[This is Part I of an article featured in the December issue of Elevated Existence Magazine.]
The Chopra Center’s Dr. David Simon explains the connection between emotions and disease, and the holistic way to find wholeness and health.
Beyond the Symptoms
By Tammy Mastroberte
When our head starts pounding, our stomach starts churning or our chest is on fire from heartburn, the first place we usually run to is the medicine cabinet. And when we can’t find relief on our own, the next step is the doctor’s office, where the physician often turns to his or her prescription pad to alleviate our symptoms.
This has been the routine for many of us, who learned over the years that when we feel bad — physically or mentally — a pill is the answer. And in some cases, this is absolutely true. But what if there was an alternative to medication that would soothe anxiety or depression? What if our stomach cramps or acid indigestion is really the body’s way of letting us know our emotions need tending to?
These questions are the reason Dr. David Simon wrote his newest book, Free to Love, Free to Heal: Heal Your Body by Healing Your Emotions, and created an emotional freedom course at the Chopra Center, both of which are based on his experience as a physician who has looked at life and health holistically for more than three decades.
“If you give people the safety needed, you will find everyone has a story underlying their symptoms or illness, and if we can bring that fromthe subconscious to the conscious, there are opportunities for healing,” he tells Elevated Existence.
“It’s about revealing the underlying story and writing a more empowering chapter. This can often help people get off or reduce their medication needs for a variety of things.”
Of course, there are some cases where medication is required, such as an auto accident, sudden heart attack or a urinary tract infection, Simon says. In these cases, medication can be lifesaving. But there are many instances where modifying a person’s lifestyle and looking at emotional factors can help alleviate ailments just as effectively as a pill.
“Traditionally, the physician’s job is to find the biochemical to relieve someone’s suffering. They don’t think of stress when someone has high blood pressure, it’s more about giving them a medication that can bring it down,” he explains.
“If someone is depressed, a doctor often doesn’t look at what’s happening in the person’s relationships, how they might not be nourishing themselves, or even if a person has found meaning or purpose in life. It’s more about a deficiency in serotonin. That is the conventional model.”
Simon approached medical school from a different perspective, majoring in anthropology and studying medicine in non-Western cultures. He did his thesis on shamanism, and in between his graduate studies and medical school, became a meditation and yoga instructor.
“I learned health was about love, but in medical school they teach that people are molecular machines, and when the machine isn’t twirling properly, to introduce a new molecule. We are taught to treat symptoms rather than look at the root of illness,” Simon says.
The Role of Emotions in Illness
He believes there is an emotional component to all illness, and a mind/body approach works well, especially for psychosomatic illnesses such as functional bowel disorders, chronic pain, migraines and fibromyalgia. Even heart disease has some emotional component, he explains, although genetics, diet and exercise do play a role.
“At any one time, 20 percent to 25 percent of the population is struggling with digestion, whether its heartburn or irritable bowel, and these have a strong emotional component,” Simon notes.
Many autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, also have a direct correlation to emotions. “Most people with an autoimmune disease say their illness gets aggravated when they are stressed, and when they are not, the symptoms get quiet for a while,” he says, citing a study done with people suffering from an autoimmune disease who were admitted into a hospital.
Patients were asked about physical, emotional, sexual or drug abuse in the family as a child, and the study showed an increased risk of an autoimmune disease as an adult when one or more of these factors are present. Additionally, issues about food — whether eating too much or too little — all have underlying emotional components.
The answer is to help people fill their needs directly rather than going through food, Simon says, explaining that whether it’s food, drugs or alcohol, addictive behaviors are a person’s attempt to self-medicate.
The Hidden Message of Symptoms
But whether it’s self-medicating or turning to a doctor’s prescription, when the underlying emotional components are not addressed, new symptoms will often crop up over time, he explains. The body will continue to create disease until the emotional causes are uncovered and resolved.
“The body is trying to get our attention because it is carrying some pain — often emotional — that needs some direct attention,” he explains. “Whether it’s a headache, backache or irritable bowel, the body is asking ‘Can someone please pay attention?’ But rather than doing that, we just suppress the symptom with some type of medication, and then it often finds another way to get our attention.”
For example, a patient will often go to the doctor because of a migraine headache, and the doctor will prescribe a medication. Then the patient comes back into the office saying his or her headache is better, but now they have a side effect, or a new symptom. The doctor will then prescribe a new medication for the new symptoms or side effect, and that is why people often wind up on five or six medications, Simon says.
“You have to look back to the beginning and see what triggered the episode. When I see people like this, it often goes back to one thing — such as being emotionally or physically abused as a child — and they often need someone to hear their story and help them heal that story. Once it’s resolved, the symptoms often go away.”
Alleviating Anxiety and Depression
When dealing with many mental or psychiatric disorders, medication is extremely important. Illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — often based on a deeper genetic, biochemical imbalance — require medication, Simon says. But
for issues with anxiety, depression and insomnia, a mind/body approach can have amazing effects. And when used in conjunction, can get people off medication sooner.
“Medication for these things can be such an easy shortcut, and we need to raise the threshold of how readily doctors are giving them out,” he explains,
noting often people will feel better from the medicine and the underlying issue will never be addressed. “When someone dies, suddenly a person is put on an antidepressant, and they are not even allowed to grieve.”
Reducing our Dependence on Medication
Ideally, Simon believes medication should be used for a short period of time while helping people work through their issues, along with teaching them alternative lifestyle changes, such as meditation and yoga.
“People often just want relief, and if doctors offered them relief without going on a psychotropic medication, most people would opt for that, but so many just give the pill,” he says.
While a psychiatrist might know that if a person started meditation on a regular basis and reduced the amount of caffeine they take in during the day, it might help with their anxiety, many assume the patient won’t do these things, and so they just offer a pill, Simon explains. But in essence, people are “outsourcing their biochemistry.”
“I work with people trying to get off medication all the time, and I tell them, ‘If you had a manufacturing plant in the United States and you learned you could do the work overseas for much less, you would fire everyone and move. But then, if all of the sudden you decide you want to start back in the United States, you can’t just open up the same day — it takes time.’”
Simon says the same is true with the human brain. Once you start giving it serotonin from the outside, it realizes it doesn’t have to make it from the inside anymore. So getting off of medication can take four to six weeks, “until the brain says, ‘Oh, you’re serious. You really are going to make me manufacture this myself,’” he explains.
By looking at diet, exercise and sleep habits, shifts can be made to produce the same chemicals from within, rather than depending on an outside source. Getting to bed by 10 p.m., eating healthy foods, walking in beautiful, natural settings and more can help create a feeling of peace and keep a person centered.
“The practice of meditation is key because it gives people a glimpse of how they can generate peace inside their own body,” Simon says. “Good, healthy food; good smells; nourishing sounds; and good relationships — if everyone had these things we would all be healthy and happy. At the Chopra Center, we recreate the memory of wholeness, and teach skills to allow people to stay connected to their center.”
Particularly when it comes to anxiety, Simon believes by putting time into it and learning these new skills, people can learn to live without anxiety in a natural way. “Living without anxiety is a skill set that we have to be taught, and then the need for medication will go away,” he explains.
Read Part II of the interview tomorrow: The Heart of Emotional Healing
David Simon, M.D. is the medical director and co-founder of the Chopra Center
for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California. Visit www.chopra.com/freetolove or call 888.736.6895 to learn more about the Free to Love process and David’s upcoming emotional healing workshops.