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Symbolism of Illness: the Lungs & Breath

The lungs are an organ very close to my own heart (literally) having been asthmatic my whole life. This, plus very acute hayfever, is what brought me to homeopathy over 30 years ago. While the hayfever improved very quickly, the asthma has been a longer term issue and has given me much time to consider the deeper meaning of poor lung function aside from just the physical symptoms.

While the trigger for asthma (and other lung conditions) can appear to be environmental, inherited, gut- or vaccination-related, closer investigation usually reveals a much deeper cause.

The lungs encompass the heart centre and the emotions. The symbolism of many of the symptoms which affect the lungs is breath holding, being in a state of emotional hurt, a sense of giving up and fear of living life fully, with the mucous which often accompanies these conditions a physical manifestation of unshed tears.

Grief is so often an underlying component of the constitutional type of the patient with respiratory issues.

If we look back through the family history not only may we see asthma, bronchitis, hayfever, emphysema, but we may also see grief. This may be grief over several generations – death, loss, abandonment, orphaned children – all of these I have seen in patients with respiratory problems.

There are so many emotions which relate to the heart centre (as opposed to the physical heart) and the lungs and yes, it’s easy to say that a child has asthma because the parent or grandparent had asthma, but from a homeopathic perspective we do need to look beyond the physical to find the remedy that addresses each individual situation.

Typically, five patients presenting with asthma would all get a different remedy because each case is unique, regardless of the diagnosis being the same. When we treat a patient with lung symptoms we are really treating the underlying cause and not the asthma/emphysema/bronchitis/etc in isolation. Of course any remedy we select needs to have an affinity for the lungs in order to succeed, and support through winter and for acute flare ups are part of any management plan for respiratory illness.

If you have children with asthma, it is worth looking not only at the environment they are growing up in, but perhaps your own childhood environment and the belief systems which have arisen from this experience. With small children it is often difficult to see what the cause might be without taking into consideration the parents and maybe even grandparents! But frequently looking back through the generations we can discover issues somewhere in the family which result in lung symptoms further down the line. This is especially true if these issues are unresolved or suppressed.

Louise Hay¹ identifies lung problems in general as depression or grief, with a fear of taking in life and a feeling of not being worthy of living life fully. Pneumonia may indicate that we are desperate, tired of life and have emotional wounds that are not allowed to heal. Since this is often an acute or end of life condition, we can see it may appear when we’ve had enough! Bronchitis may indicate an inflamed family environment, with arguments and raised voices, and here arises another feeling frequently found in lung disease – that of fear.

Panic attacks creep into this discussion with hyperventilation or over breathing being a feature of this condition. Eventually patients who suffer panic attacks may learn to control the situation but always there is the need to look deeper.

Control and being controlled is a major component of respiratory illness manifested in a range of interesting and creative ways.

Annette Noontil² provides some more ideas on which to ponder. “If you have problems with the lungs, she says “make sure you are doing things your way!” In other words, don’t let people control you or tell you how to do things – be true to yourself. Lung cancer, from her perspective, arises when a person has been giving in and doing things someone else’s way (often to keep the peace) for so long it has become destructive.

“Asthma, she says, “is about self-acceptance and, again, doing the things other people think you ‘should do’ to keep them happy or to be noticed”. I would also add here that this can be to gain approval and is another form of control – self control and being controlled. When you cannot breathe, you are not enjoying life because you are living your life for someone else and always worrying what others think!

Interestingly, many people who present for treatment of asthma fit into this category of being ‘pleasers’ and peace makers. Sometimes they have been born into families where there is a lot of control and a lot of rules which they are fearful of breaking or high standards which they feel they cannot achieve, leading to feelings of unworthiness (see below). They may spend their lives holding their breath . . .

My old friend Dethlefsen³ always goes deeply into the origins of his ideas and points out there is a connection between the German word ‘atmen’ (to breathe) and ‘mahatma’, which in Hindi refers to a person who has attained perfection. Mahatma means both ‘great soul’ and ‘great breath’. One of the deepest issues of lung symptoms is that of feeling unworthy or unable to attain perfection, leading to difficulties with the breath and consequently with the soul!

Dethlefsen also says that the breath is the umbilical cord through which life or prana flows. It is the point at which we experience the external world coming in and then have to choose how we deal with it. The breath, a reflex action, stops us from totally cutting ourselves off from the outside world, from making ourselves impenetrable to what we don’t want to experience.

And let us not forget that our lungs are our largest organ of contact with the world. The lungs have an internal surface area of some 70 square metres, while the skin surface actually covers only 1.5 to 2 square metres.

