The Nature of Healing


What is known about how you repair yourself after a physical injury?

In this section, we’ll cover what we know about the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of healing.

  • We will describe the steps involved in repairing a physical wound.
  • We will also discuss the many ways you experience hurt in addition to physical injury.
  • We will describe the difference between the idea of “curing” and “healing”.

You will understand the all of the obvious and the not-so-obvious aspects of your life that add up to your personal experience of healing.

You might have some questions you can ask yourself and talk about with your family and friends to help you learn more about your relationship to pain and healing.



The Nature of Healing

Healing is the process of returning to a state of optimal function after some kind of injury or break. Many things effect how well or completely we heal- our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state will all play into how we heal after any kind of wound.

Medical science is investigating all of the ways our feelings and our beliefs influence how we heal physically, as well as how our physical state can change our mental, emotional and spiritual life. (We’ll cover this in more detail in this chapter: The Nature of Pain; Feeling: The overlay of Pain and Emotion)

You can be wounded in many ways – emotional, mental and spiritual wounds are no less real or important than physical ones. Any injury causes hardship at all levels- a physical wound causes mental and emotional stress. Mental stress will make demands on your physical body that can make you both more likely to be physically hurt and slower to heal. Your ability to make use of spiritual resources can be effected by your physical, mental and emotional health. Recovery from any type of injury is supported when you can take good care of all parts of your life.

Webster’s Collegiate American Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines heal as:

  1. to make sound or whole <heal a wound>; to restore to health
  2. to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome; MEND <the troubles…had not been forgotten, but they had been healed>; to patch up (a breach or division) <heal a breach between friends>
  3. to restore to original purity or integrity <healed of sin>; verb : to return to a sound state

Healing is most obvious when it is a physical event, as in healing a wound in your skin.

Healing a Physical Wound

All wounds go through 3 stages of healing.

Stage 1: Inflammatory phase; the acute phase; the first 72 hours

Bleeding and swelling make the area red, hot and painful. Bloods cells are attracted to the area to stop bleeding and to  begin the process of cleaning up debris. Blood cells also release chemicals that encourage cells called fibroblasts to gather in the tissue that needs repair. Fibroblasts are the cells that produce the proteins to restore flesh, especially collagen.

Stage 2: Proliferation (repair) phase

Repair and regeneration depend on three major factors: elimination of debris, the regeneration of specialized tissue cells, and the production of fibroblasts, which make up connective tissue throughout the body and form the basis of scar tissue.

Typically in a traumatic event injured blood vessels become deprived of oxygen and die. Before repair and regeneration can occur, this and any other debris must be removed.

Stimulated by a lack of oxygen, capillary buds begin to form in the walls of undamaged blood vessels. From these buds grow immature vessels that form connections with other blood vessels. As these vessels become mature, more oxygenated blood is brought to the injured area. Fibroblasts migrate to the injury and form collagen networks, often within a few days. New protein fibers are laid down in a haphazard manner. Once laid down, the scar tissue begins to contract.

Also during this stage, two types of healing occur.

Healing by first intention takes place in an injury that has even and closely opposed edges, such as a cut or incision. With this type of injury if the edges are held very close together, a minimum of granulation tissue is produced.

Healing by secondary intention results when there is a gaping lesion and large tissue loss, leading to replacement by scar tissue. External wounds such as lacerations commonly heal by secondary intention.

Stage 3: Maturation or remodeling phase

This phase can last from 6 weeks to several months. The protein fibers of the scar orient themselves in the direction in which pressure is applied. The protein matures and the number of cells in the tissue decreases. It may take several months for the scar to fully mature and achieve its full strength.

These phases are not exclusive; each can overlap the other.

Factors that can increase the time taken for healing include:

  • age
  • general health
  • activity level
  • nutritional status
  • sleep habits
  • mechanical stress
  • foreign matter in the wound
  • diseases such as diabetes, anemia, cancer
  • infection
  • drugs
  • radiation therapy
  • maceration  – when the wound is too wet
  • desiccation  – when the wound is too dry


We also use the idea of healing when we think about emotional hurt, such as the grief you feel when there is a death in your family. When there are disagreements between people a kind of space opens up between them. This gap exposes the sort of soft and vulnerable parts of a relationship that feel better when protected, when the two different sides are joined together (think of a cut in your skin; think of what happens in a war between nation).

