Mind body spirit- the golden tripod
My recent battle with illness brought home to me how easily upset my fragile balance can be and more than that, quite how acutely sensitive I am to disruptions to my baseline well-being. It’s easy to forget how complex an organism a human being is, and how aspects of one form of health affect the whole person.
After I came out of hospital the first time, I contracted an infection, probably post-operatively, and was put on strong antibiotics. Though these tablets were designed to fight infection, there were side effects that made coping with being unwell far harder. Combined with the continuing effects of the anaesthesia and the pain relief I needed, my emotional state became acute and I spent most of Christmas Eve crying. Things that normally wouldn’t bother me made me incredibly sad and filled with self hatred. I’m used to dealing with pain, but I am not used to feeling weak and unwell, and try as I certainly did, I found I was incapable of rising above it and being positive. Body, mind and spirit were all out of balance.
Over the next few days, my spirits rose a little, as the deeper meaning of Christmas sank in, but when the infection came back worse than ever, this little improvement vanished and I was hospitalised again, this time to have antibiotics fed to me intravenously. I have seldom felt so utterly bereft as I did on New Year’s Eve, and New Years Day was not much better. The drugs being pumped into me might well have been doing a sterling job of fighting infection but they did little to improve my state of mind or spirit. I made the mistake of reading Oscar Wilde’s short stories(albeit in French) and ended up sobbing silently into my pillow. The Selfish Giant has an ending that would bring tears to most eyes, and so too does The Happy Prince. But the heart of those sentiments went deeper than the tears, and within a few hours, the arrival of two new patients and the interaction with them and their stories raised me again. Looking out of one’s self at moments like this can be very helpful and these two new ladies were good company. With the addition of two hysterically funny night nurses, I went to sleep on New Year’s Day with my sides aching from laughing.
Returning home the next day, I soon realised that I had lost a lot of ground in terms of health and fitness and set about trying to regain it. I am used to a fairly large amount of outdoor exercise, usually walking a minimum of two miles every day. I’ve learned also that I can keep my default depression (virtually) under some control if I can take some vigorous exercise every single day, and the spiritual benefits of being among trees or on the seashore cannot be underestimated either.
When one aspect of health fails us, the others need to be extra strong to reinforce the whole person. You could liken it to a tripod, where each of those three vital components support the person equally. But that metaphor fails because when one element is removed or severely damaged, a tripod would literally tip over. The virtual tripod allows for another element supporting the weaker one while that weaker one is restored. I noticed that the weakening of my physical state meant that a greater strain was placed on my mental and spiritual resources. Long term the same is true: the weakening of the mental and spiritual elements also places a great strain on the physical. The human body responds to stress with a cocktail of chemicals, adrenaline and many others, that were originally responses to extreme physical threats (being gobbled up by a sabre toothed cat or short-faced bear, or similar prehistoric threats) and while being afraid that a colleague or a boss is going to rip metaphorical strips off you produces those same reactions, our responses to such stress do nothing to dissipate those chemicals and hormones. Stress places immense strain on the body: the adrenal glands can become over-active, pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream at inappropriate intervals (this is one of the factors present in panic attacks and anxiety disorders). We seek to anaesthetize the pain of these reactions in whatever way seems obvious to us, by drugs, or drink or sex or exercise.
One of the most important things I have learned about panic attacks is that they end. They ‘time out’. They have no more power than what I give to them. I’ve also learned a few tricks to stop them in their tracks: breathing into a paper bag, equalises the CO2 in the blood, as well as signalling to the spirit that you have control and the attack is not going to kill you. Stepping away and observing my vital signs also goes a long way to restoring some kind of balance. But sometimes it can be so extreme that I need someone else to remind me of what I can do.
Free floating anxiety is a different matter. At a lower level than a panic attack, it’s something that runs along almost unnoticed much of the time. It’s when something else disturbs the system that free floating anxiety comes roaring up into a full blown anxiety state. There are many ways of dealing with this, but I tend to forget all about them when it hits. That’s when I need reminding of the methods: focus on breathing, play music that soothes, take a walk…whatever works. Otherwise I become the squirrel in the cage, racing round in frantic circles, ready to bite whatever comes near me.
Not one of the three elements should be disregarded. The body had needs and those needs must be honoured: good nutrition, freedom from illness and injury, sound sleep and so on. The spirit has its needs too, to be fed and cared for as another form of body, and honoured. The mind, that most sensitive of elements, needs care too, to be allowed to grow and expand and be nurtured.
So, my intention is to pay attention to all aspects of my self, and to be aware that what affects one aspect may well have knock on effects on the rest. I am not a collection of hermetically sealed units, but rather a complex system where each aspect interacts with the others in often unpredictable ways, with unforeseen results. I guess it shouldn’t take a genius to figure all this out but too often I have expected myself to cope with knocks without accepting that those knocks will inevitably throw my whole being off kilter for some considerable time.
One day, I’ll get it right.