In wholistic medicine, the body is part of a larger system, including also emotions, mind, relationships (with each other and with the environment) and spirit. This tradition acknowledges that the body has its physical functions and processes that deserve full assessment and treatment. However, the body is not seen as the only level of being.
The mind has great influence over the body, and maladies often have their origin there.
Consciousness is an entity in and of itself. Consciousness is a level of being that can influence the body, as well as being influenced by the body. How consciousness comes into being, and how it relates to the physical body is explained in many variations on the theme of mind-body or bodymind approaches. (These are beyond the range of our present discussion.)
At one end of this spectrum are those who hold that mind and emotions are products of the physical body but that psychological factors may be act upon the body. Emotional tensions can activate stress responses that impact the body. For instance, the nervous system tightens the voluntary muscles of locomotion. Chronic muscular tensions can result in tension headaches, backaches, TMJ problems, and repetitive stress injuries. Involuntary muscles can tighten into asthmatic attacks in the lungs, irritable bowel syndrome and other dysfunctions in the gut, and into hypertension and circulatory disorders in the cardiovascular system. Adrenalin and stress steroids also tighten muscles, raise blood pressure, and alter immune system functions. Many conventional doctors accept some or all of these as possible mechanisms contributing to illness.
Some wholistic therapists stop short of hypothesizing motivating forces that extend beyond the body, other than social ones, staying close to the conventional medical model.
Further along the wholistic spectrum, the body is seen as an expression of spirit manifesting into the material plane of existence. Spirit is the primary level of existence. Spirit expresses itself through everything that is. Sub-units of spirit, human souls, incarnate as physical human beings. All of life, every particle and nuances of beingness and relatingness, is a part of the lesson of physical incarnation. Figure 2 diagrams this perspective.
Note that the arrows point in both directions, indicating that events at each level of being can influence our experiences with the other levels. For instance, physical and emotional experiences may heighten our spiritual awareness.
Regardless of your position along the wholistic spectrum, if you can conceive of connections between spirit, mind, emotions and body, many more interventions open up for addressing physical problems.
Much illness is unhappiness sailing under a physiologic flag.
Before wholistic therapists treat symptoms or illnesses, it is important to ask, ï¿½What is your body saying through these problems?ï¿½ My experience as a psychiatric psychotherapist is that simply asking this questionis often sufficient to bring a person to awareness of underlying stress factors.
We have many terms in common usage derived from body parts and functions. It would not be unusual to hear any of the following metaphoric body terms mentioned in casual conversation: I had a gut feeling that something was wrong, and bellyached to my friend about how my nose was bent out of shape. She cried her eyes out over this tearjerker, but after brooding over it for a while, decide to put her best foot forward and not be such a bleeding heart. After I spilled my guts over the problem, I had a good belly laugh at how foolish Iï¿½d been and breathed a big sigh of relief. (See Table 1 for a spectrum of such terms, and Humor$ for another tongue-in-cheek sampling of such terms.)
Table 1. Body terms and metaphors
BODY: disembodied; em–; — of (knowledge; water; work); politic
HEAD: ache, big, blow brains out; brainy; bursting, cool, dense; fat; foggy; fuzzy; good; have — examined; like a hole in the –; hot; — in a good space; into your –; light; migraine; numbskull; pig; poor — for; reaching a –; shit; splitting; stuffed; swelled/swollen; thick (head; skull)
MIND: blow; brainless; closed; deep; dreaming; drifting; –ful; fuzzy; –less; keeping in–; losing one’s–; muzzy; nervous (wreck); of two –s; open; out of one’s –; shallow; sleeping on decision; sticks in my –; thinker; thinking straight; thoughtful; thoughtless
NERVE(S): find; high strung; lost; nerveless; — of steel; nervous; nervy; rattled; raw; shaken; shattered; shot; some –; taut; tense; up tight; unnerving; wound up; wracked
BROW: beaten; furrowed; sweating; wrinkled
FACE/EXPRESSION: angelic; beatific; blanched; bland; blank; blushing; bright; chin up; closed; cloudy; crazed; distant; distracted; dog; flushed; friendly; frowning; glaring; happy; hateful; intense; jocular; kissy; moody; new; open; pale; Pale–; poker; red; rosy; sad; smiley; stone; stormy; sour; –the inevitable/music; thoughtful; two–; white; wishful; wistful
