When my brain tumour was first diagnosed, my intuition told me that stress was the cause, but I had no idea where this stress had come from or why it affected my body in this particular way. The origin of my stress and what I could do about it was a mystery to be solved. Like a computer suffering a system overload, my brain worked overtime to process all the incoming data. This was my habitual pattern, trying so hard to make sense of things, and people had often told me that I was 'thinking too much'-as if I could somehow stop my brain racing from thought to thought! Of course, not only was that observation profoundly true, but it also hinted at a possible solution.
Instead of learning how to direct my thinking, my head whirled with a cloud of unconscious thoughts swirling faster and faster, creating a tornado of stress. Not surprisingly, I suffered terrible, debilitating headaches often lasting for five days. Most of the time though, I remained oblivious to this inner turmoil. Like a swan gliding serenely on a pond, under the water of my calm exterior my feet were paddling like mad.
I had the knack of looking superficially confident and 'together'. Most of the time I succeeded in fooling myself too. Being a hard worker, I prided myself on being able to get things done and achieve most of my goals. Yet certain areas of my life were not going according to plan. Divorced, 39 years old and desperately wanting to have a baby, I feared missing out on fulfilling my dreams. Years of disappointing relationships provided an obvious source of stress.
A phrase I often used to say was 'life is difficult'. Behind this little phrase lurked several unhelpful beliefs that needed to be shifted. Why did I have to face so many difficult challenges? Why didn't my life go according to plan? Why did I suffer despite all my good behaviour? The hidden expectation lurking behind these complaints was less obvious: life SHOULD be easy. Smart people know better than to make such comparisons. Facing a crisis calls for the courage to simply face 'what is' and then find ways to resolve whatever needs to be healed.
Healing my thoughts
After my tumour finally healed without drugs or surgery, it took some time to unravel my long and complicated healing journey to establish what worked. Surprisingly it had little to do with physical body treatments; it had everything to do with learning how to bounce back from stress.
The essence of what I had actually learned was how to deal with crisis, handle unconscious emotions, develop resilience and practise directing my thoughts. My desire to heal made me persistent in practising the techniques I learned and even do the exercises I read in books.
Like a detective looking for clues, I paid attention to seemingly insignificant thoughts, ideas and fantasies that flitted through my mind. I constantly looked for new ways to resolve seemingly unforgivable and impossible issues. Whenever I could, I sought the help of therapists for better objectivity, insights, assistance and treatments.
First cyst discovered
Several years before receiving the diagnosis of the brain tumour, a large cyst developed on my left ovary. The cyst had emerged during a particularly stressful relationship breakup. At the time it made perfect sense for my body to react to the emotional upset I felt. By coincidence, I had arranged to visit a gifted healer who helped me release my upset and stress.
To my delight the cyst magically dissolved and disappeared a few days later, just before my second ultrasound scan and scheduled surgery. Consequently, when the second scan showed that everything looked normal, everyone concluded it had been nothing important. Not surprisingly I made the mistake of believing the situation had resolved. I remained unaware of the underlying 'cloud' of stressful thoughts.
A few years later my extremely active prolactinoma was discovered during a routine check-up. Located in the pituitary, which sits at the base of the brain, this tumour was 1 cm in diameter-the borderline size between malignant and benign. The extra cells were producing an excessive amount of prolactin hormone-2,268 mIU/L (normal range 250-400).
Suddenly I was faced with a barrage of scans, tests, visits to specialists and many different recommendations. For the first year or two, no one could confirm whether this tumour was malignant or benign. Luckily such tumours are not usually considered life-threatening. Even so the diagnosis felt shocking and there was a risk that the tumour could impinge on the optic nerve, causing loss of eyesight.
Curiously, both the ovarian cyst and brain tumour produced the same side-effect: infertility. The irony of this did not escape me! I wondered why my body wanted to prevent what I most wanted in life. It felt like internal sabotage.
