Healing Crisis

You’ve just made an herbal formula for a new client. She took it for several days, but then began to get sick! You wonder: Is your client having a ‘healing crisis,’ or did you give her the wrong formula?

Telling the difference between a healing crisis or a reaction to the wrong formula is usually not difficult, but at some times of the year, it can be tricky. Transition periods between seasons are when people are more vulnerable to colds and flu, and summer to fall is the riskiest of these. A client like the one mentioned above might get sick now neither from a healing crisis nor wrong formula.

Seasonal influences aside, let’s review how you can tell the difference between a healing crisis and when you have administered the wrong formula.

The Healing Crisis

A “healing crisis” manifests as an acute illness after beginning a healing protocol, such as change of diet or new herbal routine. The symptoms could be a cold, flu, fever, diarrhea, or minor skin eruption. A healing crisis could also evoke emotional responses such as vulnerability, fear and anger.

A healing crisis arises quickly and is short-lived. Afterward, the person usually feels better than before they began the healing process. Despite its alarming and confusing nature, a healing crisis is actually a sign of improvement. When such symptoms occur, they shouldn’t be arrested; stop the formula and give herbs and formulas to treat the present symptoms. When the healing crisis is over, reassess the person’s condition before returning to the original formula, taking into account new signs and symptoms.

Sometimes a healing crisis manifests as symptoms of an old illness. This occurrence is described by the Law of Cure. Observed by Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th century when he founded homeopathy, the Law of Cure says that the various symptoms that arise during the course of recovery reflect the different stages at which the body is healing. Typically, the body heals its most recent disease first, then it works back through other diseases until the oldest one is healed. Generally, symptoms first occur on the surface of the body and move from the top of the body down.

For example, someone who suffers from recurrent bronchitis and begins a course of natural healing with herbs might experience a renewal of teenage chronic colds, and later on her childhood eczema might return. The eczema may start on the arms and then move down to the legs. In time, her body gathers enough strength and energy to throw it off entirely. These symptoms eventually disappear, and a healing of her chronic bronchitis can take place. Through this process, the root cause of her condition is eradicated.

Furthermore, a healing crisis usually occurs in the midst of much greater improvement. Examine all new symptoms and look for genuine indications of health, such as increased energy and vitality. If these are also present, the new discomfort is likely a part of the healing crisis.

Finally, from a long view, old physical or emotional symptoms eliminated through healing crises usually never return.

But what if your client’s sudden illness is actually the result of a wrong herbal formula?

In this case, her new acute symptoms will worsen. On the other hand, she may not manifest an acute condition at all, but she’ll get hotter, colder, dryer or damper or will feel “off” in some other way.

If your client’s undesirable symptoms disappear when the formula is stopped, then it is likely they received the wrong formula. If it’s a healing crisis, the symptoms continue for about three days or until the detoxification is complete, regardless of whether the formula is taken or not.

There are some exceptions of course. If you treat someone and they get worse, and yet when you stop the herbs they still don’t improve, then reassess and give a new formula for the current condition. If they immediately get better, you know your formula was wrong; if they don’t improve, ask the person how they feel. Often a person is aware they are cleansing and it “feels good” in some way, despite their new undesirable symptoms. If so, it’s a healing crisis. If not, reassess your herbs once more.

Generally, giving the “wrong” formula is a useful diagnostic tool. How someone reacts to particular herbs can give important information about what is actually going on. To determine if this is the case, first examine your formula to make sure it doesn’t contain herbs that could cause undesirable symptoms. If there are, then modify the formula. But if there aren’t, reassess the person’s patterns and constitution.

Always check your dosages. Symptoms of overdose or genuine allergic reactions to herbs usually appear soon after starting the herbs, and the symptoms disappear after the herbs are stopped.

If you think the formula is wrong, it’s possible that only an herb or two may need changing, or else another herb may need to be added to ameliorate the symptoms caused by the formula. For example, if the person feels angrier after taking a formula with bupleurum, either they need to ease into the full dose, or else Liver-softening herbs (like white peony), Blood tonics (for instance dang gui), or Yin tonics (such as eclipta) should be added.

If there’s little to no improvement with no signs of a healing crisis, first check to see if the person is ingesting enough of the formula and taking it frequently enough. Too many times have I seen someone take the right formula and not get results, only to find they weren’t consuming it often enough or taking too small a dose! This is often the case if the person is somewhat better but not enough to feel the formula is working; interrogation may reveal that the client took it in too small or infrequent doses. When this happens, don’t change the formula, but emphasize the right amount and times to take it and send them home with the same herbs (and a written reminder if needed).

Sometimes people don’t realize they are better until they run out of their formula and then feel worse. It’s not unusual for people to forget their symptoms once they disappear! In fact, it’s very useful during follow-up sessions to review the first intake and all the symptoms originally presented. Quite often people come in disappointed that one symptom still lingers, but then are pleasantly surprised to discover that the other five complaints they presented on their first intake have disappeared during the course of treatment. If several issues are gone or less severe, you are obviously on the right track and your formula just needs tweaking or another herb or formula needs to be added.

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