How does the body take on the mind’s problems?
There are many answers to this question. Stress hormones, nerves, and the immune system connect with various parts of the body. These are the physical levels of connection, which are wonderfully complex and have been well described in the medical literature . Our focus here will be on psychological and bioenergetic connections with the body.
Metaphoric imprinting of the body
If you repeat a word or phrase to yourself, or if it is said to you by an authority figure (particularly by your mother or father when you are in the early stages of learning about your relationships with the world), it may become imprinted in your unconscious mind. For instance, if you keep saying, “What a pain in the butt this is!” or if your father keeps complaining, “What a pain in the neck you are!” then your buttocks (or nearby tissues and organs, such as hemorrhoids or rectum) or your neck may listen to these words and respond by tensing up, going into spasm, forming blood clots (in hemorrhoids) and literally becoming an embodiment of those often-repeated, emphatic statements.
This is one of the ways in which the body acquires symptoms. As you can see from Table 1, there are countless metaphors and images of body language through which this could happen. For the most part, such imprinting occurs entirely outside your conscious awareness.
A pungently clear example was shared with me by a very gifted British healer who was invited to work in a pain clinic in Liverpool in England. For ten years Helen Smith offered healing to people who suffered chronic, intractable pain. She worked with groups of people, finding that this was both more effective and more time-efficient.
One day, a heavy-set man wearing a neck brace barged in during the middle of her group session, totally oblivious to the fact that he was interrupting the healings in progress, saying, “Is this the healing group? I was sent by my doctor to have healing. I don’t know anything about healing and don’t believe in healing, but he said he had nothing else to offer me.”
Helen was not your typical, understated English lady. She confronted him firmly, saying “I see you have a pain in your neck.”
“That’s most astute of you to notice,” he replied, with obvious sarcasm, “considering that I’m wearing a neck brace in a pain center.”
“So, who is the pain in the neck in your life?” Helen shot back at him.
“My wife!” he blurted, with surprise on his face.
“Well go home and sort that out, and then come to me for healing,” Helen said, with a wry smile.
Conventional psychology has learned that the unconscious mind is very literal. Under hypnotic suggestion this becomes exceedingly clear. A hypnotist may say to a good hypnotic subject, “Your hand is getting lighter.” With several repetitions of this instruction, the subject’s hand may start to rise into the air. Or the hypnotist may suggest, “Your other hand is so heavy that you cannot raise it.” The subject will struggle mightily but will be unable to lift that hand.
The unconscious mind has such powerful control over the body that it can even create redness and blisters if told that the skin is being touched with a hot metal rod, when actually it is being touched only by the hypnotist’s finger .
It is also possible to give self-hypnotic suggestions, through firm statements and many repetitions. This is commonly used for relaxation. In progressive muscle relaxation, for instance, you first tighten your muscles and then repeat phrases such as “Relax,” “Soften up,” or “Unwind.” With practice, you will be able to relax rapidly when you tell yourself the words that you have practiced for un-tensing your muscles.
Self-hypnosis may also be used for more complex repatterning of beliefs. Emile Coué is famous for promoting, “Every day, in every way, I am feeling better and better.” Repeating such phrases can program a person for a more positive attitude.
Self-hypnosis can also achieve even more unusual physical effects. For instance, children with hemophilia, a congenital bleeding disorder, have been able to use self-hypnotic suggestions to reduce their need for transfusions to one-tenth of the units of blood they required in the previous year. Hemophilia is caused by the absence of a particular clotting factor in the blood. We have no understanding, as yet, how self-hypnosis could overcome the bleeding caused by the lack of this factor in the body.
To summarize: Suggestion can be a mechanism for the production of body symptoms – through frequent repetitions of a negative phrase such as “What a pain in the neck you are/this is.”
Conversely, working on body symptoms through positive suggestions may lessen symptoms.
Body memory and energy cysts
The body may participate in memories in several ways.
If your back (or other body part) is injured or tense at the time of a traumatic experience, the emotional memory of that experience may become imprinted in that part of your body. This seems to happen more often when you don’t allow yourself to fully experience or express your feelings. The painful emotional memories remain buried in your body, as though imprinted on a tape recording.
“Sheila” was a 45 year old store owner who worked long hours. She was in a horrendous auto accident. Driving home from work late one night in the rain, she was stopped at a red light when a trailer truck skidded into the rear of her SUV, leading to a five-car pileup. Her car spun around and her head hit the side window. While physically battered, Sheila wasn’t seriously injured because she had her seat belt buckled. Two drivers, a woman passenger and her baby in the cars ahead of her in the pileup were less fortunate. They were pulled from their cars with multiple, bloody facial injuries and fractures, moaning and screaming.
Sheila was severely shaken, but calm and able to assist some of the injured until the ambulance crew took over. She required no treatment and was released after a brief exam in the emergency room.
Three months later, Sheila started to have severe headaches at the base of her skull, and in the back of her neck. Multiple examinations and pain medicines over a period of years were of no avail. She was referred to a pain management clinic, where relaxation exercises and massage were prescribed. During her first massage, vivid memories of the accident suddenly surfaced, with strong feelings of fear and anger. As the massage progressed, she started weeping, recalling that the baby had been pronounced dead on arrival in the emergency room.
As the massage continued, she suddenly recalled having had a spontaneous abortion many years earlier, after a minor auto accident in which she had also been rear-ended while stopped at a light. This memory was accompanied by wrenching sobs, as Sheila released grief that had been unacknowledged, unexpressed and buried beneath her conscious awareness for years.
Following this massage, she no longer had headaches or neck pain.
This is not an uncommon experience in massage and other bodywork therapies. Another, more profound example of an emotional release with massage is given by Peter Clothier, in an earlier issue of the IJHC (2001).
Psychotherapy may be an essential part of a treatment program to release energy cysts. This is too vast a subject to discuss in detail here. Suffice it to say that forgiveness is often required in order to release hurts and angers that bind us to illness. This is true for healing of personal, relational, and international problems.
*An expanded version of this article appears in Benor, DJ, The Body, International J of Healing and Caring – on line, http://www.ijhc.org September, 2002, 1-18.
(Continued in next column)