Of course I followed the advice of my doctors, did the recommended tests, had regular scans and visited specialists. At that time there were only two medical treatments available for my tumour: surgery or a drug to slow down its growth. Neither one promised effectiveness nor long-term success.
At the medical library I did my own research to find out as much as I could. It comforted me to read that prolactinomas were very common and often only discovered on autopsy, and that as many as two out of 10 people might have one without ever knowing. Prolactinomas register high sensitivity to stress by increasing hormone production, so if I could reduce my stress levels, my regular blood tests would measure the level of hormones being produced and accurately indicate progress.
But because neither treatment promised much success, I chose to go down a different path and explore other options. I started learning Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a practical psychological approach that emphasizes open-minded curiosity and the importance of keen observation.
The theory and techniques I learned gave me deep insights and tools for reducing stress by changing beliefs, emotions, thoughts and behaviours. NLP has helped many people heal all kinds of serious health problems and so I dedicated myself to learning and acquiring NLP expertise.
As I began to address the different aspects of my internal stress, my test results gave me regular feedback on what worked and what didn't. Although I still lacked clarity about what specific issues were linked to the tumour, resolving my problems led to feeling more at peace. However, when the tumour stubbornly stayed the same size for many years, pinpointing the precise cause became more important. What was I missing?
As my stress levels went down, the activity of my tumour also diminished, so after three years my doctors labelled the tumour benign. This marked real progress. With the reduced risk of malignancy, there was less pressure to follow conventional treatment. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by continuing my inner healing process.
How to discover the message of a symptom
One blessing of illness is that symptoms provide immediate clues to the thoughts lurking in the unconscious mind. Each symptom reveals the presence of specific negative thoughts asking to be noticed.
For instance, after enduring an extremely difficult divorce, a woman became ill and received a diagnosis of bowel cancer. Her whole divorce experience felt quite indigestible because she could not let go of her regret, her loss or her rage. On a metaphorical level, her guilt and repetitive negative thoughts were multiplying faster than the cancer cells and obstructing her ability to let go.
Label Break the 'label' given to an illness down into more specific symptoms. For example, a headache: where exactly do you feel pain? Tumour: where are cells excessively multiplying? Inflammation: what tissue is swollen, red and angry? Infection: where have lowered defences allowed invasion by bacteria or viruses? Malfunction: what kind precisely?
Location Where is each symptom located precisely? For example, rashes might appear in different places on the body and each location may have a different meaning. Note which side of the body, left or right. What other meanings or memories do you associate with that area of the body?
Activity of that body part What action has been brought to a halt? What have you been stopped from doing? Why do you want to avoid doing that? Make a list of all the possible reasons and inner conflicts you feel about the activity.
Secondary benefitsWhat do you get as a result of this? How has this benefitted you? What are you gaining? (Attention? Sympathy? Care? Love?)
Negative gains What do you get to avoid? Where do you not have to show up? What do you no longer have to do? In what ways do you get to hide?
Proof What does this prove? What do you get to be right about? Are you stoically carrying on, struggling to do everything as usual but in so much pain or discomfort that all the enjoyment has gone? (Perhaps proving what a hero you are?)
Others Who might be the target of this unconscious message? Who else in the present or past might be associated with this issue? Is it about revenge? Or could sharing the same problem be a way of expressing loyalty with that person?
Growth In what way does this problem cause you to grow? How does this disability develop you in other ways? What are you forced to let go of in order to progress? Who do you need to forgive? What are you being called upon to do?
Surrendering to the process
During my healing journey, I wasn't aware of how much energy I was investing in trying to heal my tumour. For several years I didn't notice that my desire to get rid of my tumour was also a self-attack in disguise. Then early one morning, I heard a very enraged internal voice inside my head silently screaming, 'I just want to be rid of this nightmare!' Sensing the energy of extreme frustration behind this thought, I recognized an obvious source of inner stress. Thoughts like this must be raising the production of my stress hormones.
