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Stress: The Unification of Disease

pill.jpgA Definition of Disease published in FuturePositive integrates various forms of stress we experience in life into a unified concept of disease. One of the most basic weaknesses of Western medicine is that biological function is treated in isolation. The result is that our medical concept of health is often experience as a reaction to disease. This can most clearly be seen is the proliferation of prescription medication. This is not to say, of course, that providing an effective response to existing diseases is a weakness. The progress medical science has made in providing effective intervention in the various diseases that plague humankind is a compelling achievement. However, it is also true to say that a great deal of the emphasis placed on the idea of disease in medical science is often reactive and limited to human biology...

A Unified Definition of Disease

George Gould defines disease as:

The failure of the adaptive mechanism of an organism to counteract adequately the stimuli or stressors to which it is subject, resulting in a disturbance in function or structure of any part, organ, or system of the body
- Gould, George. A New Medical Dictionary

The adaptive mechanism referred to is the mind-body, not merely the body. This definition has a clear connection to Candace Pert's perspectives on the bodymind:

Research has shown that the body can and must be healed through the mind and the mind can and must be healed through the body.
- Pert, Candace. Molecules Of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine

In other words, an idea like disease cannot be understood or treated in terms of the body alone. The idea of the bodymind or mind-body connection does not simply mean we can combine existing disciplines such as psychology and medicine in order to reveal all of the connections and associations. The mind-body connection does not equate to psychology+medicine. More simply, the bodymind is not an idea that is merely interdisciplinary.

In Healing: Vital Energy and the Reintegration of Mind, Body & Spirit I provided a brief summary of Dr. David Simon's perspective on the mind-body connection. He states:

I learned that health and illness were the consequence of the thoughts and choices people made.
- Simon, David. Vital Energy: The Seven Keys to Invigorate Body, Mind and Soul

The idea of vital energy in our lives is the preservation of energy that promotes wellness and healing. Simon's ideas about health are distinctly proactive in nature. It is important to emphasize that Simon presents health and illness as a consequence of our own personal thoughts and choices. It seems, however, that many of a lifestyle choices are opposed to this view. For example, we proliferate unhealthy foods throughout society under the banner of a free-market society with its trite logos and senseless advertisements. This in turn promotes a reactive free-market for healthy food which is often tainted by the same trite logos and senseless advertisements. Yet free-markets thrive on circular logic. In many ways, the free-market society we indulge ourselves in is toxic. And this is both a choice we make as well as a consequence we experience.

The Unified Stress Concept

An important aspect of the Unified Stress Concept are the connections across various kinds of experience:

In view of the mind-body unification, we can define stressor as follows:


This expanded definition of stressor is broader and includes things not normally considered to be stressors. This definition allows to divide stressors into two general classes—external and internal stressors. The external stressors can be further divided into three types—physical stressors, biological stressors, and social stressors... Disease, from the stressor Hypothesis of Disease Propagation, results within a living system when the sum of stressors acting upon that living system exceeds the system’s ability to adapt.
- A Definition of Disease

This type of definition is open in the sense that it promotes various perspectives on the idea of stress. In this definition, stress is classified first as internal or external, as well as physical, biological and social. Any form of classification will create an underlying sense of opposition to something referred to as unified, but the purpose of this definition is to counter-act the more restrictive definitions of disease and stress found in the traditional medical sciences. One of the more unfortunate exclusions in the above definition are the ideas of spirit and soul.

One of the key phrases in this definition of disease is exceeds the system’s ability to adapt. Although there is a clinical feeling to these words, I would imagine that each of us can think of times in our lives when our ability to adapt to situations and circumstances was challenged, and perhaps exceeded. The antidote to excessive demands on our lives is something we call resilience. Human adaptation and resilience involves spiritual, intellectual, emotional, perceptual, and creative influences as well as physical, biological and social influences. What is important in understanding disease, or dis-ease, is our ability to reach out into the full breadth and depth of our experiences in order to seek consilience.

Consilience: The Unity of Disease

The most important book I have read on the idea of consilience is Edward O. Wilson's Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge. Wilson did not merely seek to connect knowledge, his task was to seek unity. One of the many perspectives on learning that Wilson promotes suggests the need for a fundamental tension:

I suggest there have always been two kinds of original thinkers, those who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering order try to protest it and create disorder. The tension between the two is what drives learning forward.
- Wilson, Edward. Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge

This approach to learning is clearly present in Jerry Wennstrom's experience: "This is what I did in 1979, when I let go of my identity as an artist, (by destroying my large body of art ) gave everything I owned away, and decided to completely trust what I was sensing." Through his artistry, Jerry had spent his life creating artwork - creating order from disorder. In 1979 he destroyed his artwork and gave his personal possessions away - protesting order and intentionally creating disorder. Perhaps it was the tension between order and disorder that drove Jerry's learning forward.

If we are to drive our learning forward then this same sense of tension plays an important role in developing a more useful understanding of disease. One of the things that A Definition of Disease achieves is to create a sense of disorder in the standard medical definitions of disease. This sense of disorder is achieved by moving our understanding of disease into an open system that embraces a greater range of experience. Once we leave the comfort of a narrow perspective we feel the tension of disorder by the increasing weight of possibility. The result is a sense of confusion, one of the most important elements in driving learning forward. Confusion energizes learning - it invites curiosity and imagination and most importantly it evokes the artist within.

The intersection of consilience with disease offers new paths of exploration and therefore new possibilities for understanding disease, stress, and illness through the lens of health, vital energy and well-being. The biology of disease is obviously important in preserving lives, but it is not in itself the whole story. As the effects of Vioxx and Lipitor have reminded us, prescription medications can often take the form of Russian Roulette. My own personal experiences in attempting to preserve my mother's life in the face of adverse prescription drug reactions is a very personal reminder that medical science and the pharmaceutical industry, in spite of the expertise that drives, really does not understand how medications interact and what the long terms effects might be. In the case of my mother, these medications were a prescription for a premature death - a prescription we were able to thankfully cancel.

Educators would have us believe that learning is something intimately related to knowledge, and as they realize the extreme limitations of that view they begin to expand the definition of knowledge in order to preserve their view. When we intersect the idea of disease with personal experiences we sense that our learning is somehow different. And, of course, it is quite different. This is not something we need a researcher to tell us. A Definition of Disease is very helpful in lifting us out of the narrowness of disease as something uniquely biological, but it is the narrative of the situations and circumstances related to disease in our own lives that drives learning forward. This is not something a definition can achieve on its own, and unfortunately while A Definition of Disease offers news ways to think, the entire article is void of real human experience. Perhaps it is authentic experience of people that is one of the greatest threats to theories, definitions, taxonomies, and other forms of abstraction. This is why learning is intimately and unavoidable immersed in the confluence of our everyday lives. Dan McAdams [See: Storyliving: The Stories We Live By] nicely summarizes this perspective on learning:

I do not believe that we learn much about ourselves by discovering that we are of a certain 'type.' Instead, each of us must try to comprehend the specific nature of our unique life course and personal journey if we are to know who we are and how our own life may be made most meaningful.
- McAdams, Dan. The Stories We Live By

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