to manage my stress extremely well because I was terrified of causing a full-blown stroke before I learned more about my own peculiar migraine condition. Stress continues to be problematic for me with regard to migraines, and it is right up there with excessive caffeine ingestion — and just as unreliable an indicator for a possible reaction, too, since neither stress nor caffeine will cause a reaction most of the time, and both of them can prove useful in their own way.

In fact, all emotions can prove useful, not just the great motivator of stress (when it isn’t being cripplingly oppressive and debilitating). Anger has its place right alongside elation when it comes to finding inspiration. Frustration can lead to problem-solving. Even tightly wound anxiety, contemptuous hate, and self-loathing offer a path for greater self-awareness if they are properly tapped into. “Negative” emotions may hold people back or lead them to do bad things, but they are not contributing factors in the process of cellular mutation. People should engage in therapy, self-examination, emotional support groups, or whatever they believe will help them to be more functional, more fully realized human beings for the very reason that strong, solid mental health and a positive emotional existence help people feel happier and enjoy their experience living this life.

Stand Up Against Stigma

If someone tries to convince you that your outlook is causing your disease, or that you could be “healed” of something like cancer by addressing the emotional negativity in your life, know that you are dealing with someone who either is suffering from her own mental illness or is, more likely, simply trying to take advantage of you in the age-old tradition of con artists posing as faith-healers.

Stand up against those who would promote more stigma. Disease is not caused by weak faith and it cannot be cured by strong faith. Nobody dies or is cured because of the amount of prayer they engage in or special books they read or trinkets they wear* or how much they donate to a spiritual organization. Disease is not caused by anger, repressed desire, guilt, fear, or the sins of past lives, and it cannot be cured by love, reconciliation, or righting forgotten wrongs.

But what is helpful is focusing on compassion.

If someone you know is struggling with difficult emotions, whether or not they are physically ill, find compassion within you and bring it to that friend or associate who needs it. More “healing” will come out of compassion than any thousand past life regressions or hypnotherapy sessions designed to release one’s inner emotional blocks. No amount of stigmatizing or emotion-shaming or any type of victim blaming is healthy or productive or good. But a single moment of compassion, well, that can be priceless.





*Unless those trinkets are radioactive or otherwise toxic. In those cases, certainly, they might very well make a person sick. For this reason, try to avoid lead jewelry or wearing a chunk of Plutonium-239.


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