Inflammation and mind/body connection

The humble tomato and myself are not friends.

I always suspected that I didn’t get along great with tomato based meals, but hadn’t had one in quite some time…until last night.

I had an especially nice spaghetti bolognaise using a recipe I found online. I have to say, I can’t remember ever enjoying it more.

A few hours later I was in bed when the restless legs started. I couldn’t keep them still. I was trying to meditate to a mantra as I often do before bed but the tingling and clawing sensations in my lower legs got so bad I was thrashing around for ages trying to get comfortable,

Eventually they did calm down and I was able to sleep. I woke up in the night with a blocked up nose. I didn’t think too much of it in my sleepy state, but when I woke in the morning and the sneezing became uncontrollable, I realised it was part of the inflammatory response. Sure enough, my legs ached painfully, my heart pounded, and I felt generally weak and unwell.

As I tried to begin my day despite feeling dreadful, I became aware of a horrible feeling of anxiety flooding my system – that fight-or-flight that so many of us are familiar with. It wasn’t the result of feeling bad, as I often feel bad, it was part and parcel of the inflammatory response. I had an intense need to cry, so I did for a time, even though I knew it was due to the tomatoes and that staying away from them for so long and then re-introducing a meal heavy in them had freaked my system out and made me feel physically and mentally unwell.

Tomatoes – nightshades – are high in natural toxins – and for so many people they worsen existing conditions. That doesn’t mean they’re not good foods with many health benefits because they are of course. But for those of us with auto-immune or other long term conditions, they can exacerbate symptoms dreadfully. Potatoes are also nightshades and I do have to be careful with those, but they don’t produce such an extreme reaction. Chilli peppers are another and I tend to avoid those, not being a fan of spicy foods generally.

It was a lesson for me not only in knowing I must never eat tomatoes if I want to avoid unnecessary inflammation, but in observing my physical and mental symptoms as the witness rather than getting caught up in identifying with them. I can see my body doing its thing and it’s incredibly frustrating and annoying, but that’s all it is. I’m not actually anxious, my body is on the attack due to the tomatoes. It feels threatened so of course it’s producing adrenaline.

Knowing all this means I can accept and let it go rather than adding another layer of suffering and mind-identification to the whole experience. And I can grow more and more knowledgeable about what to put into my body.

Being with the body

My health hasn’t been the greatest lately. I have to keep reminding myself to stay centred in the present moment and not get caught up in thoughts about past or future. Not easy to do especially when anxiety takes over, but I am learning more and more than the state of my physical body influences my mental health as much as the opposite: there is no separation. For instance, I have problems with my adrenal glands. They don’t produce enough cortisol so I struggle to manage stress and my body tries to over-compensate with flooding with adrenaline. This creates anxiety because my body is literally gearing up to fight. It also has the effect of intense crying; I suspect this is to release the energy associated with the release of adrenaline.

But I’m okay. In the moment I’m okay. This moment is all there is and I am connected to Spirit. I know that my soul is whole and free even if my fragmented mind and struggling body can’t always realise it. There has been a lot of stress in my life lately – my dog having a stroke, my mother being involved in a car accident, the pain of Christmas, and plain overdoing it to try and manage those emotions. Now is the time to bring everything home to the now and trust in life and in myself.

To anyone having a bad time with health or otherwise, I feel you. It’s a long hard journey, especially when well meaning people ask whether you’ve tried this or that and you’ve literally tried everything, so it brings you down. But this is your personal journey, as it is mine, and all we can really do is listen to our bodies and let them be our messengers. The body is in the present moment; it reflects what we think and feel. Our job is to notice and be with what is happening. If the body is saying it is under attack/threat, we can feel compassion for that state of being or at least accept it. Not resisting it, not pretending it’s not happening, but being fully with it. It’s really not easy, it’s painful and frustrating and devastating, but this is what I feel brings the greatest peace.

When the present moment hurts

All spiritual teachings point to the wisdom of being in the now because, in fact, this is the only place we can ever be; only our minds create the illusion that we could be anywhere else.

