What You Think About Comes About
“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.” — Helen Keller
What you choose to focus on becomes your reality. A famous Buddha saying goes, “You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts you make the world.”
And as the prominent Chicken Soup for the Soul author Mark Victor Hansen puts it, “What you think about comes about.” In call-to-action terms, as NY Times bestselling author Jen Sincero implores, “[F]ree yourself from the drama and the conviction that your current version of yourself is the truth.”
As autoimmune patients, we perhaps have the most to gain in ensuring that the messages we send ourselves day after day are helping us to heal. When we fail to eliminate thought patterns that attack our own circumstances (past, present or future), our bodies follow suit and tend toward self-attack.
Autoimmunity is complex — studies show that there are genetic, gut-related, hormonal and environmental causes. In my own experience I developed autoimmune symptoms while pregnant with or shortly after my second child was born, suggesting that hormonal changes played a large part in setting off my autoimmunity.
In high school I had developed debilitating lupus-like symptoms after a year-long course of oral minocycline, an antibiotic my family doctor prescribed me for acne prevention, indicating gut-related causes. My mother was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in recent years, so my genes may also predispose me.
Yet I don’t get to choose or exert control over any of these factors. My decision to take an oral antibiotic for so long years ago is in the past. Why focus on what is out of my control?
Our mindset, however, is a choice and a habit. Whatever is on your mind creates an emotion, which affects your body’s function. Scientists have shown that depression not only affects mood and motivation but has a direct effect on the immune system by suppressing T cell responses to viruses and bacteria, making it easier to get sick and stay sick longer.
Other scientific studies have shown that intense emotions like anger and anxiety increase the risk of heart attack. Increasingly studies point to stress and anxiety as primary causes of chronic pain.
If you focus on your worries, your fears, your physical and internal wounds, your disease and diagnosis, and your self-pity for your situation, your reality is indeed all those things that you worry about, fear or feel sad about, often to the exclusion of all other equally valid and viable versions of reality.
Your body and mind will perceive these thoughts as real dangers and threats, even though they don’t have to be. You will perpetually be on the offense and defense in living your life. In medical terms, you are in fight or flight mode…not exactly the peaceful, contented existence we seek, right?
When I was eventually diagnosed with undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy, an autoimmune spinal arthritis, I developed and focused on a lot of additional self-limiting beliefs (I say “additional” because I think most of us have a good deal of self-limiting beliefs even before our diagnoses):
“I have an autoimmune disease,”
“My health is so bad and doesn’t seem to be getting any better despite all the medical visits and all these expensive supplements,”
“I can’t eat most foods that others can or that I used to enjoy,”
“This autoimmune paleo (AIP) diet is so expensive and time-consuming to manage,”
“I’m even sensitive to foods like coconut products, sweet potatoes, garlic and bone broth on the AIP diet, so I hardly can eat anything!”
“Organ meat makes me want to gag — why do AIP authors act like it tastes good?!”
“I can’t eat out anymore,”
“It’s taking forever to figure out how to fix myself and make the pain go away,”
“No one else, even family, seems to understand,” “They think it’s all in my head,”
“What did I do wrong to cause this?”
“What did X person do to cause this?” etc, etc.
The list goes on and on.
Sure, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and the flares were very real and very painful, but I wish I had known the power that my endlessly analytical mind wielded over my body, sabotaging my unyielding efforts to truly heal.
On the flip side, the opportunity to learn to live in cooperation with life beckons you each moment and each day, and is the surest path to healing not only your mind but also your body.
It doesn’t mean you stop seeing the doctor you trust, taking necessary medications, or learning about and practicing ways to help your body heal through nutrition, exercise, supplements, lifestyle choices, alternative therapies and the like.
What it does mean is that you choose to focus on your blessings, both the big and small (even if some days all you can think of are more basic things like having shelter and clothes to wear).
It is then that your reality is a blessed life, open to more blessings because your heart is more readily able to give and receive joy from God and others in this bountiful world.
You will live in the moment in this way, journeying through life like a leaf gliding freely down a river (even through some choppy waters) rather than as a battered leaf stuck against a branch sticking out of the river.
Example of Helen Keller…what did she focus on?
Think of Helen Keller, someone inspiring we all learned about in grade school at least. What was her reality? Maybe now would be a good time to take a second, fresh look. She was born healthy but at age 19 months she became deaf and blind due to a serious illness.
Just imagine being both deaf and blind as a child — what would your reality look like?
Dark, silent, confusing, frustrating, alone…..these are some words that come to mind (many emotions that we autoimmune patients often feel as well) but that’s probably just scratching the surface.
Yet, what did Helen Keller choose to focus on?
Her desire to communicate well and even graduate from college, with the help of her teacher Annie Sullivan, led Keller to focus on learning to speak in a way that others would understand her, even if it would take 25 years.
Do you think she let herself focus for very long on how difficult it was, or did her drive to speak well and even graduate from college consume her imagination?
Keller once said, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”
Do you focus on your limitations? On the uncomfortable or painful symptoms of your disease? Do you fear your future because of these limitations?
It’s all too easy, and it can become a well-worn, familiar pattern of thinking ingrained in your brain. Yet choosing the alternative mindset is a much brighter and healthier option for you and everyone you encounter.
You can instead choose to focus on the blessings that surround you. They are always there, waiting to be noticed, even if it can feel extremely hard to find them at times.
You will get better at it the more you practice it, just as a muscle you exercise, and both your mind and body and those around you will reap the benefits.
So why live life in fear or worry when it hurts you and those you love? Instead, choose to trust that you will get through the days when your autoimmune symptoms seem to be launching a full self-attack, when your brain is not feeling its best, and when you are not sure what step to take next.
Don’t we all feel a little or very uncertain or confused at times?!
Take it a little easier if you can (especially in judging your own performance), try to focus extra hard on all the big and little things you are grateful for, and commit to rejecting any fearful, self-pitying or worrisome thoughts that may creep into your psyche.
It takes practice and commitment, but it’s worth it for your emotional, physical and spiritual self. Like me, you just might find yourself a little farther down the road to better health.
“I have lived a long life and had many troubles, most of which never happened.” — Mark Twain