Listening to Your Symptom

Very few of us really know what to do when experiencing an ache or pain, a new feeling of joint stiffness, a lapse in memory, or any of hundreds of sensations. I put the emphasis on the word “sensation” because most of us begin jumping to conclusions very quickly when we observe a new or unusual sensation. Even if you suddenly experienced something that was quite positive, if the sensation or experience was new to you, you would be likely to start wondering, “What is it?”

It is difficult to define the point at which you need to seek medical help. Some people over-react to unpleasant sensations and frequently visit emergency rooms for fear that something dreadful is going on. Others go to the other extreme, and fail to get medical attention when they should, thereby allowing a minor problem to turn into something perhaps incurable. There are no clear guidelines for how to decide when you need to seek outside help. However, if you take time to become aware of your “inner environment,” your mind and body will be so well known to you that you will know the difference between a fleeting sensation, and a danger signal. It is important for us to learn how to listen to our symptoms with an open heart and mind.

Many of us are numb to what is going on inside. However, if you spend a little time every day simply watching the huge variety of physical sensations inside, you will soon realize that there is a constant ocean of internal sensation, some pleasant, some unpleasant, and some neutral.

Wherever you move your consciousness or awareness, healing occurs. For example, let's say you have a bad ache or pain. The body's usual response is to protect itself from harm, so wherever there is a little pain, muscles contract as if protecting that area. Let's say you fell and bumped your shoulder. For the first few seconds, it may hurt a lot. Then a pain remains, which may be a dull ache, or a sharp pain. Muscles contract around the pain, making it harder for you to “be with” the pure sensation of pain. You are dealing with the sensations of pain caused by the fall as well as the pain caused by muscle tension.

You can move your awareness into your shoulder and observe the pain, noticing whether it is dull, aching, burning, stabbing, or throbbing; noticing how the pain moves around. The pain sensation will arise and dissolve, like waves that emerge from the ocean, disappearing and returning. Perhaps the pain sends bursts of sensation down your arm. It is enormously healing to simply observe the qualities of the pain, without trying to make the pain go away. As soon as you begin trying to make pain, or any other sensation, go away, you create a counter-force, like muscle spasm, that has the opposite effect of what you'd like. By fighting pain, you make it worse. By watching pain or any other sensation, you will discover that the pain almost always diminishes, and the quality of the pain changes. It may start out quite severe and sharp. After ten minutes of simply watching the pain, it may become mild to moderate in severity, and may change from sharp to dull.

Most of us don't know our bodies that well, and so we are surprised by unusual sensations of any sort. Instead of observing the discomfort (within an ocean of sensation in the body), one can easily begin heading down a road that is not helpful or healing. Instead of being with the discomfort, you may immediately begin asking yourself questions, such as:

“I wonder what this is.”

“I wonder if it's serious.”

“I wonder if I'm having a heart attack.”

“My father died of colon cancer. I wonder if I have colon cancer.”

Very quickly, it is easy to work yourself into a frenzy, or at least make yourself quite anxious, because your mind starts telling stories. Perhaps your mother had bipolar illness, and you are feeling a little down. You may begin wondering, “Do I have bipolar illness like mom?” Of course, that one thought will lead you down a negative mental road very quickly, until you're in a panic.

Many people begin a process of self-diagnosis quickly after experiencing an unpleasant, new, or unusual sensation. Chances are that you are not qualified to make a diagnosis, since making a diagnosis is a complex process. Nonetheless, you might begin diagnosing yourself, and that process may start off unconsciously. You may be running a line of thoughts that are just below your awareness. Soon enough those thoughts get more intense, get your attention, and send you down the road of being locked in your mind, creating a whole story. We humans tend to dislike uncertainty, and for many people the process of beginning to self-diagnose and create a story around a sensation gives a sense of certainty (although a false sense).

But the sensation does not have a story. It simply IS. If you were a horse that fell and hurt its leg, you would not begin asking a lot of questions. You would not be asking any questions. You would simply observe the sensations, and if you had sustained an injury, your instincts would take over. If the injury was not severe, you would stop, lie down, and rest. You might rest for days or weeks until the injury healed. You would not wonder if it was going to heal. The thought would never cross your mind. But the human mind adds a story line very quickly, begins to worry, and creates unnecessary suffering.