However, it is very natural for our minds to want to escape pain and suffering, not realising that there is nowhere we can actually go (short of being in real threat or danger whereby our physical bodies will react accordingly).

Sometimes the present moment hurts. I am in such a moment. It may sound trivial compared to a lot of problems and believe me I know more than most, but I feel very fragile. My back is hurting. I’ve probably strained it through sitting too long in the wrong posture but it’s been the same on and off for a couple of weeks. I went to the hairdressers yesterday and found the half an hour sitting on a chair to wait for my hair colour to take was torturous for my back. I wanted to stand up and walk around and probably should have done, but somehow felt I couldn’t (I can be quite a shy person).

I’m also exhausted and not feeling well generally. My immune system feels inflammatory with lots of aches, pains, stomach spasms, weakness and cold-like symptoms. This isn’t unusual for me at all and I can deal with it. It’s all part of my health conditions which I have had for many years. But the worst is the effect on my mental health because during flare ups I feel very low. I suspect that the inflammation hits my brain and makes me want to be anywhere else but in this body and in this moment. I am prone to depression (which I used to struggle with constantly) but have come to realise that rather than my depression causing my physical problems as is so commonly assumed, my situation is the other way around: my physical state is causing the depression. As soon as the inflammation eases its hold on my system, I can place a large sum of money (if I had some) on my depression easing too. And it always does.

As much as the present moment hurts, resisting it does not help. I know that, yet it can be so difficult to avoid doing so. I don’t want this pain, who would? The way I deal with this is to accept the resistance. I don’t have to like or want what’s happening. I add another layer of awareness and compassion to those struggling, hurting parts of my being. I feel the resistance in my body as a real, tangible sensation. At this point I usually find tears, and I let myself cry. It is powerful to be with that emotion, to accept it with love, and let it go.

I want to share this because it’s natural to have down days and moments, even (and maybe especially?) for those of us on a spiritual path. I can fall into the trap of spiritual perfectionism whereby I think that as I’m aware of my true nature as a spiritual being I shouldn’t feel depressed or sick anymore. Not true! I am living a human life. I’m still at the mercy of this body with its chemical processes and limitations. And sure, maybe one day when I’m further along my path I may experience much better health, physical and/or emotional, but I may not. The future doesn’t exist except as an illusion. This IS my path, right here, right now, pain and all.

Finding who I Am in the struggle

I intend to always be honest in this blog about my struggles. And life can be a struggle. I often feel that I’m in a dark night of the soul experience with a genuine glimpse of the light ahead but with a little way from fully embracing my existence as a spiritual being.

My life has been about loss. I grew up in a dysfunctional family where secrets and divisions were the norm, as were isolation and loneliness. I turned to God as a coping mechanism and thereby started my spiritual path where I never felt truly alone in the world, even though I very much did in my family.

As an adult I married young in the hope of creating the family unit I had always craved. Unfortunately my ex husband was also a product of his own wounded upbringing (as are so many of us) and our marriage was painful and abusive. We had our son very early on and loved him dearly but by the time he was three he had a diagnosis of autism and learning difficulties, which would turn out to be severe.

I loved being a parent in so many ways, but it was desperately hard. I had already fallen very unwell at university in my teens, and my health deteriorated as I tried to cope with my son’s challenging behaviour and hyperactivity. Our marriage ended as I realised I simply couldn’t stay with someone who treated me as if I was worthless. It was the first sign that I was starting to respect who I am, despite everything.

Life as a single mum with severe health issues and an autistic child was very tough and lonely. I fell into a deep depression. I felt fluey and weak all the time. I tried my very best for my son and was grateful for support from a very good social worker (yes, there are such things!) but my ex lacked empathy and understanding. He had our son at weekends but turned up and brought him back to his own timetable. He couldn’t see things from anyone else’s viewpoint.

To cut a long story short, my health got worse and worse, both physically and mentally. I was housebound. Carers came to take my son out to activities that I couldn’t manage. I tried to give my son a good life. On the few times I managed to take him out, such as for a meal, it was a disaster. He ran around the restaurant grabbing food off people’s plates as I desperately tried to control him. People looked at me as if I was scum. I went home crying my heart out. This wasn’t what I signed up for. I’d envisaged being the mother I’d never had and setting the boundaries I’d never experienced. An autistic child wasn’t part of the deal.

