Type to search

Viewing Illness as a Teacher

Viewing Illness as a Teacher


Decades ago, I attended a holistic health conference in San Diego, during which one of the speakers offered the following advice: “The royal path to enjoying robust health is to develop a chronic disease and learn how to care for it.” There is a great deal of wisdom in that statement, as illness often serves as an important warning sign regarding imbalances in our lives. If we wholeheartedly listen to our bodies and embrace a holistic approach to healing, illnesses can indeed serve as valuable teachers.

All seasoned physicians, nurses, or other health care professionals worth their salt could share numerous examples from their own experiences in which a serious illness has become a valuable teacher to their patients.

The potential role of illness as a teacher is often cited as a factor in recovery from heart disease. The importance of patients viewing heart disease as a potentially valuable teacher is now embraced by many physicians and other health professionals. It was cast into the limelight by the pioneering work of cardiologists Friedman and Rosenman in the mid-1970s (Friedman & Rosenman, 1974) and more recently by Dr. Dean Ornish, who in the late 1980s developed and promulgated a truly holistic lifestyle and behaviorally oriented approach to reversing heart disease (Ornish, 1990).

In a longitudinal study designed to pinpoint possible behavioral patterns associated with an elevated risk of heart disease, Friedman and Rosenman enrolled thousands of adult male subjects in their research. Findings of this landmark investigation indicated that the hard-driven, aggressive, Type A subjects were twice as likely to develop heart disease than was the case with their more relaxed Type B counterparts (Friedman & Rosenman, 1974). The likelihood of developing heart disease was greatest among those Type A subjects whose profiles indicated a noticeable tendency toward hostile expression.

Dr. Ornish’s lifestyle and behaviorally oriented program for reversing heart disease began with a pilot study he conducted involving a small group of male and female patients during a one-year hiatus between his second and third-year studies at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.  Following the completion of his fellowship training in cardiology, he obtained major grant support and expanded his earlier model to encompass a truly holistic and multifaceted approach. This program was designed to motivate participants to change their lifestyles and worldviews in a direction that Ornish believed would make a significant contribution toward reversing heart disease (Ornish, 1990). Major components of Dr. Ornish’s program, which has been completed by thousands if not hundreds of thousands of patients and is now covered by Medicare, include the following:

  • Supervised involvement in a program of vigorous aerobic exercise, tailored to each patients’ medical conditions and exercise preferences
  • Group and individual counseling and cooking classes, focusing on motivating patients to transition from their previous unhealthy eating habits toward adopting a vegan diet that substantially reduces high fat consumption and other “nutritional stressors” associated with increased risk of heart disease
  • Group and individual classes and counseling designed to motivate participants to minimize hostility and hyperaggressive behavior, which significantly increases risk of heart disease. At the same time, participants are encouraged to adopt worldviews and ways of relating that reflect a greater degree of sensitivity toward themselves and others

A word of caution regarding the dietary component of Dr. Ornish’s program, however: in the extensive collection of vegan recipes provided in part three of Dr. Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, the dessert recipes often emphasize the use of alcohol as a sweetener (1990). Obviously, these recipes need to be modified by any alcoholics and/or addicts who is serious about their recovery.

Type 2 diabetes, which often serves as a precursor to heart disease, is highly prevalent among adult Americans, and in recent decades has spread to impact growing numbers of adolescents and preteens. Key risk factors implicated in the onset of Type 2 diabetes include obesity together with excessive consumption of sugary foods. I personally believe that the fast-paced, high-stress lifestyles of most Americans go hand in hand with proneness toward both obesity and other dietary imbalances.

In addition, I firmly believe that virtually any illness can serve as a teacher by motivating us to take better care of ourselves. In Type 2 diabetes, adopting the perspective of viewing the illness as a teacher can have a decidedly beneficial impact on patients’ efforts to curb the progression on this disease. Learning to adopt healthy eating habits, together with undergoing an appropriate weight-loss program, enables diabetics to take charge of their management of this condition. Exercise can play an important role in weight loss while also contributing to increased self-esteem.

Generally accepted treatment models for alcoholism and drug addiction provide a classic illustration of utilizing the illness as a teacher. Indeed, a basic premise underlying the effectiveness of AA and other Twelve Step programs is to provide a mechanism for people struggling with addiction to adopt a sequential series of healthy shifts in their attitudes and behaviors that can enable them to break free from the disease’s deadly grip. The heavy emphasis on peer support brings a powerful interpersonal dimension to using the illness as a teacher in overcoming addiction. Steps One through Three, in which recovering alcoholics and/or addicts begin to form personal relationships with their beneficent higher power, serve as a strong foundation for freeing ourselves from the grips of this life-threatening disease.

A Personal Example

Several months ago, I succumbed to a bad case of bacterial bronchitis and my doctor prescribed an antibiotic. As my cough and fatigue remained essentially unchanged after completing that regimen, I scheduled a second appointment. A chest x-ray ruled out pneumonia and additional blood work indicated I had recently come down with mononucleosis (mono). Do not ask me how a guy in his seventies acquired the “kissing disease” most commonly associated with teenagers and twenty-somethings!

My doctor explained that the recovery time for mono increases with age and that I should expect the fatigue and remnants of the cough to linger on for several months. I was quite discouraged by that news, especially as my change in course meant foregoing a much anticipated high-school reunion back east.

As I weighed my options, I recognized my need to heed my body’s messages to get extra sleep, to slow down, and to pace myself in accordance with the ups and downs of my energy levels. I reminded myself that over the past year I had promised myself to make a conscious effort to slow down and create more “white space” in my life, and to especially spend more quality time with my wife. It dawned on me that my self-prescribed healing regimen was precisely the course I needed to follow to make good on my promise to assign a priority to slowing down to “smell the roses.” I have followed that course over the past ten days and am feeling significantly more attuned to the ebbs and flows of my energy level, while consciously creating more kick-back time to enjoy the gifts of each day. Wow, talk about an illness being a blessing in disguise!

When illness strikes, I believe we can often benefit by attempting to view the illness as a teacher. This applies in our own lives as well as in the lives of clients we are working with. As always, feel free to share this column with your clients and others who might benefit from the message. Until next time—to your health!


  • Friedman, M., & Rosenman, R. H. (1974). Type A behavior and your heart. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Ornish, D. (1990). Dr. Dean Ornish’s program for reversing heart disease: The only system scientifically proven to reverse heart disease without drugs or surgery. New York, NY: Random House.
+ posts

John Newport, PhD, is an addiction specialist, writer, and speaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He is author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. You may visit his website online at www.wellnessandrecovery.com for information on wellness and recovery trainings, wellness coaching by telephone, and program consultation services that he is available to provide.