The Soul of Therapy
Assuming the Whole Body Is Conscious Can Heal Puzzling Symptoms
What happens when you allow your whole body to have a conscious voice? “I have seen dramatic improvement in a variety of conditions when people begin assuming that the whole body has a form of consciousness that communicates about what’s going on in our lives.”
Among the many issues I work on with patients are physical symptoms that have no good explanation after extensive workup by physicians. I have seen dramatic improvement in a variety of conditions when people begin assuming that the whole body has a form of consciousness that communicates about what’s going on in our lives. But even people who say they are open to a mind-body-spirit view of health often make an exception for their own puzzling symptoms. The thinking usually goes something like this: “I’m all about mind-body-spirit, but in my case these symptoms are real.”
The flaw in this thinking is assuming that symptoms are not real if they are created or exacerbated by stress. There’s an amazing pharmacy in our bodies—thousands of chemical messengers that change throughout the day in part based on what’s happening in our consciousness. That’s why Henry Lodge, MD, co-author of Younger Next Year, devoted half of the book to healthy management of emotions. It’s also why world-renowned cardiologist Dean Ornish considers working with emotions and developing loving relationships integral parts of heart health.
I sometimes think of the body as a home. The way a home functions—whether it is neat or disorderly, well-maintained or run down—is clearly related to who lives in the home. How the body-home functions is related from moment to moment to the conscious being living in that body. This does not require us to believe in a “soul” that lives in the body like a ghost in a machine (though some may prefer that view). It simply means that our consciousness has a direct effect on the pharmacy of the body. In turn, all those inner chemicals have a direct effect on our immune systems. This is the central finding of what I consider one of the most exciting areas of research in mind-body health: psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). This mouthful of a word simply means that what happens in our psyche influences our neurochemistry, which in turn influences our immune system, which determines a lot about the state of our health.
A full embrace of the mind-body-spirit model of health requires letting go of the distinction between real symptoms and “all-in-your-head” symptoms. All symptoms are real. Thoughts and emotions turn into chemicals that can produce relaxation or tension, pleasure or pain, health or disease.
We all know the mind-body-spirit connection in some very simple ways. When we have the emotion of embarrassment, a chemical change happens in the blood vessels of the face. We call this blushing. Is the blushing not “real” because we know it was triggered by embarrassment? We also know the mind-body connection when we have “butterflies” in the stomach or notice that anxiety can cause reactivity in our bowels or bladder.
It’s hard to believe that mainstream physicians did not believe that emotions affect blood pressure until researchers demonstrated it in the 1950s. Moment-to-moment thoughts and emotions translate into chemical changes that affect the dilation or restriction of our blood vessels. Like the Geico commercials, we can say “Everybody knows that,” but we still don’t realize that blood pressure is just the tip of the mind-body-spirit iceberg. It’s likely that any function in our bodies can be affected by our momentary and chronic states of consciousness.
A full embrace of the mind-body-spirit model of health requires letting go of the distinction between real symptoms and “all-in-your-head” symptoms. All symptoms are real.
We might think the common mind-body connections discussed above are categorically different from more puzzling symptoms that cause greater distress, pain, or debilitation. We’re not used to realizing that the body, mind, and spirit are integrated 24/7/365 and that any part of our health can be affected positively or negatively by how peacefully, or not peacefully, we are living in our bodies.
A surprising question to ponder about the blushing reaction is: Why does the face turn red when we are embarrassed? Why not the feet? It appears that our thoughts and emotions not only turn into chemical changes that cause bodily changes, but those changes can be targeted to particular parts of the body. The face is the perfect place for blushing to appear because the consciousness that leads to blushing is not wanting to show our face.
I worked with a patient once who said that if she went for a knee exam, her knee would turn red before it was looked at by the doctor. She also told me her back turned red before she received the scratches on it required for testing by her allergist. I have many times seen a patient—often a woman in a couple counseling session trying to find her voice with a domineering husband—break out in red blotches right in the area of her voice box. Fascinating!
Here’s what I’ve been wondering lately: What if the whole body is conscious? What if consciousness is not just sitting up there in our skulls but is diffusely present throughout our bodies? I’ve begun to wonder why we would assume that when the spinal cord exits the brain (conscious) it becomes little more than a wiring system (not conscious). What if the nervous system is more like brain tissue that goes to every part of the body? When we begin to think this way, it is no mystery that our consciousness can affect our health in myriad ways.