When my son was 10 I ended up in hospital with my POTS and from that point on my ex took over. And when I say took over, I mean took over. He dictated when I could have him and for how long, and as I was so unwell and completely within his control, I agreed to anything to see my son. Eventually he stopped me seeing him completely. It went to court and from 2015 onwards I began to see him at a set time at his mother’s house. Finally, for the first time in my life, I had some sense of peace. I could see him for a length of time I could manage, with the support of someone else, and away from dealing with my ex.

Now to the present day. After a brief period of my son coming to my home and myself trying to manage but realising for many reasons that it was not safe to do so, my son has been moved into accommodation with several other young autistic men who are supported to achieve the independence they can but with the aid of 24/7 carers. I can visit him without answering to anyone else. I do not see my ex anymore.

It has been a long hard road. I am still unwell but since 2015 my health has started to pick up. I am still picking up the pieces mentally as well. I drew on my spiritually for the many years I was caring for my son and sick, but I always hoped it would make things better, which it never did (false assumption on my part). However, it gave me strength and without it I know I would not have survived. I trusted that there was some purpose in my experiences even though I couldn’t understand it. I knew my son was teaching me so much about love and I knew that some day it would all make sense.

My life is peaceful now. I live alone, I am starting my own business, I am improving health-wise, I have good friends, my dog, and I have proper access to my son. But I am still sifting through my life and wondering what the hell happened and how I move forward. There has been SO much loss. But maybe it was to prepare me for the realisation that who I am is so, so much more than all of that and I cannot rely on external circumstances to provide the validation or love I crave.

I believe this part of my journey is about continuing to grieve the losses, especially of a family life, both as a child and a parent, because I wanted both so badly. But also to let go and surrender to the light of who I really am. I can’t bypass my pain or my life to date – nor should I want to – it all happened. My son is a beautiful soul who helped me trust in my own worth rather than relying on acknowledgment from him that I was doing okay.

Maybe my journey has always been about trust, no matter what is taken away. And that I’m strong and resilient. Despite everything I have myself, and my own love.

‘Love is the only answer’ Matt Kahn

I was wondering where to start and then I thought where better than love?

Matt Kahn is one of my favourite spiritual teachers at this point in my journey. His philosophy is that whatever we are feeling, thinking, or dealing with – we love that. Sounds simple but it’s very, very hard to remember and put into practice, as I have personally found.

As humans we are hardwired to want to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Well, of course we are. Who would want pain (unless they’re a masochist)? Avoiding it ensures our survival as a species. Plus no one wants to feel bad. I have several chronic illnesses and HATE feeling unwell and limited. We often don’t like emotions such as anger and jealousy and consider them negative and unspiritual, coming from the ego rather than the spark of Divinity that we are. We may try to stuff them down and focus more on so-called positive emotions such as happiness and joy. That’s natural.

The problem may arise when we resist aspects of our experience so much that we create more suffering for ourselves. We may feel angry or jealous and get upset with ourselves for feeling that way, thereby adding another layer of suffering on top of the feelings we are already experiencing. In my case, struggling with feeling exhausted and unwell and wishing I was healthy creates resistance and more suffering. But lofty spiritual ideals such as ‘accepting everything that happens’ don’t really work for me either. Do we really have to accept everything? Really??

Matt Kahn’s answer to this is to love. If we are feeling angry, notice it and love the part of us that is angry. If we are in physical pain, love the part of us that is hurting or, if that is impossible, love the part of us that can’t love the part that is hurting. The answer is always love. I don’t have to accept my illnesses but I can love the part of me who cannot accept them. I don’t have to accept the suffering in the world but I can love the part of me who cannot accept it. This works because the relationship with ourselves is reflected out into the world and vice versa. When we love the supposedly unlovable parts of ourselves we set them free. Not only does this bring us to greater internal peace, it is the key to a more peaceful world.