Our spiritual state can influence how physical ailments feel

The pediatrician Margaret Mohrmann tells the story of caring for a young girl in the ICU who developed a devastating case of meningitis. One day when she came to check on her patient, the girl’s mother asked Mohrmann why her daughter had become sick. As Mohrmann began to explain what meningitis is and how it is transmitted, it quickly became clear to her she was missing the meaning of the mother’s question. Like Job, the mother was struggling to understand why her daughter was being made to suffer.

Whether we realize it or not, each of us operates with beliefs about causality and meaning. Who or what controls the course of events in our lives and the world? Do blind physical forces alone determine our destiny? Is God or some other force like karma in control? These basic beliefs often come into play when we get sick and seek to make sense of our suffering.

For instance, some people may interpret their disease as a kind of punishment for bad health decisions like smoking or alcohol abuse. Others may find a spiritual purpose in being ill. Still others may believe they became sick due to sheer bad luck.

The meaning we attribute to a symptom such as pain can influence how we experience it. This is because our perception of pain is mediated through our brain. For example, if I had a headache right now, I would experience it in a radically different way depending on if I attributed it to stress or if I feared it was due to a life-threatening brain tumor.

Our emotional and spiritual state of being can also influence how physical ailments feel. In my work in hospice, I have cared for patients with severe pain that did not respond to higher and higher doses of potent analgesics. Only after somebody identified and addressed a spiritual crisis, such as a fear of dying or an agonizing regret, did the suffering person find relief.

In sum, an individual’s thoughts and emotions can powerfully influence how a symptom or disease manifests itself. Thus, to be effective healers physicians must approach patients holistically. This means taking into account the multiple factors — psychological, cultural, economic, social, and spiritual — that affect a person’s health.

James Marroquin is an internal medicine physician who blogs at his self-titled site, James Marroquin.

email

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • rbthe4th2

    Hmmmm why is it that medical professionals assume that mental status is always bad? I’ve had people tell me they don’t understand how I’m able to do what I do given my medical situation. My faith keeps me afloat.

    • jimmyquin

      You’re right that my article only touched upon how our thoughts and emotions can cause and influence symptoms. As you say, a positive mental approach, often bolstered by faith, can offer tremendous benefit. Several studies by Koenig and others have shown this to be the case.

  • DoubtfulGuest

    This is a nice article, Dr. Marroquin. You’re right…this likely applies to anyone – even doctors. :) A good reminder for all to consider.

    Unfortunately, physicians rarely have time to treat the patient holistically. The result can be that the sweeping statement is made: “Your emotional and spiritual state can affect how your physical symptoms feel” and then we’re sent packing. Presumably, to come back when spiritually fine and dandy? I was denied diagnosis and treatment in the past because “you seem sad”. This after I willingly saw a psychiatrist. He agreed that my mental state was normal, with possible very mild depression secondary to undiagnosed physical illness. Yep, the right diagnosis was later found by doctors who made sure not to over-interpret my emotional state.

    I’m also concerned about this issue as it relates to doctors’ emotional health and workplace stress. The current health care system pits us against one another. We’re not given the time to treat each other with care and compassion, which we all need and deserve. Anyway, I don’t disagree with anything you say, I would only ask doctors to be very careful how they incorporate this aspect into their perception and treatment of patients.