Coping with physical illness; the role of Bach flower remedies

Bach flower remedies can help to relieve the emotional distress that often accompanies physical illness. They are intended as a complementary therapy to be used alongside medical, surgical and psychiatric treatments rather than instead of them.

The remedies are designed to promote a positive state of mind. This is highly relevant for patients in medical settings, up to one-third of whom will be experiencing significant anxiety, depression or other psychological problems. Negative mood states not only cause mental suffering but can worsen physical decline, due to the combination of poor self care with disordered physiology including a weakened immune system. Lightening and calming of mood, whether with Bach flowers or other therapies, may therefore improve physical as well as mental health.

Psychological problems can usually be understood as a response to the multiple stresses of having a physical illness: Bodily symptoms such as pain, nausea and breathlessness.  Having to wait for medical appointments, test results or starting treatment. The direct effects of the illness or its treatment on brain function. Receiving bad news about diagnosis or prognosis. Being unable to carry out former activities, or to provide for self and family. Practical difficulties with money, housing or transport. Changes in appearance. The prospect of deteriorating health. Existential questions about the cause of the illness, or what happens after death. Relatives and carers can be just as badly affected as patients themselves, though their plight is not always appreciated. Though some distress may be inevitable, it can often be minimised by apparently simple aspects of good clinical practice: clear communication, kindness, respect and practical support.

The burdens associated with physical illness are very real, and it is perhaps surprising that not all patients become seriously anxious or depressed, and that those who do can recover even if the physical illness continues to progress. Some even find the experience brings positive changes in their attitudes and lifestyle: Closer relationships. Less concern for material things and trivialities, and a sense of what is really important. Feeling able to follow their own path in life regardless of others’ opinions. Appreciation of the present day. Spiritual awareness. The Bach flowers can help to promote such benefits.

The remedies, being free of side effects or interactions, can be used alongside psychotherapies or prescribed drugs. The only possible caution is that brandy is used as a preservative during their preparation. This can be a contraindication for those who wish to avoid alcohol completely, although after the fluid has been diluted into a treatment bottle the concentration of brandy is minimal and most unlikely to have any biological effect.

Here are some examples, from the list of 38 remedies, of those flowers often relevant in cases of physical illness.

Mimulus (illustrated) for named fears, even if these seem justified.

Star of Bethlehem for shock, loss and grief.

Gentian for disappointment after a setback.

Gorse for feelings of hopelessness.

Olive for mental and physical exhaustion.

Crab Apple for feelings of uncleanliness or impaired body image.

White Chestnut for worrying thoughts.

Red chestnut for anxiety about other people, even when this is understandable.

Holly, Honeysuckle and/or Willow for those who harbour resentments about the past; there is evidence that chronic anger and hatred are risk factors for disease, whereas the practice of forgiveness has benefits for both physical and mental health.

Rescue remedy (Crisis formula) for any acute emotional distress.

Simplicity is the key to using Bach flowers. There is no need to get bogged down in the complexity of mind-body relationships, and unanswerable questions such as “Which came first – the anxiety or the heart attack?” or “Is the loss of energy due to cancer or to depression?” Remedies should be chosen according to the person’s current emotional state. There are no specific remedies for particular physical symptoms or diseases.

More detail on this topic can be found in my free ebook Bach Flowers for Mind-Body Healing. Bach flowers also play a small part in my Three Novellas, available from various online stores including Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords.com.

mimulus

 

Complementary therapies in cancer care

This short overview is based on a talk I recently gave to the members of Sweet Louise, a New Zealand charity for the support of people with incurable breast cancer.

Complementary therapies can be loosely defined as those not included in orthodox medical training or practice, though this can change, for example acupuncture has been used in pain clinics for many years. Some therapies involve physically touching the body – examples include massage, reflexology, acupuncture. Others involve taking substances by mouth – herbal remedies, homeopathy, flower essences, special diets. Then the mind body therapies such as relaxation, meditation, yoga, visualisation and guided imagery, energy healing. And creative therapies with art, music, writing and dance. Several types can be combined.

