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The Habit Of Illness
Source: Nerves And Common Sense
IT is surprising how many invalids there are who have got well and
do not know it! When you feel ill and days drag on with one ill
feeling following another, it is not a pleasant thing to be told
that you are quite well. Who could be expected to believe it? I
should like to know how many men and women there are who will read
this article, who are well and do not know it; and how many of such
men and women will take the hint I want to give them and turn
honestly toward finding themselves out in a way that will enable
them to discover and acknowledge the truth?
Nerves form habits. They actually form habits in themselves. If a
woman has had an organic trouble which has caused certain forms of
nervous discomfort, when the organic trouble is cured the nerves are
apt to go on for a time with the same uncomfortable feelings because
during the period of illness they had formed the habit of such
discomfort. Then is the time when the will must be used to overcome
such habits. The trouble is that when the doctor tells these victims
of nervous habit that they are really well they will not believe
him. "How can I be well," they say, "when I suffer just as I did
while I was ill?" If then the doctor is fortunate enough to convince
them of the fact that it is only the nervous habit formed from their
illness which causes them to suffer, and that they can rouse their
wills to overcome intelligently this habit, then they can be well in
a few weeks when they might have been apparently ill for many
months--or perhaps even years.
Nerves form the habit of being tired. A woman can get very much
overfatigued at one time and have the impression of the fatigue so
strongly on her nerves that the next time she is only a little tired
she will believe she is very tired, and so her life will go until
the habit of being tired has been formed in her nerves and she
believes that she is tired all the time--whereas if the truth were
known she might easily feel rested all the time.
It is often very difficult to overcome the habit which the nerves
form as a result of an attack of nervous prostration. It is equally
hard to convince any one getting out of such an illness that the
habit of his nerves tries to make him believe he cannot do a little
more every day--when he really can, and would be better for it. Many
cases of nervous prostration which last for years might be cured in
as many months if the truth about nerve habits were recognized and
Nerves can form bad habits and they can form good habits, but of all
the bad habits formed by nerves perhaps the very worst is the habit
of being ill. These bad habits of illness engender an unwillingness
to let go of them. They seem so real. "I do not want to suffer like
this," I hear an invalid say; "if it were merely a habit don't you
think I would throw it off in a minute?"
I knew a young physician who had made somewhat of a local reputation
in the care of nerves, and a man living in a far-distant country,
who had been for some time a chronic invalid, happened by accident
to hear of him. My friend was surprised to receive a letter from
this man, offering to pay him the full amount of all fees he would
earn in one month and as much more as he might ask if he would spend
that time in the house with him and attempt his cure.
Always interested in new phases of nerves, and having no serious
case on hand himself at the time, he assented and went with great
interest on this long journey to, as he hoped, cure one man. When he
arrived he found his patient most charming. He listened attentively
to the account of his years of illness, inquired of others in the
house with him, and then went to bed and to sleep. In the morning he
woke with a sense of unexplained depression. In searching about for
the cause he went over his interviews of the day before and found a
doubt in his mind which he would hardly acknowledge; but by the end
of the next day he said to himself: "What a fool I was to come so
far without a more complete knowledge of what I was coming to! This
man has been well for years and does not know it. It is the old
habit of his illness that is on him; the illness itself must have
left him ten years ago."
The next day--the first thing after breakfast--he took a long walk
in order to make up his mind what to do, and finally decided that he
had engaged to stay one month and must keep to his promise. It would
not do to tell the invalid the truth--the poor man would not believe
it. He was self-willed and self-centered, and his pains and
discomforts, which came simply from old habits of illness, were as
real to him as if they had been genuine. Several physicians had
emphasized his belief that he was ill. One doctor--so my friend was
told--who saw clearly the truth of the case, ventured to hint at it
and was at once discharged. My friend knew all these difficulties
and, when he made up his mind that the only right thing for him to
do was to stay, he found himself intensely interested in trying to
approach his patient with so much delicacy that he could finally
convince him of the truth; and I am happy to say that his efforts
were to a great degree successful. The patient was awakened to the
fact that, if he tried, he could be a well man. He never got so far
as to see that he really was a well man who was allowing old habits
to keep him ill; but he got enough of a new and healthy point of
view to improve greatly and to feel a hearty sense of gratitude
toward the man who had enlightened him. The long habit of illness
had dulled his brain too much for him to appreciate the whole truth
The only way that such an invalid's brain can be enlightened is by
going to work very gently and leading him to the light--never by
combating. This young physician whom I mention was successful only
through making friends with his patient and leading him gradually to
appear to discover for himself the fact which all the time the
physician was really telling him. The only way to help others is to
help them to help themselves, and this is especially the truth with
If you, my friend, are so fortunate as to find out that your illness
is more a habit of illness than illness itself, do not expect to
break the habit at once. Go about it slowly and with common sense. A
habit can be broken sooner than it can be formed, but even then it
cannot be broken immediately. First recognize that your
uncomfortable feelings whether of eyes, nose, stomach, back of neck,
top of head, or whatever it may be, are mere habits, and then go
about gradually but steadily ignoring them. When once you find that
your own healthy self can assert itself and realize that you are
stronger than your habits, these habits of illness will weaken and
finally disappear altogether.
