Rewriting Your Health StoryBy:
The events of our lives can be considered from a strictly ‘just the facts’ point of view. When they are pivotal moments that change the course of our lives, however, it’s worth looking at the perspective we’ve taken.
Two years ago, my dad died. While his health had been suffering, his sudden death left me shocked, wishing I could have helped him somehow. I grieved his death, was supported by my community, and felt that I was coming to grips with it. A year and a half later, I got a cough that wouldn’t go away. It woke me every few hours at night, and without restorative sleep, I felt raw and vulnerable during the days, unable to participate in activities that I enjoyed. I finally resolved the cough after three months, but it left me feeling weak. For the next three months, I suffered from one ailment after another. I felt exposed, lacking my normal vitality.
Eventually, a friend suggested I see an acupuncturist. I scheduled an appointment, and when I walked in, the floodgates opened, and I started crying. I told her what had been going on since my dad’s death. She told me that in Chinese Medicine, grief is held in the lungs. Suddenly I understood. What I had been thinking was a shortcoming of my body or maybe part of getting older, was actually a manifestation of my emotional body needing to be heard.
When I picked up Emily Esfahani Smith’s new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters I was drawn into a chapter on storytelling. She explores how the ‘narrative choices’ we make about the traumas, choices, and events in our lives informs how we live, and how we feel about life. She reports on the work of psychologist Dan McAdams, who has found that people who tell ‘redemptive’ stories about their lives are the ones who choose to make contributions to the world. Telling a redemptive story does not change the facts, but it does change the interpretation.
Psychotherapy shows us that we can edit our stories, revising them in a way that helps us to find more meaning, and can help with recovery from mental illness. Another way to find meaning from the stories of our lives is to consider what our lives would be like if that pivotal event, whether seen as a positive or negative, would not have happened. What research has shown is that those who are thriving, especially after traumatic events, are those who have seen that the events have helped them grow. They don’t deny that life may have been easier if the events hadn’t happened, but they contend that it would have been less rich.
The stories we tell about our lives are a way of making sense, a way to, Smith writes, “understand our lives as coherent-and coherence, psychologists say, is a key source of meaning.” So in this start of a New Year, I’ve decided that, rather than make resolutions about my health, I will edit my health story. What I’ve learned is that just pushing ahead without allowing enough space and time for full expression of emotions can create disease. I also see clearly how when an illness becomes chronic, the way my cold turned into a months long cough, there may be an underlying emotional component.
I’ve gained empathy from my experience, and a renewed appreciation for the balance my body needs between work and play, exertion and rest. Do you have a health story? What is the perspective shift you could make in order to revise that story into one that better serves you?
Kalia Kelmenson founded Maui Mind and Body to support women's health. She is the creator of Core Strength Balance and Mind Body Booty Camp and enjoys moonlighting as the reviews editor at Spirituality & Health. Kalia explores the fascinating intersection of fitness and mind-body health. Find inspiration for your movement practice from research and stories that are emerging from this intriguing field.