"What if it really is...?" by Mary Ratcliffe
All in the mind?
There’s been a great deal of discussion over the years about the descriptive terms ‘psychosomatic’ and ‘all in the mind’ - and of how they come across to us, particularly if our state of health is ever described in that way. It feels preferable in some way to have a physical rather than a psychological condition. Our state of illness, our lack of health seems to be validated by being scientifically measurable, detectable by a blood test, an X-ray or an MRI scan.
It can feel better once we get a diagnosis. People can doubt that we’re ill if they only have our word for it that we have some pain, fatigue or exhaustion, lack of mobility, some strange sensory experience like ringing in the ears or whatever – and all the tests prove negative. And this can be a cause for more concern if we find ourselves so debilitated that we are unable to work or study. And there’s even more to worry about if those symptoms are becoming steadily more severe, even more frequent.
So if we hear the expression, ‘it’s all in the mind’, we can perceive it as negative - a criticism that is condescending and insulting. If we have a physical illness but the tests prove inconclusive, we might wonder if that signifies that it’s psychological or psychosomatic. We can assume we’re being told to ‘get over it’, to ‘pull ourselves together’, that it’s not real – that it only exists in our imagination. And yet our symptoms, whether physical or psychological, are very real, uncomfortable, painful or even agonising, and certainly worrying. So such messages can be most unwelcome!
And conversely, if an illness or condition is clearly visible to the various tests employed by medical science, does that necessarily mean that it isn’t ‘all in the mind’? If there is a detectable change in a blood chemical or the functioning of an organ such as the liver or kidney, what caused that? Maybe it was some external factor that caused it, but in most cases, we would expect that factor to cause the same change in everyone in the vicinity – and in most cases, it doesn’t. And does anything happen for no reason at all – just by chance – some purely random phenomenon?
So much of the medical, clinical research that is constantly being carried out is getting amazing results in the fields of cancer, heart disease, AIDS, diabetes, spinal injury, plastic surgery. Many more illnesses and traumas can now be recovered from. People are able to survive and live happy and productive lives after a diagnosis that was previously considered a prison sentence - or even a death sentence.
Consider the painstaking and diligent work of many doctors and scientists collaborating on their combined aim of the health and comfort of sick and injured people. They examine the contents of test-tubes, put slides under microscopes and wait patiently for results to develop from what is growing in a culture dish. Then the news breaks. Someone has found another gene for this, another antidote for that and we sigh with relief as yet another illness becomes measurable, quantifiable and therefore diagnosable and correctable.
But there are some illnesses and diseases that are still popularly regarded as incurable. We can understand people questioning why, with all the money and science and research, all the best brains in the world working towards the health of us all, why we aren’t as healthy as was predicted when our great health service was first invented.
Some drugs and other medical interventions show such promising results initially, and seem like a total cure-all when first licensed, but later emerge as a solution for only a handful of special cases. Some drugs continue to achieve all the benefits they were designed for, but only at the cost of side-effects that are, in some cases, only marginally less severe than the illnesses they have halted.
Many people live with all kinds of long-term, debilitating symptoms and conditions, physical and psychological, having had all the treatment deemed appropriate based on the very best of scientific research and testing of whatever their state of health is displaying to them and to their specialists. Either nothing has worked, or it worked for a while, but long-term, the condition itself remains to get in the way of the happy, healthy and productive life that seemed to be stretching ahead of them before this descent into pain, immobility, fear and worry.
People learn to live with their illness, manage their symptoms, control their discomfort and pain, because the people who have devoted their lives to the cause of health and wellbeing have used all the tools in their toolbox and can now only offer palliative care and a hope that those researchers will soon find a cure.
So if more success and more progress are needed, how about asking some different questions? If the questions we’ve been asking up to now haven’t brought as much health as we hoped and expected, would it be worth looking at it all from a completely different angle?
And as we seem to prefer to learn that it’s physical rather than psychological, it seems that we tend to fund similar kinds of physical scientific research.
Even if we’d all rather not find the answer in the mind, would it be worth having a look there, just in case?
What if ‘it’s all in the mind’ means that, actually, there’s another avenue we haven’t explored quite so fully yet. What if it’s more liberating than condescending, full of possibilities and potential rather than frustration and hopelessness? What if ‘the mind’ that it’s ‘all in’ is a part that is hidden from us? And what if, in that hidden part of the mind, there is an, as yet, barely explored vital link in the chain of that illness/wellness spectrum that we all inhabit?
If a physical illness or condition is caused by a raised level of some blood chemical or a reduced or impaired functioning of some vital organ, why did that happen? Could a thought, chosen or uninvited, have triggered that change? Could some subconscious processing have set up some kind of chain reaction that resulted in some disease or syndrome?
If that seems like a bizarre proposition, and if you’re wondering what could have generated such questions....
If you want to consider some different ideas, look at things from an angle that you’ve maybe not seen in exactly this way before....
If you have an illness or condition that you are managing, living with – giving time each day to measures that minimise its effects - and wonder if there’s something out there that can help you to fully resolve it, so you can get on with your life in the way that you want to....
If you are looking at various forms of therapy because you are considering training to be a therapist and don’t know yet which direction is best for you.....
If you are reading purely out of interest, not sure where this will take you, and hoping to enjoy the journey, to stimulate your enquiring mind, to learn something that might help in shedding some light on any current dilemmas or paradoxes....
You might want to know that my journey of discovery hasn’t been conducted in any laboratory. It’s taken place mainly as a result of my observations, my own study, of life in general, mine and those around me, and of my training and work as a therapist, working with that intriguing and fascinating creature, the subconscious mind.
And I’m not the only one to ask some of these questions.
Apart from the personal information about me, and all the detail about treatment I’ve received, no individual piece of information can be relied on to be factual. It’s all mixed up and anonymised, based on various people, their conversations with me, my observations of them when I was people-watching, and from treatments I have given and received.
Read an extract from Mary's latest book "What do you expect...?"
Go to Mary Ratcliffe's home page here