Episode 6 – A new concept of health.

So far in this series we have explored why western medicine may not hold the key to good health, and how excessive faith in western medicine can sometimes be harmful to us. In todays episode I want to explore an alternative way of thinking about health which may better serve us.

Western medicine gives rise to what is termed the biomedical model of health. According to the biomedical model health constitutes, and I quote (from Wikipedia); “the freedom from disease, pain, or defect”.

So, according to this concept of health we are only healthy if we are free from any disease, pain or defect.

If we buy into this concept of health it doesn’t seem that surprising that so few of us feel very healthy!

I don’t think I have ever met somebody who has never experienced pain; has never had any kind of illness; a cough or a cold, eczema or acne or something. And what about a defect? Am I unhealthy because of my receding hairline!

So surely, we should abandon this concept of health, if we ever want to feel healthy?

But, I doubt that you are very convinced just yet.

Your brain will already be dismissing this out of hand. The human brain likes to defend what it thinks it knows, and if you are listening to this podcast you have most probably grown up with a 100% buy in to western medicine, and with it a biomedical model of health.

And I’m guessing that the objection is likely to be something along these lines;

“It’s a matter of degrees. Of severity. If you have eczema you are just a little bit unhealthy. It’s no big deal. It’s not as if you have cancer”.

So, I can feel mostly healthy even though I have a bit of eczema.

It’s as though there is a points system. You start with 100% good health, and then as you acquire various pains, diseases and defects along the way, you become less healthy by degrees. Maybe your hair recedes, that’s minus 0.5% health points; break your leg and it’s minus 3%; develop diabetes and that’s 30% right off the bat!

But I don’t think this is quite right, and here’s why…

The impact that any circumstance, symptom or disease has on an individual varies from person to person. The same pain, defect or disease may make one person really unhealthy, but have a very limited impact on somebody else.

Take the seemingly trivial example of receding hairline. I gave it as a tongue in cheek example, but it is not difficult to imagine how it could be a serious issue for some people. We can easily envisage how it perhaps may not be a major problem for a 40-year-old man, but be incredibly distressing for a 20 year old woman. What if the 40 year old man is a model or an actor, and a full head of hair is crucial to their career and livelihood. In these circumstances it could be a major health concern.

Now let’s take the extreme example of diabetes. Diabetes is a very serious condition, and increases your risk of multiple life changing and life threatening complications, such as blindness, limb amputation, kidney failure and heart attacks. However, some people develop diabetes in childhood, but can still live full, rich and healthy lives.

Gary Hall Jr the American swimmer won 6 Olympic medals, (3 golds, 1 silver and 2 bronze) after he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The British rower, Sir Steve Redgrave, won his 5th consecutive Olympic gold after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. We don’t generally consider Olympic gold medal winning athletes to be unhealthy.

It seems it is possible to become pretty unwell because of hair loss, but to remain healthy despite having a serious life threatening disease. If health is merely “freedom from disease, pain, or defect” how can this be? Clearly health cannot be simply related to the presence or absence of a defect or a disease.

The reason this is possible is that being healthy is not about the presence or absence of disease. It’s about how we feel. If we feel well we are healthy, irrespective of the presence or absence of disease or defect. This is fortunate, since we can learn to take control over how we feel, but our control over defects and disease is limited.

I suspect you are still not convinced.

The obvious objection to health being a product of how we feel, rather than the diseases we have, relates to length of life. An athlete with type 1 diabetes may be able to run fast today, but they have a condition associated with a reduced life expectancy, and therefore they are not truly healthy.

The association of health with length of life is a natural one, and is pretty much universal in our society, but it is both unhelpful and fundamentally wrong.

It is possible to be completely healthy in the moment immediately before death, and equally possible to live for many years in a state of chronic ill health. There is also such a thing as a healthy death, and death is not always the worst thing that can happen. If this were not the case all of us would be suffering ill health from the moment we are born, since death is a fundamental part of life.

Think of a young professional adventurer who dies in a climbing accident. They may be in peak mental and physical health right up until the moment they fall. Maybe for them dying in a climbing accident is not the worst thing that could have happened. They chose to climb despite knowing the risks. Perhaps they would rather have climbed and died, than never climbed at all. Despite their life being short, it was not an unhealthy one. They chose a life doing the thing they loved, and died doing it.