To some these thoughts may sound “out there.” No one fully understands what consciousness is. I think our limited way of thinking about it restricts our ability to appreciate how deeply integrated we are in mind, body, and spirit. I was amazed recently to hear one of the world’s top trauma experts make the same point. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, said, “We hear a lot about mind-body-spirit. But I don’t think that way. It’s all body.” He was not trying to deny the importance of mind and spirit. He was saying those parts of us are so deeply integrated with the body that we cannot separate them.
Candace Pert, PhD, discovered the opiate receptor in the brain and became Chief of the Clinical Neuroscience and Brain Biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health in the early 1980s. She wrote a book called Molecules of Emotion that summarized her research indicating that individual cells in our bodies behave as if they have a basic consciousness. Reading her book made me think of what Aldous Huxley called “physiological intelligence”—the amazing way that countless parts of our bodies seem to know how to perform highly sophisticated functions without our awareness.
Wondering whether the whole body is conscious is interesting, but how can it help us with our particular symptoms that may be related to our patterns of thought, emotion, or stress? Many people turn to alternative care when they cannot find answers in mainstream care. That often involves taking various supplements or receiving alternative treatments that we hope will fix the body. But if we seek such treatments to fix the machine of the body we are not yet embracing the deepest approach to how integrated we are as human beings. No matter what kind of care we’re receiving, we need to remember that the person living in the home of the body is constantly affecting how the body functions.
An approach I have used with patients that often moves rapidly toward resolving symptoms is to assume that the body is trying to communicate through symptoms. If we dialogue with symptoms (“Why are you here now and why are you showing up in this particular way?”) we acknowledge that engaging our diffuse-body consciousness with our higher consciousness can begin to allow symptoms to diminish.
Relating to the entire body as if it is conscious might be something like relating to a dog. We know a dog is a conscious being, but we don’t expect it to communicate in our language. We might wonder about the mystery of what’s going on in a dog’s consciousness, but we know it’s there and that it affects the dog’s behavior. Likewise, the consciousness that is diffuse in our bodies does not communicate directly or in a language we may easily identify. There’s a certain mystery to how this diffuse body consciousness behaves in us. Nonetheless, just as we can make a wonderful connection with a dog, we can learn to connect with the consciousness of our own animal body. It starts with bringing our higher, verbal consciousness to our lower, animal consciousness. We ask our body what it’s up to, or even why the symptoms it has chosen might be a perfect expression of something going on in our life.
This approach to health can be tricky for a couple of reasons. First, nothing in this whole-body consciousness approach needs to lead us to blaming or shaming ourselves if we fall ill. Just as life is a mystery, we must let illness be also. We need to be careful about thinking we can completely figure out why we or someone else became ill. Second, I don’t advocate for an either/or approach to the benefits of mainstream medicine or pursuing mind-body-spirit approaches to symptoms that mainstream medicine can’t figure out. Both approaches have their place. In my work with patients, I generally do not suggest the idea of dialoguing with symptoms until a patient is satisfied that a thorough workup by physicians has not produced answers.
I have worked with patients with vertigo, chest pain, back pain, headaches, rashes, numbness, bowel problems, pelvic pain, tear duct disorders, tinnitus, and more who have found relief from pausing their efforts to get rid of symptoms and assuming symptoms are communicating something important to them. One patient who struggled with debilitating vertigo still contacts me periodically years later to tell me that he tells every physician he knows about how he was “cured.” All I did after learning that medications and treatments offered by specialists had not helped him, was suggest he ask himself: “What’s making my head spin?” He had lots to say about that. I told him to thank his vertigo for telling him his head was spinning too much and ask it if it would back away. The next day he called with jubilation in his voice: “It’s gone!” It never returned.
When my patient began looking at his whole life, his vertigo seemed to say “Thank you for listening” and quickly disappeared. My experience using this approach with my health is having symptoms diminish gradually over a period of time when I finally listen to them and assume they represent a message from a whole-body consciousness I don’t fully understand.
Read more from Soul of Therapy with Kevin Anderson: “Humbling Reminders to Live Heavily Meditated.”