EYES: black; blank; bleary; blinded; bright; burning with desire; clouded; cried my — out; crinkled; cross-eyed (with tiredness or overwork); don’t want to see; empty; flash (came to me in a blink of an –); clear; cross-eyed; far away look; hawk–; scathing glance (look); keen; nobody home; red-eyed; sad; can’t see straight; seeing (is believing; the light); sharp; shriveled under gaze; shut–; sight for sore –; staring; steely; tearful; tearjerker; twinkling; weeping — out;
NOSE: bent (pushed) out of shape; big; blocked; bloody; brown –; cut off to spite face; gets up my –; nosy; Pinocchio; sniffs out; snooty; snotty; sticking — into someone’s business; stuffed
EARS: cloth; deaf; don’t want to hear that; –ful; keen; musical; sensitive; sharp; sounds (donï¿½t like the — of that; good/bad)
MOUTH: big; bigger than stomach; bite (has a — to it; lip; — off more than can chew; tongue); biting (remark; wind); chew (lip; on; up); fat lip; foot in –; chew on that; get chops around a situation; keep your — shut; loose tongue; puckered lips; pursed lips; sharp tongue; well, shut my –; shut up; slip of the tongue; smile; sour taste; speak (clearly; up); speechless; spit it out; stiff upper lip; tastes (bad, bitter, good, sharp, sour, sweet); teeth on edge; tight lipped; stuck tongue out at; tongue in cheek; tongue tied; toothless; voice (cool; crooning; grating; piercing; warm)
NECK: full up to my –; pain in the –; sticking — out; stiff
THROAT: can’t swallow down; choking on–; choked up; cough up; craw full; full up to–; sticks in my –; (can’t; hard to) swallow that; swallow down (feelings; insults; pride; sorrow)
CHEST: get it off –; puffed out
BREASTS: generous; giving; milk of human kindness; nurturing; weaning
LUNGS: breathe easy; blow (cool; gasket; hot and cold; it; off steam; stack; temper); blown away; can’t breathe; catch one’s breath; cough up; froze; holding one’s breath; puffing; take a breather; take a deep breath; wheezing along
HEART: ache; attack; big; bleeding; blood boiling; blood pressure up; break; cold; cross your — and hope to die; cruel; eating my — out; empty; — felt; frozen; full; –less; generous; good; have a –; heartened; — to heart talk; large; –less; light; lonely; open; palpitated; pierced; pressured; pure; –rending; sticks in my –; shaken to the core of my –; shut down; sick; skipped a beat; sticks in my –; stopped; swelled; warm; warmed; weighing on –; — went out to
BLOOD: bad; bleeding heart; –feud; –letting; bloody; — brother/sister; cold –; froze; in my –; red blooded; spilled; thin –; warm –;
STOMACH: assimilate; bellyaching; belly full; belly laugh; burns; canï¿½t –; digest; eaten up with anger; eating away at; eating (heart out; words); full (of it; up to); glutton (for punishment); going to pot; gut feeling; gutsy; hungry forï¿½; indigestion; in knots; lies heavy in gut; like a rock; rumbling; sick to –; sensitive; soured; spill guts; stewing; hard to stomach; stuffed; swollen; tears one’s guts apart; want to (could) vomit;
SPLEEN: –ful; splenetic; venting–;
LIVER: bilious; jaundiced; liverish;
KIDNEYS/BLADDER: holding back; big/little pisher; pissed drunk; pissed/peed off; wet knickers/pants;
WOMB/OVARIES: birthing (idea; project); broody; good flow; knocked up; menstrual (pre-, post); pregnant (expectation, pause)
PENIS/TESTES: balls (has, no); balled/balls-up; big balls; cock-(around; half –ed; up);
SEX: coming on; fuck (–er; –ed up; off); laid off; loose; orgasmic; oversexed; pimp; sexy; sleazy; sowing (and reaping) wild oats; turned on; undersexed; whore
ANUS/BUTTOCKS: ass; asshole; bum; butt (in, out); constipated; eliminate; fart; fat; holding (back; in, tight); jelly belly; pain in–; it all ran out of me; shit (head, hot, face; in pants); soft as a babyï¿½s bottom; squidgy; tight ass
BACK: — against the wall; –breaking; –up; backed into it; bent (over backwards, all out of shape); get one’s — up; –off; pat on –; pain in –; sit up and pay attention; stiff
ARMS/HANDS: biting the hand that feeds you; black/brown thumb; cold hands/warm heart; pain in the elbow; even handed; fighting tooth and nail; fingering; fumbling; giving the finger; green thumb; ham fisted; heavy handed; lend/lift a hand; living hand to mouth; light fingered; limp wrist; nimble fingers; on the one/other hand; raised a fist/hand; rule of thumb; sharp elbows; shook (finger; fist; hands); shrugging off; sticky fingers; stiff arm; strong arm; thumbnail sketch; all thumbs; thumbs up; tight fisted; two left hands; wash your hands of –
LEGS/FEET: Achilles’ heel; best foot forward; cold feet; down at the heels; went out feet first; flat footed; footing bills; foot in (grave, it; mouth); foot loose; leaving footprints in the clay of your being; grounded; kicking (the bucket; habit; myself; up a fuss); knees (turned to jelly; weak); on the ground; outstanding; run (amok; away; in family; loose); shot self in foot; stand (can’t–; last–; make a–; — firm; –tall); stepping out; sticking a foot out; stood up; stumblefoot; stand (alone; firm; proud; take a –; tall; together; –up; –up and be counted); two left feet; twinkle toes; walking a (narrow; straight) line; well heeled