This concept of living well and dying well has been largely lost in our modern society, where death has become a taboo subject that we try to ignore and avoid at all costs. This is not a helpful coping strategy, and I will address this in a podcast of its own later.

We have demonstrated that it is possible to be healthy despite having a serious life limiting disease, and in the face of imminent death. How can this be?

Remember from episode 1, we defined being unhealthy simply as feeling unwell.

When you feel unwell…

 “you are experiencing a combination of mental and physical thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions that are unpleasant for you to experience. And that is all. There is nothing more to it.”

Therefore, being healthy may be defined as “experiencing a combination of mental and physical thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions that are pleasant for you to experience.”

What we think, how we feel, our experience of living in the world, is not completely dependent on the physical processes in our body, or on the absence or presence of a disease. It is also dependent on the way we relate to it. On the thoughts and feelings it tends to produce in us.

And despite how it feels when we experience ill health, or stressful situations, or physical discomfort; our mental and emotional responses to these things are not set in stone. They are not a foregone conclusion. They are learnt behaviors and patterns of thinking. And because they are learnt, they can be unlearnt or relearnt. We can teach ourselves to think better thoughts about our circumstances, and if we think better thoughts we will feel better too.

Even physical sensations, such as taste and smell, comfort or discomfort, pleasure and pain are not completely independent from our thoughts about them. We tend to think that certain sensations are pleasant, and others unpleasant, and that is that; we have no real control over which is which. The experience of sitting in the sun is a pleasant human experience, whilst sitting in the rain is unpleasant. If it is sunny we will therefore be happy, and if it’s raining we will be sad.

But this isn’t actually true. What is pleasant or unpleasant to experience isn’t set in stone. It isn’t a necessary part of the human condition. It isn’t an unchanging fact about you as an individual. We learn it. We are socialized to react in a particular way to particular experiences. Imagine you have recently been diagnosed with a skin cancer, you forget your hat and it turns out to be a bright sunny day. The feeling of the sun on your skin might be incredibly unpleasant in these circumstances. Imagine you are a farmer and a drought breaks at a crucial time, the feeling of the rain on your skin might be the sweetest caress you have ever felt.

The idea that the reaction a particular experience produces varies from one person to another is relatively easy to accept. It is clear that different people have different likes and dislikes. Music and art, for example, are human experiences of different combinations of wavelengths of light and sound. The same combinations can make on person happy and another sad, or even angry. It is also not difficult to accept that these likes and dislikes are learnt and socially derived rather than innate. When we travel abroad, for example, we may find that we don’t like food that we are unaccustomed to, and we often continue to enjoy the music that we grew up with throughout our lives.

The more difficult step is to accept that the reaction we have to external experiences, our likes, and dislikes, can vary within the same person. And even harder is the idea that they can be consciously or deliberately changed. That we can choose to enjoy certain foods or smells, to appreciate particular types of music, or how we react to certain situations.

I may, for example, have a fear of public speaking, and when I talk in public I get nervous, sweaty and nauseous. It is hard to imagine simply being able to choose not to react in this way, to choose to feel joy and elation in front of the crowd instead. But this reaction to speaking in front of a crowd is not a necessary part of the condition of being me. It is learnt behavior. And it can be unlearnt and relearnt if we have the will and the dedication. It is possible to consciously influence the way we respond to external stimuli, situations or circumstances. To change on purpose how we react, how we feel and what we do, in response to the things that happen to us. We can train ourselves to feel joyful both in the sunshine and in the rain.

If we define health as the absence of unpleasant experiences, rather than the absence of defect or disease, it becomes clear how we can take control of our own health. If health is not related to the presence or absence of disease, but rather what we think, how we feel and what we do about it, and we can consciously choose what we think and how we feel, then we are able to choose good health.

I can’t really do much about the fact of my receding hairline, but I can consciously change my reaction to it. I can change the thoughts I have about myself in relation to it, and what I make it mean about me. Even if we can’t influence the physical circumstances we find ourselves in, we can influence whether these circumstances cause us to become more or less healthy.

