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Intentional Suffering

When pursuing health, it’s easy to make ourselves suffer. Suffering that’s out of our control is much easier to deal with than intentional suffering or self-inflicted suffering.

Nobody wants to suffer, but many may need to experience or inflict some self-suffering to realize they prefer not to suffer. It’s a process.

Pursuing Health

A 49 yo patient of mine is a healthcare professional who has done a lot of work exploring what causes her suffering. She’s insightful and has great interpersonal relationships. Her main pursuit in life is to find peace in all the things she does. Taking care of her in our virtual telehealth sessions is always a pleasure.

After a few bouts of gastrointestinal problems, she’s been turning her life upside down, trying herbals, supplements, hypnotherapy, Ayurveda, and prescription medications to get rid of these GI issues.

One could say she’s pursuing health, or at least trying to get back to whatever she was experiencing before her GI system went haywire.

We could also say that she’s trying to run away from what her GI system is doing without acknowledging it, coming to terms with what’s happening, or discovering what is actually happening.

Trusting Experts

In this information age, experts abound. We can find someone who is a GI parasite expert, an Ayurvedic doctor who is a digestion specialist, and an energy healer who only handles those with gastrointestinal problems.

It’s not that these experts aren’t trustworthy or unable to help. It’s that each expert approaches a problem uniquely and often assumes that the patient has already done their part in dealing with the problem.

An expert might suggest a rather restrictive diet, lifestyle, and habits that severely interfere with the patient’s life. In fact, that’s what my patient from the example above was recommended. When I would see her, she scored worse on the Quality of Life Score I give my patients.

It’s true that sometimes we have to go through tough times to come out better, but intentional suffering doesn’t always result in better health outcomes.

Suffering = Health

Patients may seek out a restrictive regimen such as a strict diet, an intense exercise routine, a tough-to-palate medication, chemo, or surgery just to feel better. But just because we make ourselves suffer doesn’t mean we’ll enjoy more health.

In fact, health often is inversely proportional to how much self-inflicted suffering we cause.

In other articles, we’ve discussed how to define health for yourself. It’s a powerful exercise.

When Suffering is Justified

There is no place for me to say when intentional suffering is justified. However, as a physician, I can share my perspective based on patient outcomes.

A treatment makes sense even if it makes us suffer, but it doesn’t work just because it makes us suffer. Wrong perspective and wrong concept.

Dr. Mo


Some kids grew up being active so exercise comes naturally to them. Others may find themselves needing some resistance training or cardiovascular exercise to heal a few metabolic maladies.

Exercise could cause suffering – lifting an unnatural weight against gravity and feeling pain and pressure in the joints, ligaments, and nerves.

But exercise can also feel good when it’s started very slowly and gradually increased. Including myself, I don’t know anyone who started exercising slowly enough to minimize suffering. But, in theory, it’s possible.

But not everyone needs to lift weights or run on a treadmill. Exercise is just an activity, and there are many ways to incorporate activity into your daily routine.


We have been raised to eat certain things. Depending on your decade, one food is the enemy and the other is the panacea.

The reality is that our diets can vary quite a bit without causing ill health. But each individual needs to figure out what meshes well with their constitution.

A strict diet that makes you feel miserable cannot be the right diet for you, even if your cardiologist recommends it.


Habits are tough to learn and tough to unlearn. But many before us have navigated tough habits or adopted important ones to enjoy better health.

If breaking a habit feels terrible and is making you suffer to the point that life is no longer worth living, it’s definitely not the right approach.

Even a small change in our habits can have massive impacts. The idea that everyone can fully get rid of their addiction is a modern concept based on the medicalization of our lifestyles.

I would much rather have my patient have a few cigarettes but still do some exercises, eat well, and have strong social bonds than live miserably without a single cigarette to their lips.


Some medications may make you feel terrible. Most will cause side effects in the first month and your body will get used to it.

What’s most important is to determine if you really need that medication. What are you trying to avoid, prevent, fix, or cure?

If the medication and its side effects are a way for you to punish yourself for a life lived with bad habits, then it’s the wrong approach, and failure is likely.


Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, IVs, and other treatments we have designed in medicine only make sense if they align with your lifestyle habits and definition of health.

Maybe you grew up judging your uncle for having smoked and then, when he got liver and lung cancer, admonishing him for not accepting treatments.

But trust that you know your body better than anyone else, including me, your doctor. And trust that others know the same about their bodies. And definitely trust that even if they don’t, you certainly don’t know either.

A treatment makes sense even if it makes us suffer, but it doesn’t work just because it makes us suffer. This is the wrong perspective and the wrong concept.

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