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Joan Schraith Cole, LMT, NCTMB


Lifelines Wellness Center
324 N Neil St
Champaign, IL 61820
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What is a Healing Crisis?

In the Chinese art of Taiji, it is said that if you want to go right, first you have to move left. Similarly, in most methods of natural healing, it is known that when you start taking steps to improve your health, there will be periods when you get worse before you get better. I had dramatic proof of this when I quit smoking more than a decade ago. Not only did I have immediate worse effects - a terrible hacking cough as the cilia in my lungs were finally starting to come back to life, acne-riddled skin, and a season where I caught every cold and flu that passed through the office - I had a good spectrum of the longer term effects - depression, unexplained weight gain, shortness of breath, tiredness, edginess. Why in the world would anyone quit smoking if they knew they were going to get worse?

Everyone needs to ask that question for themselves. For me, quitting smoking was the first step on a very long journey towards better health. One I am still traveling on, one baby step at a time. There are no instant miracles. Wellness is a PROCESS not an endpoint.

Sometimes with long-term chronic pain conditions, a massage session can aggravate the pain: even though relief occurs during the session, a day or three later it can be worse. The pain might last a day, it might last up to a week. But underneath the pain something is shifting, and when the flare has subsided, a breakthrough has occurred. There are layers and layers and layers that get peeled away in the journey of wellness. Sometimes a layer chips away bit by bit, with no drama, just tiny incremental improvements. And sometimes it lifts away in a giant dramatic chunk, and shakes you to your core.

That's all very poetic, but what's really going on?

From a less poetic standpoint, I think there are two factors that contribute to a healing crisis: the brain, and the immune system.

Our brain has developed with our species. There are older and newer parts to it. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard social scientist, once quipped that, "The human brain itself is essentially a reptilian weenie, wrapped in a neocortical bun." We really have multiple brains, ranged by evolutionary "newness": the somatic brain/enteric nervous system (located mainly in the gut), the reptilian brain, the mammalian or limbic brain, the neocortex (the new mammalian brain), and the prefrontal cortex. When it comes to reasoning and dealing in abstractions, we should hope to be using the neocortex. But when it comes to using the body in a way that we don't hurt ourselves, using the neocortex gets us in trouble. We would be better off learning how to "get out of our way" and let the older parts of our brain move us. "Getting out of the way" is not usually an effortless process. When tightness is released putting your body in better alignment, you will probably immediately feel better. But let's say the brain notices that your body is no longer how it was, so therefore it's not "right". If it wrests control and puts it back in the old position, you'll eventually be right back in pain again. It usually takes more than once to convince it that it's OK to be in a different position. I personally think this is part of why a sore back caused by stepping in a hole three weeks ago might be completely cleared up in a handful of sessions, but a sore back you've been dealing with for 10 years might take regular work for quite some time to progressively get better, little by little. I think this is also why the chronic problems improve more readily when coupled with an active modality like medical exercise, where you learn and practice better ways to move.

Then there's a reaction that can occur if enough trapped wastes are released into the system. It's kind of like what can happen you take in too much of the toxin alcohol, faster than your body can process it (a hangover). When it's caused by a pathogen die-off it's called a Herxheimer Reaction. Whatever you call it, and whatever sparked it, it's a short-term (from days to a few weeks) detoxification reaction in the body.

As the body detoxifies, it is not uncommon to experience flu-like symptoms including dizziness and light-headedness, an odd or metallic taste in the mouth, headache, joint and muscle pain, body aches, sore throat, general malaise, nausea, increased sweating, urination or defecation, chills, skin eruptions, itches or rashes. Sometimes a healing crisis can take the form of an emotional release, when you suddenly begins to experience severe feelings or emotions. Although the experience may not make you feel particularly good, keep in mind that it is actually a sign that healing is taking place.

The best medicine for coming through a healing crisis is to breathe, drink enough fluids to stay hydrated, increase dietary fiber, get enough sleep, and use baths, ice or heat for pain relief.

The following articles provide more information:

  • What Is a Healing Crisis? by Melanie Grimes
  • Herxheimer reaction (also known as Jarisch-Herxheimer or Herx) - occurs when large quantities of toxins are released into the body as bacteria (typically Spirochetal bacteria) die, due to antibiotic treatment or rapid detoxification.
  • Understanding Basic Healing Principles of Natural Cure . "Illness does not occur without cause. Underlying causes of disease must be discovered and removed or treated before a person can recover completely from illness. Symptoms express the body's attempt to heal, but are not the cause of disease. Symptoms, therefore, should not be suppressed by treatment. Physicians and surgeons palliate symptoms instead of removing causes. The elimination of the symptom is not the same as elimination of the disease. In allopathic medicine a symptom is usually thought of as the patient's real disease and the goal is to hold back, decrease or eliminate this symptom. This is often done without addressing the underlying cause and does not promote a cure. "
  • Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction, or, Lucio's Phenomena
  • Understanding The Healing Crisis
  • The Detox Healing Crisis (context: candida cleansing)
  • UNDERSTANDING A HEALING CRISIS by Jon Burras. This article is more philosophical and psychologically oriented. "Recognizing a healing crisis in yourself or others is the first step in working through it. No, you are not crazy. Give it a name. Say to yourself, " I am experiencing a healing crisis as my body is attempting to come back to balance." Honor this place."

Photo courtesy of ABMP