In the West most people believe that the body is a thing: a machine that needs to be fueled (with food and water) and exercised in the hope that this will stop it from going wrong. We greatly enjoy the pleasure the body gives and work hard to keep it looking good. If something in this machine goes wrong then it can usually be mechanically repaired. Difficulties are cured with surgery, radiation, or drugs—the offending part is cut out or eliminated with chemicals—and life goes on as before.
In this context, modern Western medicine has worked wonders. It is extraordinary when we consider the breakthroughs that have occurred: the development of antibiotics and vaccinations, laser surgery, and organ transplants, to name but a few. Medical science has saved millions of lives and dramatically reduced suffering. Modern understanding of the body machine and the ways in which it can go wrong is undeniably impressive.
However, this approach does not always work. Sometimes the side effects of drugs cause worse complications. Other difficulties may emerge even if the original cause is cured. Or the problem might go beyond the bounds of medicine; there may simply be no available cure. For instance, illnesses related to stress are numerous, and their incidences are rapidly rising. Maladies directly caused by stress include migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle tension, and chronic fatigue. Modern medicine does not have a cure for stress, and, as it does not acknowledge the influence of a patient’s mental or emotional state on their physical well-being, no medical cures are available. Yet up to 70 percent of patient visits to the doctor are for stress-related illnesses.
Reuniting body and mind
The last few years have seen a growing recognition of the direct relationship between the mind and the body with the emergence of a field now known as psychoneuroimmunology. This new understanding does not deny the organic causes of illness—such as germs, bacteria, or microorganisms—or that some illnesses are genetically inherited. At the same time, we all know that not everyone in the office falls sick when “the flu is doing the rounds,” and that a disease does not have the same effect on every afflicted person.
It appears that our emotional and psychological states do greatly influence the onset and passage of illness, as well as our ability to heal. “Medicine is beginning to see that the origin of disease cannot be spoken of without including lifestyle, diet, social milieu, the environment, and, perhaps most interestingly, consciousness and the emotions,” writes Marc Ian Barasch in The Healing Path.
The stress factor
The clearest way to see how the mind directly affects the body is through stress. The cerebral cortex in the brain sounds the alarm whenever there is a form of perceived life-threatening or stressful activity. This affects the limbic and hypothalamus organization, which in turn affect hormone secretion, the immune system, and the nervous system. This fight-or-flight response enables you to respond to danger if, for instance, you are on the front line of a battle or face to face with a large bear.
However, seemingly unimportant events can also cause a stress reaction because the brain is unable to tell the difference between real and imagined threats. When you focus on your fear about what might happen, it plays as much havoc with your hormones and chemical balance as when you confront a dangerous situation in real life. For instance, try remembering a gruesome scene from a horror movie, and you will feel the muscles in your back, shoulders, or stomach contract. The images are just in your mind, yet they trigger an instant response in your body.
More importantly, the fight-or-flight response built into your body was only intended to be temporary. Once the danger has passed, the body is meant to come back to normal functioning. When there is a consistent psychological and emotional pressure, the higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol that the stress response releases are sustained, leading to a compromised immune system and more likelihood of physical sickness.
Some of the physical symptoms that result from excessive stress are headaches, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, muscle tension, heavy breathing, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, nausea, dry mouth, gastritis, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, backache, excessive sweating, rashes, acne, and hives. The immune system becomes compromised, so it is much easier to catch a cold or other infectious illness. Alongside these, there may be psychological transformations such as depression, anger, rapid mood changes, and anxiety. You may also experience impaired concentration, memory loss, an inability to make decisions, confusion, irrational fears, self-consciousness, or marital and sexual problems. Behavioral changes may include sloppy dressing, fidgeting, sudden outbreaks of tears, overindulgence in habits such as smoking or drinking, phobias, and impaired sexual performance. This is quite a list, and many of these symptoms can easily lead to more serious states of ill health.
The link between psychological stress and physical problems is perhaps best illustrated by research, cited by Dr. Larry Dossey in Healing Breakthroughs, which shows that more heart attacks occur on a Monday than on any other day of the week—and not only on a Monday, but most often around 9 am. No other animal dies more frequently on a particular day or time of the week.
In itself, stress is neither good nor bad. Rather, it is how we respond or react to stress-creating factors that makes the difference. Some people will respond to pressure or crisis with an increased sense of purpose. Others will respond with panic, denial, or fear. Faced with a deadline, one may find it spurs him or her on to greater creativity, while another becomes frozen into inactivity.
The difference is in our perception of our coping abilities. If you perceive a situation as one that you can deal with, one that excites your creativity and makes you feel empowered, then you will not have a negative stress response. But if you perceive yourself as being unable to cope, fearful of what is going to happen, and get yourself worked up into a sweat, then soon you will be displaying a variety of stress symptoms.
This perception of yourself is based on your personal emotional history. It may be due to past childhood influences and conditioning, beliefs, religion, or your social environment, but it is your perception of your inability to cope that causes the stress response in your body, rather than any external factors. That perception results in shutting down the digestive system, speeding up the heart rate, and flooding your body with hormones, without any direct physical cause.