More than this, through our conscious, purposeful thoughts and actions, we can create a lifestyle that is more conducive to a good physical and mental condition. Stress, anxiety, sadness, poor sleep, poor food, lack of joy all contribute to a poor physical and mental condition. Anxiety over our state of health only serves to reduce our state of our health.

If I can choose to be peaceful about my receding hairline, to not allow it to cause me to become unhealth, by reducing stress and increasing wellbeing, this may actually reduce the rate of hair loss. The same is true for pretty much all illness. A positive mental attitude is far more powerful than we ever give it credit for. I like to think of this phenomenon as “fake it until you make it”. Not only can we choose to be healthy by deliberating choosing how a circumstance, disease or defect affects us, how we react to it, and how we feel about it, but in so doing we create the optimum condition for our bodies to heal. We may indirectly reduce the physical impact of the disease as well as the emotional one. If you focus your time and energy on feeling healthy this will often translate into improved physical and mental condition.

I will forgive you for thinking this sounds “too good to be true” – that we can simply think ourselves into good health. When things sound too good to be true we automatically assume that they are not true, that it is some kind of trick or scam.

But it is not a quick fix. Learning how to deliberately choose helpful thoughts is by no means easy. It requires work, time and dedication. It also requires an open mind. We must question and give up much of what we think we already know, and this is always a painful, challenging process. It is precisely because it is difficult, time consuming and painful that it feels impossible.

Honestly, if I had listened to this podcast 5 years ago I would have thought it was claptrap and would have paid it no attention. A lot can happen in 5 years. The reason I am so passionate about this work is because it has helped me immensely in my own personal life, as well as professionally.

It isn’t clap trap, it isn’t a scam or a trick. You can learn to control your own thoughts. By purposefully choosing helpful thoughts you can control how you feel, and what you do. How we feel and what we do really are the fundamental determinants of good health, wellbeing and happiness.

I also understand that it doesn’t feel like we do have control over how we react to situations; over what makes us happy, sad, or distressed. It seems like how we feel depends on what happens to us. That our external circumstances cause our feelings. That health, wellbeing and happiness depend on the things that happen to us, rather than what we make of them. On things over which we have no control, rather than that which we do. But things aren’t always what they seem.

We tend to think that the food we like, or the type of music we enjoy, what makes us happy, sad or angry, are integral parts of us. They are a part of our personality that makes us who we are. We therefore hold them sacred and want to defend them. They are a part of our concept of self, and so we are reluctant to change them. It feels like giving them up involves losing part of ourselves. This reluctance to change them translates into a belief that they cannot be changed, but really, we just don’t want to have to change them.

The problem comes when our learnt reactions to external stimuli are unhelpful or harmful to us. When we find ourselves in an unpleasant situation we need to be flexible and adaptable if we are to continue to grow and flourish. If we believe fundamentally that we are unable to change, to adapt to the new situation, we will become unhealth and unhappy. We won’t survive. I see people every day who are barely surviving.

Sadly, the cards are stacked against us being able to acquire the tools we need to make real positive change in our lives. Not only is the process hard work, difficult and painful, but our human brains, naturally fearful of change and uncertainty, tend to resist and reject this work before it has even started.

Despite this it is possible to overcome our instinct to distrust and reject new ideas; and the rewards of exploring new and better ways of understanding and relating to ourselves and others far outweigh the effort and pain of the process.

If you are still sceptical, don’t worry. I think it is normal. I know that I would have been. For me it took a major life event to force me to question what I thought I knew, to force me onto a different path. But the path I now find myself on is so much better, the way ahead so much clearer. 

Its ok to be sceptical, so long as you continue wanting to learn, expand and grow. Be sceptical but not rigid. Try to keep an open mind. Maybe this work is not for you, I am sure it is not going to benefit everybody. But for me it changed my life, and I know that wouldn’t have happened if I had not been forced to try it. Maybe it could do the same for you, but you will never know unless you try.

So I really hope you will join me for the next episode where I am going to explore further the work we need to do to learn to take control of our own thoughts and feelings, and introduce the concept of thought work.