Watch Your Words

Avoid Illness Programming
The childhood rhyme that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is far from true. Words can literally kill. In the introduction to Norman Cousins’s The Healing Heart, Dr. Bernard Lown, professor of cardiology at Harvard, tells a story that illustrates the power of words. A woman he was treating displayed severe panic-type reactions upon hearing the physician say that she had TS (tricuspid stenosis, a condition of obstructed blood flow in the heart). The woman interpreted this as “terminal situation” and reacted accordingly. She developed massive lung congestion and died from heart failure the same day.

Of course, this is an extreme case. Nevertheless, it is true that your words create your world. As you look around your surroundings, you are talking to yourself about everything you see. Your language structures your reality. Furniture and pictures are not good or bad in and of themselves. They become beautiful or ugly, valuable or worthless, based on your descriptions of them. The clothes you’re wearing are fashionable or dowdy, depending on your judgment of them. So too with your health. If you tell yourself that starving a fever will help relieve it, it probably will. If you say that arthritis and senility are inevitable, they probably will be. People tend to find what they have told themselves to expect.

Where Our Illness Programming Originates

Your brain operates like a highly sophisticated computer, storing every experience you have ever had in your
subconscious. Brain research reveals that subjects can describe minute details of events that happened to them as children; clinical hypnosis allows people to remember things that the conscious mind may have filed away long ago. The body acts and reacts on the basis of its previous programming, even without the mind’s conscious acknowledgement. So many of your illness reactions and fears of today are the results of messages you received as a child. You keep these old programs in place with unconscious self-talk and reinforce them with new input from contemporary sources.

* Childhood role models. You may have watched Mom or Dad start every day with a dose of aspirin for pain or end every day with a few drinks to handle stress. You wondered why certain topics, like sex and death, made adults very uncomfortable and why certain words, like cancer, were never used.

* Direct commands from parents and others. “You’ll fall.” “Oh, you’ll get sick.” “You’ll cut yourself.” And sure enough, you probably did!

* Rewards for illness or for being in pain. You may have received special attention like physical nurturing, been allowed to stay home from school, or been given candy and ice cream or gifts.

* TV, magazines and newspapers, and billboards. The media constantly supplies direct illness messages such as “The winter cold season is here!” or “Don’t worry about overeating, as long as you have those little white mints to fight indigestion.” Even more insidious are the implied messages, like “Cancer is inevitable and will always mean death.”

* Daily conversations. Some people constantly complain about their own symptoms and the ill health of those around them.

    Self-designed, self-destructive mental pictures of your pain or disease. Humans are image-making creatures. Constantly and, for the most part, unconsciously, your imagination creates internal images of things that it cannot see, hear, feel, taste, or touch. Hearing the word ulcer, you will form a mental picture (or some other internal sensory image—not everyone creates a visual image) of an ulcer, even if you have never seen one. It may not be an accurate representation, but if the idea of an ulcer is a troubling thought for you, your stomach may tighten up nonetheless.

Self-Programming That Heals
If negative messages and images can worsen a condition, doesn’t it make sense that life-affirming messages will help to heal it? This is not just some fantasy. Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology verifies what folk healers have known for centuries—that thoughts and emotions directly affect the strength of the immune system. The immune system is the first line of defense against disease. If you can strengthen your immune system consciously, through imagery and nurturing self-talk, you have a much better chance of maintaining the health of your whole body.

Imagery and nurturing self-talk are used with great success to control pain. In a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, many patients suffering from chronic back pain received long-term relief by using a variety of self-control techniques, including consciously slowing down their breathing, creating positive mental imagery, and repeating nurturing self-talk, which reinforced pain-free feelings. Similar approaches are routinely used at pain centers as well as in natural childbirth, surgical preparation, mental rehearsal for sports performances, and even for the treatment of burns.

Man is troubled not by events themselves but by the views he takes of them.

Epictetus, c. 100 C.E.

Motivational programs and stress management courses universally include some sort of training in the use of nurturing self-talk or affirmations. These encouraging sentences are repeated many times in the course of a day, and more often during times of discouragement or stress to counteract the effects of negative thinking, to inspire relaxation, and to build confidence.

You no longer have to be at the mercy of your own illness programming. By becoming aware of it, you will learn whether it is helping you or hindering you. You can then make some conscious choices. It is within your control to design new, healing images and to choose words that will support a healthier inner and outer environment.

Exercises in Reprogramming
Start listening for your illness programming. Learnhow you talk to yourself about whatever you’re doing or not doing. (For example, after sitting at your computer for an hour or so, your lower back may hurt. You might say something to yourself like “Oh, no. I still have that bad back. What a pain. If it’s this bad now, it will be a lot worse when I’m older.” These negative tape loops discourage, depress, and almost always disempower you by reinforcing the belief that the pain was inevitable.) Listen also for internal messages of self-deprecation that tell you what you are doing is not good enough, such as “You’ll never win. You’re all wrong. There you go again.” For a day or two, write down these messages whenever you notice them. Awareness is the first step toward change.

Create a simple, nurturing affirmation that declares health and wholeness. For instance: “I am growing in strength and self-mastery easily and peacefully.” Repeat it morning, noon, and night, and whenever you notice negative self-talk. Design your affirmation to address the issue you most want to change. For example, if you are working on eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, your affirmation might state: “I am enjoying the way my body feels when eating fresh foods. I appreciate myself for the care I show in eating more nutritious foods.”

Draw a picture of yourself being healthy and whole. Make several copies of this picture and put it around your house.

Put cues in your environment, like colored stickers or dots. Place them where you will see them often. Each time you spot a cue, remind yourself of your new programs and new pictures.

Unplug your TV and stop reading the news for at least a month. Notice any effect on your overall health.

Read between the lines whenever you read, watch TV, or have a conversation, to discover the hidden illness programs around you. Write them down.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021