MUSCLES: aching; bearing up; can’t bear; burdened; carrying a burden/load/weight; flexible; frozen; hang loose; overburdened; pull self together; rigid (with fear); rooted to the spot; runs (amok; cold; hot; in family); (having) shakes; stiff; in stitches; supple; up tight; (sick and) tired; weighed down; wobblies; wound up
SPINE/SKELETON: being straight; burdened; can’t bear it; carrying (a load; too much); chill went up my –; crooked; feel it in my bones; rigid; shivers up –; shoulder up; spine chilling; can’t stand –; stooped over; stooping to; stretched (too far; to breaking point); all twisted up; unsupported; uplifting; weighs down;
SKIN: allergic toï¿½; blushed; breaking out; burning up; made my — creep; flaky; flushed; itching to; pale; picking (at; on); pimply; red faced; thick; thin; ticklish; tore my — out;
HAIR: bad hair day; bristled; got someone by the short and curlies; hackles rose; hair turned grey; pulling my hair out; stood on end
TOUCH: aching to–; easy touch; smooth touch; tetched; tickled; touched; touching; touchy; untouchable
FEEL: bad; calm; emotional (overcome); feelings (bury, frenzied, good, hide, hurts toï¿½; uplifting), smooth; like square peg in round hole; tied up;
SPACE/DIRECTION: ambivalent; right direction; unable to move; moving; spaced out; don’t know which end is up; upside down; up tight; tears/rips (apart; up); turned around; upside down;
BALANCE: balanced; on an even keel; flipped out; im–; lost –; off one’s rocker; pushover; set me back; stand firm; un–; upset
FIGHT: for (attention; beliefs; life; rights)
TEMPERATURE: boiling (at the — point; blood –; mad); burning (mad; with desire); catch cold; cold (blood; temper); cool headed; froze (with fear); hot (and cold; anger; blood; for; head; temper; to go; to start; to trot); steaming; stewing
DEATH: cry oneself to –; dead (end; heat; on my feet; roll over and play); –of me; (nearly) died of (embarrassment; fright; shame); doing me in; dying to; end of me; ending up; .killing me; nearly died; scared to –; sick to –; slays me; wish I was dead
(List taken from Benor, DJ, Healing Research, Volume 2 Popular edition: How Can I Heal What Hurts? Medford, NJ: Wholistic Healing Publications 2005)
In one direction of usage, these are images and metaphors that express our awareness of ourselves in the world. We use words from our physical experience of life to describe aspects of our relationships with our mental, emotional and spiritual interactions with the outer worlds. We use these body language words because they are familiar, readily understood by others, and aptly describe how we relate to aspects of our lives.
Coming in the opposite direction, these same images may become lenses of usage which color our habitual perceptions of the world. If I am constantly bellyaching, then I may perceive many of my experiences with the world as a pain in the (neckï¿½ buttï¿½ etcï¿½).
Through repeated patterns of perception and use, these metaphors may actually shape our inner worlds in many ways and on many levels.
It is not surprising to learn that in different countries there may be different distributions of common psychosomatic problems. For instance, placebos have been enormously helpful to German people with stomach ulcers (up to 60 percent rates of healing), but far fewer respond in Brazil (7 percent). However, placebos are relatively ineffective in Germany for hypertension relative to responses in other countries (Moerman).
Anna Fels shares yet another cross-cultural perspective on body language.
A fellow psychiatrist once told me an anecdote I have never forgotten. He was at a conference about depression in developing countries. The essence of the lectures was that people in those areas commonly expressed depression as physical symptoms. They “somaticize” their depression, to use the medical parlance, complaining of malaise, stomachaches, dizziness and other symptoms that are hard to pin down.
Techniques were discussed for dealing with the patient who insists her only problem is a heavy head or a squeezing sensation in the belly, but who is clearly depressed.
Toward the end of the meeting, a doctor from India stood to speak. “Distinguished colleagues,” he said, “have you ever considered the possibility that it is not that we in the third world somaticize depression, but rather that you in the developed world psychologize it?”
Moerman, D. (2002). The Meaning Response: Rethinking the Placebo Effect, Cambridge Univ Pr 2002.
*An expanded version of this article appears in Benor, DJ, The Body, International J of Healing and Caring ï¿½ on line, http://www.ijhc.org September, 2002, 1-18.