Losing Hair Over Losing a Loser of a Lover

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Life keeps showing up with surprises. Sometimes the surprise is a shock to the system. Often that shock reverberates through the mind and body to throw the system off-balance. It can take some care and attention to bring the system back into harmony. This ability to return to homeostasis is resilience, the great bounce back.

Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez, www.garrinchatoonz.com

In this podcast, as part of the Nei Jing Now Stories of Resilience series, Ms. Rachna Singh generously shares how she recovered from the shock of a surprise divorce.  A man she had married for love had deceived her to get a green card to live in the USA. Deception and manipulation is a deeply injurious betrayal of trust. It can turn your world inside out and upside down. It can be challenging to learn to trust others again, or even one’s own judgment. To move through the world mistrusting oneself and others can be disabling. The induced psychological and spiritual upset often manifests as physical illness, because there is no separation between mind and body. The mind manifests as the body. A human being functions as an integrated unified unit, an inseparable emulsion of mind, body, and spirit, whether we recognize it or not.

Shortly after the aforementioned mercenary mate revealed his true colors and exited stage left from his marriage to Rachna, she was hospitalized with a diagnosis of autoimmune pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Autoimmune pancreatitis is not caused by excessive alcohol use, gallstones, medications, infections, or trauma. It is idiopathic, without a concrete known cause.

Much of the allopathic medical tradition is still reluctant to attribute physical illness to mental/emotional stress. The preferred term is idiopathic. Doctors are hesitant to diagnose a disease as stress-induced, even when it clearly is.  Often when doctors do, many patients feel they are being dismissed, as if they are being told “it is all in your head”. That isn’t the case. Stress induces a cascade of physiologic changes, which disrupt the balance of an integrated mind-body system.

After her discharge from the hospital for pancreatitis, Rachna went on to develop autoimmune alopecia, or hair loss. For a beautiful young woman, this was very distressing, further exacerbating the vicious cycle of stress and immune system dysfunction.

Autoimmune diseases are not very well understood in allopathic medicine. An autoimmune illness occurs when the immune system malfunctions and begins to “attack” one’s own body tissues as it would a foreign invader, causing inflammation and destruction of the tissues. Which organs or systems the immune system targets and why is a mystery.

My clinical experience is supported by studies that indicate stress is a major contributing factor in the development of autoimmune illnesses. About half of those diagnosed with an autoimmune condition cannot pinpoint an environmental, genetic, hormonal, or immunologic trigger. We call those cases “idiopathic”.  Often, if you take the time to investigate, (time being the operative word in the current clinical setting), an acute emotional trauma can be identified as a trigger to the malfunctioning immune system.  Retrospective studies, in which people with a diagnosis of autoimmune disease are asked to recall life events, indicate an impressive 80% report a notable and uncommon stressful occurrence in a period prior to the onset of their symptoms. Not only are recent traumatic events associated with the onset of autoimmune illnesses, but developmental and childhood stressors have also been implicated.

If you are wondering whether a specific disease is autoimmune mediated, the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association offers a comprehensive list, with information about each one.  The Wikipedia list of autoimmune diseases is conveniently organized by organ system.

Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez, www.garrinchatoonz.com

Rachna was proactive in addressing the emotional distress she was experiencing, as she recognized it as the major contributing factor in her case. She directed her thoughts to things she could appreciate in her life. She sought the comfort of friends. She cultivated a nurturing relationship with her young nieces. She joined a support group to help her cope with the upset of losing patches of hair, which may have been more worrisome than the distress of the disappearance of that loser of a lover.

Social isolation is a major independent risk factor in all causes of mortalitySupport groups are a valuable forum in which people with common concerns can receive and offer emotional and moral support to each other. People share their experiences as they feel comfortable, educate each other about various resources or coping methods, raise public awareness about the topic, and sometimes even raise funds.

Research indicates support groups improve quality of life, yet many people hesitate to participate due to some common myths. Besides the modern paucity of time, a common barrier is actually not wanting to share or expose one’s vulnerabilities. However, there’s no obligation to bare one’s soul. Each person remains in full control of how much they want to reveal of themselves. Sometimes it is enough just to listen with empathy to others tell their stories.

Another common myth about support groups is they are like psychotherapy. A support group is not led by a trained professional. Rather, it is a group of peers creating mutually supportive friendships. A harmonious, positive relationship with anyone has inherent therapeutic value.

Some people believe if they talk with others facing similar problems, it might make everyone feel worse, a thought which runs along the lines of ‘misery loves company’. Instead, people in support groups share coping tools and helpful information to alleviate each others’ pain and disappointment. In a support group, one receives hope while helping others, both of which contribute to reducing distress. There’s value in realizing you are not alone in the challenges you face.

A well run support group offers a venue for safe self-expression. Self-expression requires an awareness of one’s experience. That self-awareness is an essential part of healing, even more important than the expression. Feeling negative emotions can be distressing; naming and labeling them can ease the discomfort.

All these benefits of support groups, generally, come for free. If you can’t find a support group in your locality, you can always start one of your own and invite others to join you.

Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez, www.garrinchatoonz.com

Beyond her support group, where she made long-lasting friendships, Rachna also attributes her resilience to training for half-marathons, and re-igniting her passion for dancing, teaching dance, and performing. Not only did her physical fitness improve, dance offered her an avenue for creative self-expression which proved to be salutary.

A review of studies on the connection between art, healing and public health suggest engagement in movement based creative arts expands consciousness, improves body image, memory, self-esteem, emotional well-being, and a greater capacity to manage the challenges of loss, illness, and relationships. Creative self-expression at work is associated with big advantages. It doesn’t necessarily confer superpowers, but it can shave years off your biological age, it’s the equivalent of being more educated, and is associated with significantly larger income potential. Participation in artistic endeavors fosters an appreciation for non-academic knowledge, culture, co-learning, egalitarian relationships, and strengthens one’s own identity, all of which is simply good for you. In my opinion, creative self-expression is the single most important purpose of living a human life. Art is not optional.

Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez, www.garrinchatoonz.com

Through three hospitalizations for pancreatitis, the horror of losing patches of hair, which she manages with corticosteroid injections in the scalp and occasionally rocking a wig, and then developing autoimmune oral lichen planus as well, which she manages with scrupulous oral hygiene, Rachna attributes the most important aspect of her healing journey to self-acceptance.

Self-acceptance, apart from accepting the illness or pain, can improve the effectiveness of treatment of the illness or pain. Self-awareness coupled with self-acceptance enables an authentic honesty, which builds genuine self-esteem that is independent of an evaluation of one’s worth. Self-esteem built on achievements, acknowledgments, awards, approval, or acquisitions is a sandcastle dependent on external inputs, and can crumble at any turn of the tide. Loving yourself unconditionally can be a challenge in a competitive, capitalist world. Surely, allowing other people, friends, family, lovers, spouses to affirm you through words, deeds, and touch, can help you remember how lovable you are. But self-acceptance allows you to love yourself with all your flaws, faults, and failings, engendering a more reliable inner security. When you get into the groove of self-compassion it is easier to love others with all their shortcomings too.

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Resources:
National Alopecia Areata Foundation
American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association

India Aire, “I Am Not My Hair”, and lyrics.

Episode: Guest Bios & Individual Clips

Mollie Rachna Singh, MBA
RachnaSingh
Mollie Rachna Singh is a college professor teaching Project Management. She is also an Infinite Possibilities Trainer, helping people manifest change to live their best life.

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