The Essence of Illness

From David Hanscom MD/Psychology Today: “All physical and mental symptoms are the result of you gathering data from your surroundings through different sensors, your brain interpreting the sum total as safe, neutral, or threatening, and then you automatically responding in a manner to ensure survival. You may or may not be aware of the reactions. They can be dictated by signals from chemicals, small proteins (cytokines) produced from your cells, signalers from the nervous system (neurotransmitters), or signalers from our glands running through our blood (hormones).

The term ‘mind-body’ is not a useful term in that it implies that there is a separation between your mind and your body. There is actually just you; one system that responds as a unit. Your nervous system, including your brain, is simply one of the many ways your cells communicate to coordinate your functions. The mind and the body are inaccurate constructs and distractions to understanding illness and disease compared to wellness and health.


With cues of safety from your environment, including your mind, your response will be signalers such as safety cytokines (anti-inflammation and pr- anabolism), GABA (calm), acetylcholine (restoration), serotonin (contentment), dopamine (rewards), oxytocin (connection and bonding), growth hormone and growth factors (regeneration). The immune response will be strong yet inflammation low when stimulated by safety cytokines.

Clinically, the result is feeling less inflamed, less painful, relaxed, composed, present with a slower heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. The more time that can be spent in this regenerative state, the better for health and wellness.

Your body’s goal is to survive. Defeating or dissipating threats and discord and maintaining safety and harmony to keep your range of behaviors and chemistry in a stable restorative and regenerative zone is key to thriving. The nociceptive (pain) and the emotion systems, both with and without awareness, guide you to take actions to avoid harm. When you experience an uncomfortable or unpleasant feeling from any source, it is simply signaling danger, and [prompting you to] take appropriate steps to find safety.


Environmental cues of threat or internally generated ones are met with a defensive response including stimulation of your immune system with elevations of inflammation, elevated metabolism to provide fuel for defense, and increases in multiple stress signalers including the threat cytokines (IL1, IL6, IL17, TNF), inflammatory chemicals, (histamine, prostaglandins), mobilizing neurotransmitters (glutamate, dopamine, noradrenaline), and stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, aldosterone, vasopressin and endorphins).

Clinically, you are on ‘high alert’ and there are numerous bodily responses to threat. The basic ones include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, increased speed of nerve conduction (increases pain), elevated blood pressure, sweating, muscle tension, and a sense of danger that we call anxiety. There also numerous symptoms created by this physiological state. They include tension and migraine headaches, neck and low back pain, skin rashes, stomach cramps, depression, bipolar, burning sensations in various parts of your body — there over 30 different responses. Although the chemical environment encompasses your whole body, each organ and organ system will manifest its unique response.

Symptoms, illness, and disease

When the threat is transient or resolvable, there will be different physiology that will quickly abate the symptoms. When the threat is more prolonged, people will develop illnesses and diseases that also are reversible with appropriate treatment including the removal of threats and restoration of safety. When threat is sustained, people can develop serious illness and diseases that may cause permanent tissue damage and create physical, mental and social havoc.

. . . So, it is the interaction of the surrounding stressors with the human organism that determines the manifestation of physical and mental symptoms; illness and disease versus wellness and health.

‘Mainstream’ medicine

Modern medicine has nullified these aspects of care in that we are not given the time nor are we encouraged to talk to our patients. From the beginning, we are not providing cues of safety. Then, we don’t know our patients and their coping capacity and really don’t know much about their environment. We are given only the time to treat symptoms. We are ignoring the root cause of the problem — total threat load. It is similar to putting out a major fire with a garden hose. It can’t and doesn’t work. Indeed, there is an ongoing and growing epidemic of chronic disease – both mental and physical, social and spiritual . . .

Addressing root causes

A basic concept in extinguishing a fire is to deprive it of its fuel . . . Treating only symptoms is not only ineffective, you are allowing the ‘fire’ to continue to burn, causing ongoing tissue damage. In chronic illness and disease, the key is to minimize the multitude of threats and maximize access and opportunities for safety, coping and connection while also improving skills to better process toxic environmental inputs.”

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The Essence of Illness