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Mind over Matter

Self-examination can help resolve health problems rooted in emotional turmoil

By Amy Halloran


When I was a kid, I spent some time in basements levitating with friends. We took turns lying on the floor, or kneeling at the sides, head, and feet of the prone girl. Concentration was very important, so we shut our eyes after we were in place. The girl at the head of the person who was going to rise to the ceiling tiles was the leader. She intoned a series of chants, and we repeated them. “Light as a feather,” we said, and “mind over matter,” over and over again, until we managed to lift 50 to 85 pounds of girl a few inches off the floor. Were we held in the air by each other’s fingers, or each other’s thoughts? Something hovered, and maybe it was just our ideas, but we believed in what we were doing, and what we had done.

The levitations popped into my head as I considered my experiences with body and mind. I come cautiously to the connection, as the language of mind-body linkages can be pushy. People have dared to say that anger causes cancer. In literary terms, and sometimes literal ones, spouses die of grief. I’m all for metaphor, but can you follow one into the vein, with the needle of an idea? Maybe, if you mind the matter of the words.

When I was in college, I leapt down a flight of stairs without seeing the bottom; I bonked my head on a concrete doorframe and landed on a concrete floor. As I waited for EMTs to assess me, a Hare Krishna commented that my physical body had interfered with my spirit. I hoped that my body would be able to continue interfering with my spirit, and luckily it was. Aside from some insult to the fifth lumbar vertebra, which I have to give daily attention in terms of stretching and exercise, I’ve been fine.

When I was 28, my eczema—a scaly, weeping skin problem that makes me itch and scratch—began to creep from my wrists, elbows and knees, and spread over the rest of my body. I’d always been varying degrees of itchy, especially in winter, but over a period of a few months my eczema grew to cover my every waking and sleeping thought. I sewed socks to the ends of my pajama tops to try to keep myself from scratching at night, but I dreamt that I was getting my arms chopped off so I could grow new ones that would not itch. I woke up from this semi-pleasant nightmare with the socks ripped off so I could tear at my skin.

My largest organ lost the ability to regulate heat; I wore a thick hooded sweatshirt while others wore t-shirts and shorts. Finally, I went on oral steroids. The oozy, itching blisters receded, but as my dosage dropped off, I felt the creepy crawlies return. I turned to anything else that might help: diet, yoga and meditation, herbs and vitamins. I read a book called Skin Deep, and thought about the possible emotional roots of my huge physical problem.

I made signs and taped them on my bathroom mirror, the fridge door, the front door, my computer. “I don’t itch!” I declared in a hopeful promise. “Discouragement is the only illness,” was my favorite phrase, a quote from George Bernard Shaw. This statement was the most helpful. I moved it to the mirror and stared at it, and at my disappointments—the ones written all over my face.

I was pushing 30 and nothing was resolved. I lived off savings, terrified to get a new job because the job I’d had, running a thrift store, had ended miserably. I wrote a lot, but didn’t submit much; the few pieces I did launch boomeranged home. I asked my love to marry me and he didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no, either, but I was dangling. And that precipice, the perpetual maybe of my life as a writer compounded by the what-if of my proposition, made my skin ask the big questions I was asking life, or life was asking me. Sure, my problem had a physical root, but I saw its ugly face because I was emotionally broken.

Eventually, my skin calmed to its former self. I didn’t eat wheat for a long time. I avoided dairy. But I slipped beyond skinny on this no-food diet, and I really missed communing with people over ordinary meals. So now I eat everything again.

Occasionally, my eczema bugs me, but it doesn’t dominate my life. When I am anxious, the itching is worse—my hands are raw, red evidence of the troubles in my heart. I keep the notes that helped cure me posted in my mind, and am thinking of posting little fairy phrases to remind me to mind the matter of my skin.

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