Pain and suffering are different. You can “be with” the pain or injury, observing it, and letting your body's natural healing resources guide the process, or you can let your mind take you for a wild ride. As soon as the mind gets involved in interpreting sensations, suffering begins.

Here are 4 main ways we react to novel sensations:

1. Observe the sensations, arising and dissolving, without judgment.

2. Quickly decide that something is really wrong, become anxious, panicky, and perhaps rush for medical emergency attention.

3. Deny the sensation or experience. Tell yourself that nothing at all is going on. Your mind might invent a story that says, “Grown men are tough. This is nothing. Nothing to bother thinking about.”

4. Block the sensation. With denial, you experience the unpleasant sensation. With”“blocking” a mental mechanism kicks in that keeps you from experiencing the sensation or discomfort at all. You may be the kind of person who, when you look inside your body to observe the ocean of sensation, does not feel anything at all. Adult survivors of abuse, neglect, or trauma often feel numb inside or dissociated. Blocking is the most dangerous response to unpleasant sensation, because you won't take proper action, whether minor (like rest) or major (go to an emergency room) . . . because you literally don't feel much sensation at all.

Deciding to get medical attention is not an easy call. You know your body, and if you are in tune with your body, you will recognize a new, unpleasant sensation as being so out of the ordinary that you “know” something's not right.

There are obvious signposts that should tell you that it's time to seek medical attention, such as:

1. The unpleasant sensation is overwhelming and lasts longer than you can bear.

2. You are losing some function. Perhaps it has become harder to walk, talk, or move your arms. If you have lost function, you need to get the problem evaluated professionally.

3. Based on common knowledge, you recognize the “new thing” as potentially dangerous. For example, you may have noticed:

a. A new breast lump different from what you have experienced before.

b. Noticed a new skin mole, and want to make sure it is not a cancer.

c. Felt a chest pain that is crushing in nature. Perhaps the pain radiates up into your neck or left shoulder. Even if the pain is not that severe, this is a description that should make you find out if you are having a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

There are dozens of other sensations and experiences that you have read about or heard about that you recognize as a call for emergency action.

Staying Present

Let's say that you have decided that your discomfort requires medical evaluation. The best thing you can do, is to stay present with the sensations, stay in your body, and avoid diagnosing yourself, or coming to any kind of conclusion.

The best way for you to help your doctor, or other healthcare professional, to help you is to tell him what you are experiencing, providing details of sensations. People frequently will start a consultation with me by describing a process or diagnosis. They may say, “Doctor, I have inflammation.” My response will be, “Inflammation is an explanation for what is going on. It's a process. It's not a sensation or symptom, and it's not a diagnosis. I want to know what your symptoms are, what the unusual or unpleasant sensations are.”

Some people begin telling themselves a story so quickly, that it takes a while for me to get them to back up, slow down, and just tell me what they are feeling . . . either physically or emotionally. On the mental front, if someone starts off by telling me that they have bipolar illness, I will tell them that that is a diagnosis. It may turn out that they are feeling depressed because a relative died. It is most helpful to let them know that their experience is”“grief” and not an illness, a diagnosis like bipolar illness.

Because the public is getting so educated, sometimes they lose contact with what is going inside themselves, for they think they have already figured out what is going on.

Please avoid telling your doctor about “your” process, such as: inflammation, infection, or autoimmune disease. And if this unpleasant sensation or experience is new, don't tell the doctor what your diagnosis is. It's not helpful for the doctor to hear, “I know I have colon cancer.”

If you think you have a particular illness, it is helpful to start off by telling the doctor something pertinent, such as “I have 5 close relatives with thyroid disease. I have a lump in my neck, and I'm worried that it might be thyroid disease.” With those words, you will have provided truly useful information, in terms of assisting your doctor in making an accurate diagnosis.

So, You Have an Illness

Let's say that your unpleasant sensation leads to a diagnosis of ulcer disease. Remember to stay away from story lines, which may include ideas like:

“I created this. It's my fault.”

“It's because I'm angry with my boss. I don't know how to deal with anger.”

“I'm being punished. I deserve the pain.”

