PERSONALITY AND ILLNESS

“The last place we tend to look for healing is within ourselves.” Wayne Muller

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Medical sociologist, Aaron Antonovsky, after conducting several studies regarding personality characteristics that serve to promote well being, concluded that it’s a sense of coherence within the individual that produces health. This sense of coherence is comprised of three components: (1) comprehensibility, (2) manageability, and (3) meaningfulness.

When we view the world as comprehensible, we perceives it as making sense, possessing some sort of structure, and offering some level of predictability. When we believe the world is manageable, then we feel able for the most part to meet the demands of life, having faith that one way or another we’ll be able to cope with our circumstances. The meaning that we attach to a situation not only effects how we’ll respond to it emotionally, but impacts our physiological responses as well. Antonovsky proposes that when we possess a strong sense of coherence, we tend to view the challenges that confront us as opportunities rather than as threats, consequently minimizing their stressful effects. Research indicates that when we simply anticipate an experience that we expect will be positive, or think about something that makes us feel good, positive changes occur in our bodies as well.

Liz, a lovely and energetic woman with whom I worked had a near fatal heart attack at the age of forty-five. She was lying on a gurney in excruciating pain while emergency workers scrambled to save her life when she was struck by the chilling awareness that she could be dying. Liz wrote:

“You read about it in the paper just about every morning, some middle aged man or women with growing children has died suddenly. It happened all of the time, and now it was happening to me. ‘I’m dying’ I thought in amazement. This is it. I’m no exception. I’m just an obituary in the morning paper in the grand scheme of things. No warning, no second chances, no negotiating or compromising, just over and out.

I had lived my life with such warped priorities, giving far too much weight to deadlines at work, dust on the furniture, and children with dirty fingernails. Right before having my attack, I’d been obsessing over a memo I needed to send to my boss. I’d hardly slept the night before, writing it over and over again in my head. After I sent it off, I was a nervous wreck, imagining that he’d conclude that I hadn’t adequately planned for a very important project that I’d been assigned. Well here I was dying, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wasn’t prepared. All of the sudden, that memo and my boss’s approval meant absolutely nothing.

They say you see your life flash before your eyes when you’re dying. Well in a way I did see my life pass before me in snap shots. I watched a replay of Tina slamming the door in tears that morning. I remembered the discouraged look on Patrick’s face the night before when he realized that I hadn’t been listening to him again. I recalled how warm the sun had felt on my skin as I hurried to get into the car, and how I’d never gotten around to watching the morning news with my husband. I thought of a friend who’d listened to me complain over and over and over again of never having enough time. She’d suggested that when I got the chance I should write an essay entitled, ‘When I have the time…’

The recovery process was a time of reckoning for me. Faced with a significantly damaged heart, numerous uncertainties, and borrowed time on my hands, I began to write that essay.

An old friend had brought me in a magazine article stating that the United States had been hit with a potentially deadly epidemic. This malady was said to be one of the top five reasons that people call their doctors, was the culprit behind one of every four health complaints, and was one of the leading causes of early death. What was this terrible affliction? A lack of joy.

My life, a privileged one by even my standards, contained far too much stress and way too few pleasures. The greatest irony was that most of the stress that I now firmly believe led to my heart breaking down, was self-imposed, and the absence of pleasure was related to my own self denial.

I took notes while I read the article. It suggested that in order to experience more joy, I needed to work on patience, unity, agreement, humility, and kindness. I made a commitment that when I left the hospital I would do the following:

  1. I would strive to be more patient. I would take deep breaths, stop behaving as almost every task before me was an emergency, slow down, and ask myself when I started to become agitated or upset, ‘How important is this in the grand scheme of things?’ One brief flashback of the emergency room usually serves to put things in perspective.
  2. I would pay attention to my body by listening to and responding to its’ signals. I would take more time to really connect with other people, concentrating on the moment and being as present as possible. I would spend some time each day in prayer, or meditating, or spending a few moments in nature.
  3. I would work to stop over reacting to those things I had little or no control over and begin to view each experience as an opportunity to learn instead of as a potential threat. In fact, I would make a decision to view the whole of my life as a learning process rather than a race I had to run, or a deadly serious game in which it was important to score the most points possible.
  4. I would try to acknowledge my weaknesses as undeniable aspects of my humanness. When I took the time to fully appreciate how my flesh, (just like the flesh of every other person in the world) was ultimately so very vulnerable, then striving for perfection began to seem ridiculous.
  5. I decided that in the best interest of both my physical, emotional, and spiritual health, I would work on being kinder.”

It would appear that Liz is doing a wonderful job keeping her commitments judging by the healthy glow of her skin, the twinkle in her eyes, and the relaxed, graceful movements of her body.

I recall a winter day long ago when my sister-in-law and brother-in-law dropped by. My sister-in-law was her radiant, cheerful self; however, I was immediately concerned about my brother-in-law who appeared drawn, tired and depressed. I asked him what was wrong. He informed me that they had finally managed to save a few hundred dollars in the bank (they had been struggling financially for years in spite of their very hard work) when they received news that they owed the IRS over two hundred dollars. Once again their savings would be wiped out. “It seems like someone is watching me, just waiting to stomp me back down every time I get my head up,” he complained. My sister-in-law immediately replied, “Did you ever think that maybe someone is watching over you, and that when we could have been in trouble by not having the money to pay the taxes, lo and behold, there it was!” I was struck by the effect of this event on these two very special people. The experience was the same for both, and yet the way it was experienced, was vastly different. It created anxiousness, discouragement, and weariness in one, while it fostered appreciation, gratitude and peace in the other.

Kenneth Pelletier in “Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer,” points out that between 50 to 80 percent of all diseases have psychosomatic or stress-related origins. According to Pelletier, any disorder is the result of a complex interaction of physical and psychological stress, social factors, the personality of the individual, and his or her inability to adapt adequately to the stressors.

Victor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recalled the death of a fellow concentration camp prisoner, as he wrote of the deadly effect of losing hope and courage in the camps. The prisoner had confided in Frankl that he had had a prophetic dream which informed him that the camp would be liberated on March 30th. Frankl’s companion was filled with hope. As March 30th grew nearer, the war news remained bleak. It seemed highly unlikely that Frankl and his companions would be free by the promised date. On March 29th, Frankl’s companion suddenly became ill, running a high temperature. On the 30th, the day the prisoner had believed he was to be rescued, he became delirious and lost consciousness. On March 31st, he died.

Frankl believed that the terrible disappointment his friend faced when liberation did not occur had lowered his body’s resistance against infection and consequently allowed him to become victim to illness.

Frankl also pointed out that the death rate in the concentration camp during the week between Christmas and New Years in 1944, dramatically increased beyond all previous experience. The camp physician concluded (and Frankl concurred) that the higher death rate was due to the prisoners’ disappointment and loss of courage. Many of them had hoped that they would be freed and home again by Christmas. When their hopes proved to be in vain, their powers of resistance dropped dramatically and a number of them died. The presence of hope and faith not only provides comfort, it can also save lives.

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©Tammie Byram Fowles, (an excerpt from BirthQuake: The Journey to Wholeness)

 

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