But what could I do? The voice was telling the truth! I did want to get rid of my tumour. There was no point lying to myself. My unconscious knew how I felt. Intellectually I could understand that healing would require finding a peaceful alternative: accepting the tumour. But how could I get to a place of accepting the unacceptable? How could I stop wanting to get rid of the problem?
I chose to look back over all the years I had spent experimenting with different healing approaches. As I reviewed all the things I had learned, I began to appreciate how much I had grown and developed. Slowly it dawned on me how many good things had come about. With deep gratitude, I thought of all the great teachers and wonderful people I had met who had helped me in so many ways. I was touched to know that people in a special prayer group included me in their healing prayers. I would never have attended so many workshops, travelled to far-away places and experienced all the adventures of learning that had led to a whole new career without the tumour's motivation.
In fact, the tumour had been my guide, my best friend all along. It forced me to grow and develop in ways I would never have imagined.
What touched me deeply was the realization that owing to all this I had reached a place of actually liking myself. To my wonderment, I felt happy just being me.
Luckily I'd also learned how to manage my symptoms so well that the tumour no longer intruded on my life. But I wondered why it was still present. Could there possibly be more to learn, more places to explore? Was it trying to keep me humble? It had done such a good job so far that I decided that I could trust it without knowing the answer.
All my newfound gratitude and appreciation helped me to reach a place where I could genuinely say to myself, 'I give my tumour permission to stay to the end of my days'. From that day I accepted the tumour as my friend. Then a curious thing happened: I forgot about it! I got on with my life as usual.
Six months later, my routine test results showed no evidence of the tumour anymore. The blood test measurements were totally normal.
But the most extraordinary thing was that it no longer mattered to me whether it had healed or not.
Refining the process
After my brain tumour healed, ironically my body then gave me yet another opportunity to test whether or not my process worked. Only a year or two after my brain tumour had fully resolved, my breasts suddenly developed three highly active and aggressive lumps. Although I felt shocked and dismayed to face yet another diagnosis, it caused me much less stress. Staying calm, I applied my process with great curiosity to see whether or not it would work. The blessing of a physical issue is that symptoms offer clear measurements of whether or not progress is being made.
What I discovered was a deeper issue in my cloud of thoughts that I had not fully addressed. Owing to all my previous work, I found it easy to home in on the precise cause and work directly with this underlying issue.
Using NLP and hypnosis, the resolution was quick. It took only one month to quiet down the inflammation around my breast lumps. By the time a biopsy was performed, the cells in the lumps were found to be benign.
I preferred to trust the healing process of my body and so I declined the recommended surgery. Without having any medical treatment, the lumps completely melted away over the next nine months and never returned. This happy result convinced me that these tools really can work.
There are much more impressive stories about amazing spontaneous remissions and miracle cures than mine. What makes my story worth sharing is how it motivated me to explore the links between conscious thoughts and stress and illness.
Having experienced my healings as well as witnessing other people's astonishing recoveries, I'm convinced there are practical things we can do to encourage miraculous spontaneous remissions to occur more often.
Healing begins by choosing to think differently. In a sense the real healing is the shift in thinking.
First aid for stress
Whenever you have to face a challenging stressful situation, practise this simple way to calm your mind.
Focus on breathing deep into your belly Place one hand on your upper chest, the other on your belly. Make sure you are expanding your belly as far as you can with long, slow, deep breaths. This expands the diaphragm and sends messages to the brain to calm down. At the same time, lift your chin and raise your eyes above the horizon. Avoid letting your chin and eyes sink down.
Force your mind to focus on something positive either in the immediate environment or in a completely imaginary scene. Then keep repeating your favourite positive mantra to yourself. Choose something that immediately uplifts you, such as:
oI can do this.
oEverything is okay.
oCalm and relaxed.
oThis too shall pass.
oI am safe.
Arielle Essex's forthcoming book Practical Miracles, published by Hay House (lb12.99, www.hayhouse.co.uk), explores these and other mind exercises she used to heal herself.