I am currently reading a fascinating book entitled “The Secret Life of Pronouns” written by James Pennebaker, a psychologist who has studied the way we speak and write and how that relates to our personalities, to our illnesses and to our ability to heal wounds.
I was really struck by the section where he is discussing traumas and how people deal with them. He made the point that despite the fact that everyone experiences different traumas in their lives, most people neither become ill as a result, nor need specialist help.
That was one of those moments for me which is, on the one hand, and “aha!” moment, and on the other a moment of recognition/reaffirmation.
I think this observation applies to the whole of life and is fundamental when we think about health and health care but we’ve forgotten it.
Working as a doctor it’s easy to get the perspective that everyone gets ill and needs medical interventions, but that’s such a distortion of the reality of life. In fact, I’m reminded of what the Professor of Obstetrics said to my wife at her first antenatal visit. He said, “I see your husband is a medical student. Tell him that pregnancy and childbirth are normal experiences. As a medical student he will only see the situations where something goes wrong but for the great majority of women, things don’t go wrong.”
I was very grateful for that advice and it came back to me from time to time throughout my career. For most of us, for most of our lives, we are not thinking about our health, and we don’t need to seek specialist health advice. Of course I’m not denying the reality of morbidity and mortality. It’s also true that we will all experience illnesses and we will all, finally, die. It’s just that we have amazing adaptive abilities.
Take something like a flu epidemic. Only a minority of the people who are exposed to the virus will actually contract influenza. Only a minority for those who contract influenza will need specialist medical help. All of those who recover from influenza will do so because their body’s natural healing functions do what they are designed to do.
We do really forget that. There is no healing, other than that brought about by the body’s natural, adaptive, healing capacity. Yes, medical treatments can make the difference between life and death at times, it’s not that they are in any way irrelevant. But too often we think that healing is about medical treatment alone. It never is.
We humans have astonishing, natural, default abilities to deal with what comes along in life – whether that be mental traumas, physical traumas, infections etc. And when we do become sick, in every single instance we need our body’s self-organising, autopoietic abilities to do what they are designed to do.
Yes, if you are ill, you may well need specialist help, and please do seek it when you think you should. But don’t ever forget have the natural human ability to recover, to heal, and to be healthy.
Health is normal. Healing is normal. We should never forget that in all circumstances we should support and encourage those natural mechanisms.