We think in terms of healing the breach, or closing the gap, to make things better. We think of healing as returning something that has been badly rearranged back into a working state, where everything is “alright”.

Personal experience is shaped by the society in which we live. We each have our own beliefs about what a good life is. Our beliefs about healing come from a point of view, an opinion, or rules for behavior that have proven useful over a period of time. Each of us experiences healing differently. You will prefer ideas about healing that fit in with your personality, what your family believes and what you have learned about life so far.

Healing vs Curing

The words healing and curing are often used as if they mean the same thing. According to Webster’s Collegiate American Dictionary, cure is defined as:

  1. spiritual charge;  pastoral charge of a parish
  2. recovery or relief from a disease; something (as a drug or treatment) that cures a disease; a course or period of treatment <take the cure for alcoholism>
  3. a complete or permanent solution or remedy <seeking a cure for unemployment>
  4. a process or method of curing

Despite the similarity in the dictionary definitions of these words, many people tend to think of the physical aspects of repairing a hurt when they think of cure. There is a greater tendency to think of spiritual and mental and emotional aspects when we think in terms of healing.

For many people, cure means “fix”. For example, “antibiotics cure pneumonia”. The term cure may also describe the course of treatment or the method of treating a disease or injury. For example, “the cure for pneumonia is antibiotics”. Cure is usually considered a medicine or surgical procedure that fixes the problem.

Healing is different. Healing is less specific and less mechanical. Consider the healing touch offered by a parent to a crying child or a healing conversation between people who have been arguing. Healing in these examples is understood to mean what occurs inside a person or between people. Healing is the mental, emotional or spiritual changes that occur in the process of setting something “back to right”.

Healing can be thought of as having to do with moving from feeling pain, discomfort, disease, and/or sorrow into an experience that includes acceptance, understanding, and/or transformation. Transformation may include recognition of a fresh view or a new opinion through an “Ah-ha!” experience or a spiritual event.

Healing is a choice. The pursuit of healing can be chosen as a way of living. Healing becomes an attitude about life. A person can actually be dying yet experience a state of healing characterized by a sense of rightness, balance, and satisfaction deep within.

Healing involves expanding personal beliefs about what is acceptable, interesting, and worth experiencing. This expansion of thinking and feeling can mean that permanent “disability” is redefined as something more like simply being different, rather than worse or bad, or less-than.

In this way of thinking, the changes that occur with illness and injury, and even death, are simply a natural part of life. These life events are not viewed as permanently tragic failures. Developing a curiosity and interest in how life can be lived, no matter what is thrown your way, can reduce suffering. Developing the ability for tolerating distress can reduce suffering even if pain still exists.

New research clearly shows that your mind effects your autonomic nervous system. This connection explains how your ‘human spirit’ or your ‘emotional body’ causes changes in your body cells. Your hormones, your immune system, and your brain chemistry all change in response to your emotions, attitudes, and thoughts.

For example, hormones released from certain areas of your brain during stress travel throughout the body and have direct effects on the cells of the muscles, nerves and  interal organs – even the immune system. Changes in the brain correlate with changes in the tissues of your limbs and organs, all triggered by emotions, attitudes, and thoughts.

Emotions like love or anger, your attitudes and the meaning you make out of the events that happen in life, and what you understand your purpose in life to be, are all parts of you that can literally leave “tracks” in your body. Getting to know yourself, getting clear about what you feel and believe, is important to how you choose to heal.

Support is Key to Healing

It is also clear that consistent support from family, friends and care providers improves the healing of all kinds of pain and distress. Talking, being heard and learning new information helps you manage the experience of pain. Knowing that other people understand what you are experiencing can reduce distress and promote healing.

Accurate feedback is critical. You can better understand the emotions and attitudes that are affecting any situation by being aware (meaning curious and interested) of your emotions and attitudes, as well as those of everyone around you. Accurate feedback allows you to make better decisions that can reduce stress. Remembering that feelings and beliefs create chemistry in your body that is at least in part responsible for how you feel mentally and physically, will help you make choices that make the best of every day.

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