Whereas with the skin we have the choice of touching other people (or things) or leaving them alone, the contact we establish through the lungs being indirect and largely unconscious, is actually mandatory. We cannot prevent it, even if people seem so awful as to ‘take our breath away’.

In fact, disease symptoms often get shunted between the lungs and the skin!  A skin symptom that is suppressed (by cortisone and other creams and lotions) can show up as asthma and once the asthma is managed moves back onto the skin. Skin symptoms are the lesser of the two problems with that external manifestation showing a more superficial issue than when symptoms move inwards to the lungs, which are more vital organs. However, the see-sawing between skin and lungs is never good to observe particularly in a child.

Dethlefsen points out that if we listen to some of the figures of speech around breathing such as ”can’t get our breath” or “feeling suffocated”, we begin to touch on the theme of freedom, restriction and control.

Difficulty in drawing breath is often a sign of anxiety or fear; fear of taking steps towards freedom and independence. 

As a homeopath I then ask the question “why” and take it a step further to look at what has produced this state. The same link between freedom and breath can be seen in people who emerge from some kind of restriction and take their first breath of fresh air, for at last they can ‘breathe freely’ again, indicating how life could be when we let go of what restricts us.

Dethlefsen paints a beautiful cameo of the asthmatic patient! 

While asthmatics may attempt to shut off the breathing mechanism because of fear or anxiety, another strong factor is a lust for power or feeling of smallness. This lust for power may manifest in allergies, which attempt to control the family and the environment. Sometimes in children an allergy/intolerance or challenging food choices are the only control a child may feel they have over their lives (unconscious and conscious). The control issues may not actually be with this child and their parent but further back in the ancestral history.

The allergies, with the need for things to be pure, clean, bright and sterile, also bring us further into the psyche with the need to avoid anything that is deep, dark or earthy. The indicated remedies for asthma and allergies frequently have a theme around purity, perfection, cleanliness and avoidance of germs!

Puffing oneself up (ie trying to puff up one’s lungs) is also seen as a sign of a desire for power and of aggression, and after all, aren’t asthmatic symptoms themselves quite aggressive. Some asthmatics are actually better in the mountains where the air is clean and they can look down on those below. Lovely symbolism and often true!

Dethlefsen poses these self-questions in lung problems:

  1. What is it that takes my breath away?
  2. What is it that I am unwilling to accept?
  3. What is it I am unwilling to give out?
  4. What is it I am unwilling to come into contact with?
  5. Am I afraid to take a step towards some new freedom?

From a homeopathic perspective, while children tend to be treated with a group of remedies which traditionally strengthen the respiratory system and improve function relative to the family medical history, there is always a need to go deeper particularly in those cases which don’t resolve easily!

Supplements, oils and herbs can be helpful in these situations, but rarely if ever resolve the problem long term. Flare ups of asthma and breathing issues will usually be triggered by an emotional event once treatment has brought a level of health and should be a sign for adults that some inner work needs to be undertaken, as well as support for the lungs physically.

Suppression of asthma with conventional medication pushes the symptoms ever deeper, denying us the opportunity to resolve issues which may go back years and even generations. Asthma and other respiratory complaints really do indicate much deeper issues than just problems with lung function and require skilful and sometimes ongoing treatment, but the results can be outstanding and worth the effort.

Perhaps the question to ask is “how much do I really want to release myself from restriction to be able to enjoy and breathe in life”.


Hay L; Heal Your Body¹;

Noontil A; The Body is the Barometer of Soul²;

Dethlefsen; The Healing Power of Illness³

Segal I; The Secret Language of your Body

Melanie Creedy is a UK trained and Australian Registered Homeopath (AROH). She was Vice President and Professional Development Coordinator of the Australian Homoeopathic Association from 2011 to 2015 and is editor of the AHA National Newsletter. Melanie has used homeopathy for 30 years and has been in practice since 1998. For many years she ran The Children’s Ear Clinic in Western Australia, but since her tree change to Tasmania, has a special interest in women’s and children’s health generally and helping individuals manage their journey on the spiritual path with homeopathy and her range of essences. Melanie has developed her own methods of dealing with complex cases over the years and offers distance consultations via phone and skype to allow people Australia-wide to access her services.
Homeopathy is a traditional medicine. It may be used in conjunction with other medicines. For any ongoing chronic condition, it is important to be assessed or examined by your healthcare professional or specialist. Always seek medical advice in emergencies. The information provided in this blog does not constitute medical advice but is for information only. If in doubt as to the appropriateness of a  suggestion or treatment seek advice from your homeopath.

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