However, the body-mind relationship obviously goes deeper than just how you perceive yourself in relation to stress-creating situations. What we find is that any emotion that is repressed, denied, or ignored will get stuck in the body. As Candace Pert defines it, “Your body is your subconscious mind.” And, as Caroline Myss says, “Your biology is your biography.” In other words, the thoughts and emotions you are not acknowledging, dealing with, resolving, or healing will simply make themselves known elsewhere.
“If a woman smokes to relieve the stress of an intolerable marriage, what is the ‘cause’ of her lung cancer? Is it a genetic predisposition? The histology of oat-cell carcinoma? The smoking itself? Her relationship?” asks Barasch in The Healing Path. “How thorough is her cure if she has a lung removed but does not change her marital circumstances, let alone inquire into the personality patterns that permitted her to cling to her longtime unhappiness?”
Such self-examination is not easy. You may prefer to believe that any illness you experience is entirely due to something external, rather than having anything to do with your own thoughts, feelings, or behavior. You may prefer to believe that it is inherited or due to a foreign substance such as a virus, bacteria, or pollution. Getting ill invariably feels like something over which you have no control, that you are simply the helpless victim. Despite living inside your body for so many years, when something goes wrong it can feel as if you are living inside a complete stranger.
Illness can make you feel disconnected, unable to understand how this stranger works or why it has stopped working. However, the more deeply you look into the causal chain of illness, the further you go beyond the more obvious, physical reasons, to ever more subtle layers of nonphysical, psycho-emotional connections. To help you start this process within yourself, try doing this body awareness review.
Body awareness review
Over the next week, practice watching the physical effects in your body of different situations, thoughts, or feelings. You may want to note these physical changes in a diary.
Be aware of times when you are irritated or frustrated. Take note of where you are experiencing those feelings in your body. If you are stuck in a traffic jam, a client is late for an appointment, or the children keep interrupting your conversation, what happens to your breathing, shoulders, back, or stomach?
Observe anxiety reactions
What happens in your body when you are worried or anxious about something (perhaps a child is late coming home, you have to give a presentation, or you are about to receive the results of your partner’s blood test)? Where do you hold the anxiety? What physical effect does it have? Do fears about the future create a pain in your stomach? Or in your legs?
Watch your reactions
If your boss or your partner shouts at you, what happens to your heart, your head, your insides? Is your headache because you were shouted at, or because you feel insecure or angry? What do you do with angry feelings? Do you express them, or is there somewhere you put them? Do you swallow hard, clench your muscles, or become constipated?
Observe the effects of memories
What happens if you recall past events? Do you feel warm and relaxed, or do you break out in a sweat and feel nervous? Pay particular attention to what happens when you recall unhappy memories, perhaps when a parent hit you or you were bullied at school. As you follow these memories, watch where in your body there is a reaction.
Analyze illness and injuries
Think back to past illnesses or times when you were hurt. Note the parts of your body that were involved. Have you always held your stomach muscles in tight? Have you always had recurring headaches? Have you always hurt on the same side of your body?
Observe yourself, your reactions, and your body. As you do this, you will begin to see how closely all the different parts of your being, both physical and psycho-emotional, are interwoven.
Who creates your reality?
There is one catch in all this: The more you understand the body-mind relationship, the easier it is to think that you must be responsible for everything that happens to you, that you are to blame for being ill, that you have brought this state upon yourself, even that you have “caused” your own illness. There is a popular belief that you create your own reality and that you are 100 percent responsible for everything that happens in your life, that every thought you have determines your future, both good and bad. This idea can be helpful, as it enables you to see whether, often without being aware of it, you may be causing extra difficulties for yourself. It can teach you to stop blaming other people or external events for your problems and instead to take responsibility for your actions. It also shows you that you cannot really change other people or the world, but you can work with your attitudes toward them.
However, the moment you start thinking you are responsible for your own reality in its entirety you develop an inflated sense of self, a belief that you are all-powerful. This generates egocentricity and self-centeredness, both of which set the stage for guilt, shame, and failure. Blaming yourself for getting ill, you then blame yourself for not getting well. Feeling guilty for repressing your anger and subsequently developing an ulcer or a tumor, you then believe you must be a hopeless example of humankind.
You are in charge of your own attitudes and feelings, of the way you treat yourself and your world, but you cannot determine the outcome of every circumstance, just as you do not make the sun rise or set, keep the earth in orbit, or make the rain fall. You are responsible for developing peace of mind, but you may still need to have chemotherapy. The resolution and healing of your inner being is within your control, and this may also bring a cure to the physical body. But if it does not, it is vital to remember that you are not guilty and you are not a failure.
Excerpted with permission from the book/CD set Your Body Speaks Your Mind: Decoding the Emotional, Psychological, and Spiritual Messages That Underlie Illness (Sounds True Inc.; www.soundstrue.com).Author Deb Shapiro is trained in numerous forms of bodywork and in meditation and psychology. She and her husband, Ed Shapiro, are coauthors of The Bodymind Workbook, Meditation: Four Steps to Calmness and Clarity, Voices from the Heart, and Unconditional Love. May 18-20, Deb Shapiro will lead a Your Body Speaks Your Mind workshop at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. More info ay www.eomega.org.