They are often known as “natural” therapies, and the same ones may be called “complementary” when used alongside orthodox medical treatments, and “alternative” when used instead. The “integrative” approach combines them both but has been slow to get established, perhaps because of prejudice and misunderstanding on both sides. All these therapies are grounded in the “holistic” approach, which aims to balance the whole person in body, emotions, mind and spirit, and mobilise the potential for self-healing. This is in contrast to the approach of conventional medicine, which uses powerful drugs, surgery or radiation to suppress symptoms and destroy disease, and in which patients have a passive role. Both approaches have their place and can often be used alongside each other.

Surveys show that as many of two thirds of women with breast cancer are using one or more natural therapies, and there is good evidence that they can improve quality of life – helping to relieve physical symptoms such as pain and nausea, mental symptoms such as anxiety and depression, reducing the side-effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. They appeal because, in general, they are safe and natural and many of them are pleasant to receive. When I was practising with the Bach flower remedies, many of my clients told me they wanted a therapy that treated them as a unique person, rather than just one more case of a diseased body part.

While all the modalities have specific effects, their benefit is partly due to their positive influence on mind-body relationships. The self-help element, especially with therapies that require some active user participation, enhances a sense of choice and control. Spending time with an understanding therapist in a relaxed setting is comforting. Expectation of improvement can help to bring it about. Such general factors are important, and it is a mistake to devalue them as “just placebo”.

A key question is whether using these therapies can lead to a longer life expectancy or even to remission of the cancer. Many individual cases of remarkable recovery have been reported. But there are few formal research studies on this aspect, and it is a difficult thing to investigate for many reasons – for example treatments are used in individual combinations rather than standard protocols, and patients’ beliefs and motivation affect the outcome.

Some of the therapies carry risks, for example herbal remedies can have adverse interactions with prescribed drugs; massage and acupuncture occasionally cause physical injury. They can be expensive. The field is not tightly regulated and, while most therapists are skilled and honest, there are a few self-styled practitioners who cause more harm than good by making unrealistic promises of curing cancer while advising clients to refuse conventional treatment that would have been effective.

More detail about these topics, with case histories, can be found in some of my non-fiction books.

Stress and the heart

Although I used to work as a general hospital psychiatrist, I doubt if I fully appreciated the power of the mind-body connection till I became ill myself. Last year, during a prolonged period of anxiety and exhaustion due to my husband’s heart attack and cardiac surgery followed by my mother’s bowel obstruction and fatal stroke, I started to experience alarming episodes of fast irregular heartbeat, faintness and tightness in the chest, accompanied by high blood pressure. Other symptoms around this time included weight loss, insomnia, spells of fatigue, hot flushes and cold chills. Medical investigations showed a few minor abnormalities which were not regarded as very significant.

The episodes of tachycardia and hypertension continued to happen after everything else had settled down, as if they had taken on a life of their own. My husband, who has now made an excellent recovery himself, believes that being in the “front line” of so many traumatic events caused me to develop a variant of the condition described in the First World War as “shell shock” or “soldier’s heart”. Many other diagnostic labels were suggested from various sources: “broken heart syndrome” “post-traumatic stress disorder” “atypical depression” “autonomic neuropathy”. The diagnosis from a recent specialist consultation was “paroxysmal hypertension” also known as “pseudopheochromocytoma” and preventive treatment with beta-blocking and alpha-blocking drugs has been successful so far. From being barely able to cope with daily activities a few months ago I am now almost back to my usual self, but with an increased awareness of the fragility of life and health and the unpredictability of the future.

While the type of stress-related syndrome described above is not life-threatening, there are more serious cardiovascular conditions that can be partly attributed to stress. I am not an expert in “psychocardiology”, but my experiences led me to look through the research literature and I found some well-established links. These probably stem from a complex interplay between biological and lifestyle factors: over-secretion of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and general neglect of self-care. For example: Coronary heart disease, building up gradually over the years, is associated not only with the well-known physical risk factors such as hypertension and high cholesterol but with psychosocial ones: long term difficulties such as being unemployed, lonely, unhappy in marriage or at work, suffering from anxiety or depression and according to some studies the personality characteristics of impatience, competitiveness, hostility and suppression of emotion. Acute traumatic events, such as experiencing the death of a loved one or being involved in an accident, can precipitate angina, arrhythmias or heart attacks (myocardial infarction caused by coronary artery blockage) in predisposed people. The risk of death from heart disease  is increased during the first year of widow(er)hood. Those who survive a heart attack, and become anxious and depressed afterwards, have a worse medical prognosis than patients whose mental health is not so affected.