Those “ideas” may or may not be valid, but they only serve to provide more false certainty, keeping you in your head, and out of your body (where you experience physical sensation). It is useful to take the diagnosis as a wake-up call to look at various aspects of your life, including diet, exercise, and stress management. It is useful to ask yourself what the illness means to you. If unconsciously, you believe that the diagnosis of an illness means you're a bad person, it is critical to your healing that you become aware that that is what you believe. Once you are aware of unhealthy beliefs, it is important to change those beliefs, and focus only on what will assist in healing.

At each step in a health crisis, it is important to remain aware of sensations, and do everything to stay out of your head. Whether that first painful sensation was a bruise that will heal in a few days, or if it was the first sign of a major illness, once you have taken proper action steps, it is best to observe sensations and avoid mental chatter. You might notice, “Oh, the discomfort is a little worse today, and it seems to have moved from deep inside my shoulder closer to the surface.” Notice those sensations with detachment, make a decision if any new action is required, and then let it go.

You can continually react to discomfort by worrying, creating stories about it, and suffering. Or you can remain present with sensations, in which case discomfort will diminish and suffering won't have any place to take hold.

David Gersten, M.D. practices Transpersonal Psychiatry, Nutritional Medicine, and Interactive Guided Imagery out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. Please feel free to access 1,000 on-line pages about holistic health, amino acids, and nutritional therapy at


Dear Louise

Also See My Story, By Louise Hay This Month

Dear Louise,

I moved to my home six months ago, and there is a serious problem with spiders. Can you please tell me what belief created this situation and how I can clear it?

U.R.., Houston, Texas

Dear U.R.,

Well, spiders have been around a lot longer than people, so I wonder how they felt about your becoming a serious problem in their home. You've probably inherited someone else's spider problem. It may have little to do with you. These critters aren't the enemy; they're just trying to co-exist. Spiders are actually very beneficial since they keep away many other insects. However, we do all want to live in harmony.

I would suggest that you talk to them. Tell them how much you appreciate them and how well they took care of the home before you came. Now it's time for them all to move on and find a new place to live. Give them two weeks to move or you'll have to take other action. I'm sure most of them will be gone by then. Once the home is clear, affirm: I always live in harmony with all of life.


Dear Louise,

I have a friend who's been diabetic for the last ten years. She eats well and takes care of herself, but lately (the last six months), she's had extreme sugar highs and lows that neither she nor her doctors can explain. I'm very concerned for her. She isn't into the metaphysical, but I wanted to introduce the idea of a daily affirmation to her and see if she likes it. I was wondering if you had any suggestions.

P.A., Toronto Canada

Dear P.A.,

There are several patterns relating to diabetes that shows up in people: a feeling that they don't deserve to have their needs met and that they have no sweetness or joy in their lives; feeling like martyrs due to childhood neglect; and worry, anxiety, and/or fears about survival. Any one of these could be surfacing now to cause the setback. In addition to eating well, she needs to forgive the past and all those who she feels may have hurt her.

Forgiveness opens the door to the heart, and your friend needs to have the love flowing from her own heart, enveloping her being. The love and acceptance she's seeking reside within her. Going to the mirror a few times a day saying “I love you, I really, really love you!” would bring sweetness and joy into her life, and her body would balance out.


Dear Louise,

My mom just found out that she has ovarian cancer. How can I help her . . . how can she feel better?

H.B., Brazil

Dear H.B.,

The ovaries represent the creative flow in a woman. Many women are completely fulfilled in this need to create by having children. Others need to express this desire even more by having additional creative outlets. What has your mother always wanted to do but felt she couldn't because . . . [fill in the blank]? It would be wonderful if you could get her to take up a hobby. It would shift the negative energy within her. Although she may be filled with fear at this time, this mind-set can be changed. Also, I've suggested this affirmation to thousands of people, and it's made a big difference in their lives: Every hand that touches my body is a healing hand. All is well. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe.

Louise L. Hay is a metaphysical teacher and the bestselling author of numerous books, including You Can Heal Your Life , Empowering Women, and I Can Do It! . Subscribe to the Louise Hay Newsletter! Call for a Free Issue: (800) 654-5126. Questions for Louise? Write to: Dear Louise Column, c/o Hay House, Inc., P.O. Box 5100, Carlsbad, CA 92018-5100 (letters may be edited for length and clarity). Visit Louise and Hay House at: or