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 Watch Your Words 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Simply Well by . View all columns in series
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.
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 About The Author
John W. Travis, MD, MPH, is the creator of the Wellness Inventory and its parent, the Wellness Index. He is the founder and co-director of ...moreJohn Travis MD, MPH
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