Mind-body connections, though widely accepted in theory, do not always have much impact on clinical practice. It is perhaps inevitable that, in the highly specialised world of hospital medicine and surgery, there tends to be a narrow focus on the diseased part rather than a more holistic view. Staff who are expert in technological procedures may not have the time or skill to deal with the lifestyle and psychological aspects of illness, for example many cases of depression and anxiety on cardiology wards are not recognised or treated.

Most cultures regard the heart as the seat of emotion, and in the energy medicine traditions of the East the “heart chakra” is associated with love, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Can cultivating such qualities protect against heart disease? Not only are they difficult to measure, but most studies in medicine and psychology focus on negative factors rather than positive ones. However, there is evidence that life satisfaction, optimism, and happiness lower the risk. Owning a dog, which besides encouraging regular exercise provides a reliable source of unconditional love, is also conducive to heart health. Cats apparently have less cardioprotective effect, but they do know how to demonstrate the art of relaxation.

Homer supine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-healing from “incurable” diseases

Examples of spontaneous remission, in which a supposedly incurable condition recovers without treatment, can be found across the whole diagnostic spectrum. Having seen a number of cases over the years, both among my patients and clients when I was in practice and in my personal circle, I often wonder why occasional patients recover while most others with similar prognostic features do not. In orthodox medical systems, concerned more with illness than with health, these cases are often lost to follow-up and do not attract the interest they seem to merit. They may even be dismissed on the grounds that the original diagnosis was wrong.

Some reports do get published in medical journals, and mostly relate to cases of advanced cancer which were expected to be fatal. These accounts usually focus on biological factors rather than psychological ones. Books for general readers based on a more holistic study of individual patients include Remarkable Recovery by Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch, and Radical Remission by Kelly Turner, and there are many online descriptions.

Sometimes the unexpected recovery takes place for no apparent reason, but sometimes the patients in question firmly believe it is due to specific factors such as a change in diet, a more fulfilling lifestyle, a spiritual awakening, the power of prayer, or cultivation of the “higher” qualities of forgiveness, gratitude and love. Perhaps what these share in common is a sense of taking control of one’s own health, the firm intention to heal, and a firm belief that healing can happen. Such things are largely beyond the scope of the statistical analysis and controlled studies required in “evidence-based medicine”.

Episodic conditions such as asthma, migraine, epilepsy and autoimmune disorders can wax and wane for no apparent reason. Again, more mainstream research is focused on what triggers a flare-up than on why many sufferers have periods of good health in between, or even recover completely. On a personal note, since I reached my mid-60s my migraines have become much less frequent and severe. One explanation is the biological one that I am finally growing out of them. The prevalence of migraine is known to be lower in older people than younger ones and some sufferers, though sadly not all, experience fewer and less severe attacks in later life. This may be because the brain becomes less sensitive with age, or a result of hormonal changes.

Another explanation is psychological. Going back to cancer, ever since reading Laurence LeShan’s inspiring book Cancer as a turning point I have been interested in the idea that self-healing from this or any other disease can occur through what he called “singing your own song” – finding a purpose and joy in life, what is sometimes called being in a higher vibrational state. This makes intuitive sense to me and looking back over the years, during periods when I have been absorbed in some truly fulfilling project – most recently, a return to my childhood passion for writing fiction (see my Amazon page) – my migraines have been less of a problem. Since LeShan’s book was written, many researchers have studied the mechanisms which might underlie mind-body connections such as this. The complex science is well explained in several recent popular books, for example You are the placebo by Joe Dispenza.

Beliefs and expectations have been shown to play a role in predicting the prognosis of coronary heart disease and the same is probably true for any other condition, so although I realise that my severe migraines could come back at any time, I prefer not to think in those terms. The negative messages so often delivered by well-meaning clinicians, such as “there is no cure for x” and “it’s bound to get worse at some stage”, can destroy hope and are not helpful. Recovery may be unlikely, and can never be promised, but as one of my teachers in the holistic approach used to say “Anything can be healed”.