The Danger of Classifying CFS as a ‘Physical Illness’

Rantings of a psychology major

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you have a convincing enough cough, and put a warm cloth on your forehead before your mom comes in to wake you in the morning, that you get a sick day, and can stay home guilt free. We are conditioned from a young age to believe that the only ‘legitimate’ kind of illness- is one that you can see. This is not only true for illness, we live in a society where ‘seeing is believing’ (despite multiple studies that show our sight may not be as reliable as we think). This creates a dichotomy of thought (ie. Visible= real and invisible = unreal), that oversimplifies the physical world, and especially the human body.

“There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe there are two kinds of [illness] in the world and those who don’t.”
Robert Benchley, American Humorist (1888-1946)

We like to think that our mind is in our control. It is the essence of who we are, our thoughts and emotions live there, and it is the centre for intellectual growth and stimulation. Whereas, our bodies are outside of our control; we might get a cold, gain a few pounds, break a bone or grow a tumor- and it seems like luck. We can’t change the body we were born with- healthy eating or exercise may help, but the healthiest people still end up with lung cancer, there is not much we can do once a tumor starts to grow in our body. We want our bodies to be ‘fixed’ when they are malfunctioning, rather than figuring out why they malfunctioned in the first place. But when the mind malfunctions, this is something to be looked down upon rather than empathized with. However, as more research gets done on different kinds of illness, it is becoming clear that the effect of the mind on the body is greater than we imagined. People with certain personality types are more likely to get cancer or heart disease, others are more likely to be obese or anorexic. Certain patterns of thought lead to depression, or anxiety, whereas for other people those same thoughts may lead to extreme perfectionism or Obsessive Compulsive personality disorder.

We are all born with certain genetic predispositions. Some of those show up physically, and others show up psychologically. For example, many people in University would be classified as alcoholics based on the amount they drink on a social level. Yet, most people leave university able to moderate their drinking habits and live normally, whereas others become alcoholics. They didn’t act any differently than their peers, but their genetic disposition combined with their environment and their actions led to their disease.

So while heart disease may seem like a straightforward condition, things like stress levels, thought patterns, eating patterns, and genetic predispositions have all accumulated over the years to lead to the heart episode. It seems unfair, because the person with the heart disease may not have done anything differently than any of his peers, and yet based on things like gender or genetics, he was more likely to have a heart episode- and did. This is true of all illness, just replace heart episode with panic attack, or bedridden.

It is no surprise that people suffering from invisible and psychological illnesses spend so much effort hoping to be believed. Getting the support you need both from family and friends, and from society (ie. Time off work or school, sick pay, etc.) rests on being believed. And of course, how do we become believed? We need a visual- and that can be hard to come by. However, when we put too much effort in trying to find this physical proof, we undermine both other invisible illnesses, and the role that the mind can have on a person’

I worry, that people living with CFS are waiting around for a physical cause or symptom to be found, because on some level, helping ourselves by, for example, changing our thought patterns or lifestyles, admits defeat. If we are cured without a great medical discovery, it means we were just faking our coughs and putting hot cloths on our head all along, that it’s not okay to get better until we have been acknowledged as very seriously ill by the medical community.

Maybe this will happen someday- I don’t know. But until then, it may be wiser to become advocates for the seriousness of invisible illnesses, and of ‘mind-body’ illness rather than body searching for physical causes. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) we are not all built to do the same things. Just like we are not all 6’4 with size 14 feet – built to be an Olympic swimmer, we are not all built to live in big busy cities, with high stress,high jobs, and eating over processed foods. But, if we’ve failed as an Olympic swimmer does it mean we should sit on the side of the pool moping and watching the others go by? No, it means we should get back in the pool, but lose the competitive edge, and we should try a different sport.


9 thoughts on “The Danger of Classifying CFS as a ‘Physical Illness’

  1. Hi have recently found your blog. I agree that having ME means adopting a less stressful pace of life but I have always strived to keep myself a part of the working community. My ME is pretty mild so I’ve been lucky enough to keep working but I definitely try and tackle the illness with a mind-body approach. Looking forward to reading more of your posts. Aly

  2. First off, hello, and I’m glad that I found your blog. 🙂 Secondly, I agree with your thoughts about CFS being a mind-body illness. While I keep an eye on current research and such, I’m well aware of the combination of factors that set me up for the onset of CFS as a teenager, and that made it significantly worse 9 years ago. It’s not rocket science, just logical thinking. I can’t change genetics, but I can change my behaviours, thought processes, etc., and said changes always bring positive results. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

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