The moment an illness gets hold of one, the illness has the floor,
so to speak, and the temptation is to consider it the master of the
situation--and yielding to this temptation is the most effectual way
of beginning to establish the habits which the illness has started,
and makes it more difficult to know when one is well. On the other
hand it is clearly possible to yield completely to an illness and
let Nature take its course, and at the same time to take a mental
attitude of wholesomeness toward it which will deprive the illness
of much of its power. Nature always tends toward health; so we have
the working of natural law entirely on our side. If the attitude of
a man's mind is healthy, when he gets well he is well. He is not
bothered long with the habits of his illness, for he has never
allowed them to gain any hold upon him. He has neutralized the
effect of the wouldbe habits in the beginning so that they could not
get a firm hold. We can counteract bad habits with good ones any
time that we want to if we only go to work in the right way and are
It would be funny if it were not sad to hear a man say, "Well, you
know I had such and such an illness years ago and I never really
recovered from the effects of it," and to know at the same time that
he had kept himself in the effects of it, or rather the habits of
his nerves had kept him there, and he had been either ignorant or
unwilling to use his will to throw off those habits and gain the
habits of health which were ready and waiting.
People who cheerfully turn their hearts and minds toward health have
so much, so very much, in their favor.
Of course, there are laws of health to be learned and carefully
followed in the work of throwing off habits of illness. We must
rest; take food that is nourishing, exercise, plenty of sleep and
fresh air--yet always with the sense that the illness is only
something to get rid of, and our own healthy attitude toward the
illness is of the greatest importance.
Sometimes a man can go right ahead with his work, allow an illness
to run its course, and get well without interrupting his work in the
least, because of his strong aim toward health which keeps his
illness subordinate. But this is not often the case. An illness,
even though it be treated as subordinate, must be respected more or
less according to its nature. But when that is done normally no bad
habits will be left behind.
I know a young girl who was ill with strained nerves that showed
themselves in weak eyes and a contracted stomach. She is well
now--entirely well--but whenever she gets a little tired the old
habits of eyes and stomach assert themselves, and she holds firmly
on to them, whereas each time of getting overtired might be an
opportunity to break up these evil habits by a right amount of rest
and a healthy amount of ignoring.
This matter of habit is a very painful thing when it is supported by
inherited tendencies. If a young person overdoes and gets pulled
down with fatigue the fatigue expresses itself in the weakest part
of his body. It may be in the stomach and consequently appear as
indigestion; it may be in the head and so bring about severe
headaches, and it may be in both stomach and head.
If it is known that such tendencies are inherited the first thought
that almost inevitably comes to the mind is: "My father always had
headaches and my grandfather, too. Of course, I must expect them now
for the rest of my life." That thought interpreted rightly is: "My
grandfather formed the headache habit, my father inherited the habit
and clinched it--now, of course, I must expect to inherit it, and I
will do my best to see if I cannot hold on to the habit as well as
they did--even better, because I can add my own hold to that which I
have inherited from both my ancestors."
Now, of course, a habit of illness, whether it be of the head,
stomach, or of both, is much more difficult to discard when it is
inherited than when it is first acquired in a personal illness of
our own; but, because it is difficult, it is none the less possible
to discard it, and when the work has been accomplished the strength
gained from the steady, intelligent effort fully compensates for the
difficulty of the task.
One must not get impatient with a bad habit in one's self; it has a
certain power while it lasts, and can acquire a very strong hold.
Little by little it must be dealt with--patiently and steadily.
Sometimes it seems almost as if such habits had intelligence--for
the more you ignore them the more rampant they become, and there is
a Rubicon to cross, in the process of ignoring which, when once
passed, makes the work of gaining freedom easier; for when the
backbone of the habit is broken it weakens and seems to fade away of
itself, and we awaken some fine morning and it has gone--really
Many persons are in a prison of bad habits simply because they do
not know how to get out--not because they do not want to get out. If
we want to help a friend out of the habit of illness it is most
important first to be sure that it is a habit, and then to remember
that a suggestion is seldom responded to unless it is given with
generous sympathy and love. Indeed, when a suggestion is given with
lack of sympathy or with contempt the tendency is to make the
invalid turn painfully away from the speaker and hug her bad habits
more closely to herself. What we can do, however, is to throw out a
suggestion here and there which may lead such a one to discover the
truth for herself; then, if she comes to you with sincere interest
in her discovery, don't say: "Yes, I have thought so for some time."
Keep yourself out of it, except in so far as you can give aid which
is really wanted, and accepted and used.
Beware of saying or doing anything to or for any one which will only
rouse resentment and serve to push deeper into the brain an
impression already made by a mistaken conviction. More than half of
the functional and nervous illnesses in the world are caused by bad
habit, either formed or inherited.
Happy are those who discover the fact for themselves and, with the
intelligence born from such discovery, work with patient insight
until they have freed themselves from bondage. Happy are those who
feel willing to change any mistaken conviction or prejudice and to
recognize it as a sin against the truth.
Next: What Is It That Makes Me So Nervous?
Previous: The Care Of An Invalid