A patient who had Crohn’s Disease came to see me in my natural health practice a few years back, and I was shocked by his honesty in answering one of my intake questions. I do a homeopathic interview with each patient, and if you’re unfamiliar with what that involves, I have to mention that there are some unique questions that come up during homeopathy.
The question I asked my patient was, “What are your pet peeves?” Without skipping a beat, he answered “people.” He laughed for a second after answering, but he was also serious. I went on to find out how different people in his life had betrayed his trust over the years and how his chronic health condition had started right after some family drama. Each time he reentered this same environment, his symptoms would flare up.
Was my patient inviting drama into his life? I would hardly describe him as drama-seeking. As it turned out, he offered his candid insight into a sentiment that I heard echoed in my practice from a variety of other patients over time, and which each of us can relate to.
I noticed in practice that chronic symptoms would start or get worse after challenging social situations. Whether someone was dealing with acne, weight gain, hormone imbalance, trouble sleeping, anxiety, digestive complaints, or headaches, based on my experience I had to ask about any existing stress and social experiences that may have been related to that stress.
Patient lab results kept showing hormone and neurotransmitter levels that backed up what I was hearing from health histories. Cortisol is a stress-triggered hormone that is released from the adrenal glands. When someone described that their energy felt drained around family, friends, or work-related drama, I would frequently see cortisol deficiency. When I told a patient about the results, they were hardly ever surprised. They seemed to understand on an instinctual level that suppressive, controlling, or judgmental influences in their lives were in fact affecting their health. After discussing these factors out in the open, people were able to take a more honest approach to their social lives and experience better health over time.
I started to wonder, why won’t mainstream health care look at the connection between chronic illness and social influences? Meanwhile, we are typically open to exploring the effects of so many other external and internal environmental factors on our health: Pollutants, toxins, gluten, lactose, free radicals, carbon footprints, preservatives, xenoestrogens, parabens, pharmaceutical drugs, processed foods, global warming, allergens, sugar, caffeine, butter, junk food, unfiltered water—phew! I know there are other suspected culprits that I’ve missed. At a certain point, it seems like we are focusing on the details of our physical environments—both inwardly and externally—in the hopes of avoiding a more difficult challenge that is ailing health.
What exactly is born from unhealthy social dynamics that negatively impacts our health?
It is the messages—spoken, or implied by anyone who disrespects and unfairly judges us—that can become internalized and then affect health. These messages can strongly influence how we see ourselves, take care of ourselves, and ultimately manage our own health. The messages sprout from the perfect image that society employs to stamp out individuality and character; the unrealistic expectations we are taught to pursue; and the pressure to do and be for others at the expense of ourselves.
Whenever these messages take hold of the body and are not processed or dealt with honestly, they remain “undigested” in a way, and the body’s systems get derailed in the process. The adrenal glands call on their forces of fight-or-flight molecules, the immune system gets involved in defense and surveillance around people, and the neuro-endocrine system (made up of the neurotransmitters and hormones in the body) becomes disrupted.
Social interaction can of course be a healthy and supportive influence in our lives too. In this case, you often find people giving each other the space to be who they are and to grow as people. You will see the mutual respect of people rooting each other on in life. Most importantly, people who interact with each other in a healthier way are more aware of their insecurities and fears and therefore don’t make a habit of taking these feelings out on others. It’s great to have people like this in our lives, and I’ve seen from my patients and personal experience how refreshing and valuable these interactions can be.
Not all social spheres share these qualities, however, and it’s helpful to recognize this dynamic too. When social messages trigger symptoms, the effect is usually bigger than what something like gluten or an allergen could exert on its own.
We may be living with social stress that we’re not even aware of. Unhealthy aspects of socializing can become “normal,” because society encourages people to be extroverts and social all the time, regardless of how we’re really feeling. Turn on a T.V. commercial or sitcom and you’ll see what I’m talking about. You’re supposed to tuck away your real reactions in favor of positive and “cool” responses. Suppressed feelings over the long-term is what leads patients to my naturopathic office more than anything else.
Harmful messages we may hear from those we know (or society) are good at convincing us to turn on and betray ourselves. That is why they affect our health so much, because they can easily use our own minds against us. These messages affect everyone on some level, regardless of who you are. However, sometimes people are drawn toward and align with the messages so strongly that they are taken far away from themselves. In these situations, a person often seeks to take out how they are truly feeling underneath on others. The message perpetuates itself from person to person. What is the main point of the message being touted? You are wrong for being who you are.
Why don’t we look at the relationship between social dynamics and health more closely in our society? There is no concrete evidence of the connection from research being done today. There is no drug that can fix this, and no money to be made from being honest about it. In fact, it’s not in society’s best interest to take a look at this.
Society runs on people feeling like they are wrong for being who they are.
So, what can we do for our health with these influences all around us? There is no easy remedy or answer to this question. However, we can be more honest with ourselves when we’re feeling mistreated and are told to believe that someone else knows us better than we know ourselves. No matter which insults someone speaks or implies; judgments they make about your character or worth; or declarations they have regarding who you are, your body and mind are equipped to let you know that the message itself is wrong–not you. Chronic symptoms can be a wake up call, but of course it can be scary at first to listen to what the body is really trying to communicate to us.
If we pay close attention to the body and what it’s relaying using symptoms, we can understand that health is not about perfect diets, hours spent at the gym, natural or pharmaceutical treatments, zen-like meditation, avoidance of gluten, or any other solution out there. It’s about living your own life and taking care of yourself, and it involves standing up to anyone who tells you it’s a crime to do so. It’s about remembering what you want even when surrounded by naysayers or people who don’t care. And it’s about acknowledging and facing, if only to yourself, social influences that may be interfering with your health.
In today’s world, we can’t hold the social sphere as sacred and above reproach when it comes to seeking better health and relief from chronic symptoms. Drugs are not going to do the trick. Neither are supplements. Keeping our eyes open in the face of harmful social messages will help the most, even when we’re being pressured to close our eyes to what’s really happening. There is no medical language that helps us talk about how social dynamics can affect health on a chronic and pervasive level. It’s up to the individual in each of us to summon the courage to face this challenge in our own lives first. Health is an innate potential we’re born with, and it’s worthwhile to stand up for it no matter who’s around. Someone once told me to block out the noise and keep doing what I’m doing. At the end of the day, that might be the best tool we have.