Psychosomatic Whack a Mole
I have long been a follower of Dr. Sarno whose latest book, “The Divided Mind” reminded me of what I have long believed and used in my practice. Many times I have been amazed at how the unconscious mind influences our consciousness, even our bodies. This is true especially when through childhood trauma, specifically abuse, when the horror is compartmentalized and then repressed so that the child can move on with minimal damage. Almost like a modern ship that can seal off compartments, so that a hole in its hull does not sink the whole ship, children can compartmentalize horrible trauma, such as sexual abuse, as a way to salvage what tatters of a childhood that have left. Just because we have sealed off the trauma does not mean that it does not affect us. Dr. Sarno details how these repressed traumas in our unconscious affect our conscious minds and our bodies by causing psychosomatic depression or anxiety or body pain, even organ malfunction such as in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
We have evolved from simple creatures into the complex animals we now are. Evolution does not throw good ideas away. The alligator’s brain does exactly what the alligator needs it to do, breathe, eat, defecate, procreate and hunt. Nature did not throw this basic design away but rather built on it. We have a base brain very similar to that of an alligator and it is responsible for basically the same things. When we moved into the next stage of development and became primates we evolved monkey brains and this allowed us to live in groups, make simple tools and get the basics the alligator brain wants but with less danger. Next we grew our neocortex, or modern brain. This gave us the ability to plan, engage in civilization, develop religions and get what the alligator and monkey brain wants but with the veneer of civilization to make it seem like we are able to practice altruism.
Freud said that we have an Id, an Ego and a Super ego. Not that we have these structures within our brain but that we form psychological structures within ourselves, some conscious and others unconscious. The id wants what it needs and resents anything that gets in the way of what it wants. It wants sex, food, no responsibilities etc. and it wants them now. The ego gets what the id wants but is smart enough to get it in a more socially accepted way. The Super Ego judges the Ego and Id and creates the need for us to feel good about what our Ego gets for our Id or judges us for taking shortcuts and guilt when we meet basic needs in socially unacceptable ways.
So the battle between our unconscious and conscious begins. Our unconscious, the realm of the Id, where we repress our baser selves for our sakes (jail is a drag) and for the sake of society and our consciousness, where we attempt to get our needs met in socially acceptable ways and then judge these actions. Our unconscious, where we have compartmentalized past trauma and repress current unacceptable drives, seethes with rage, anxiety and sadness. At times of extreme stress it can leak into our consciousness and our conscious mind to distract us with psychological issues like depression or anxiety or physical issues as in body pain in our muscles or joints or organ malfunction like Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Acid Reflux. For more details on this process read the many good books by Dr. Sarno.
As a therapist I am more interested in the cause not the symptoms because our consciousness can switch from one symptom to another, like a game of whack a mole.
I have had clients who, after extreme trauma in childhood, have compartmentalized to the extent that they have developed separate internal personalities each with distinct voices and temperaments. Some clients live within their main personalities but express basic forbidden drives with another and then protect themselves or judge all of this with a third aspect of themselves. When this occurs the client believes that these other personalities are not of them but outside their consciousness but through therapy the goal is to reintegrate them back in a cohesive whole again.
Other clients, when they have to make decisions, fear inner urges and so end up procrastinating or deciding against their own interests out of fear and then spend years second guessing themselves and heaping on the guilt. The self esteem we feel at a conscious level may be quite different from how we feel about ourselves at an unconscious level. This conflict has fascinated therapists from Freud to the Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioural (CBT) therapists of today.
I always try to address doable CBT strategies first as well as mindfulness, diet and exercise. Ensuring my client has the tools to affect change within their own lives before we move into areas of repressed conflict and unconscious extreme feelings of rage or sadness.
Knowing what we need to eat to be healthy versus what we want to eat. The giant processed food corporations know that you have taste buds set for sugar, salt and fat and they have brain washed us from childhood to want to eat the crap that they produce. With a huge part of our citizens facing obesity and type II diabetes, never mind ADHD and anxiety, what we put down our throats does matter. We tend to eat to satisfy conscious and unconscious needs not just our physical needs. Eating this way cannot be compensated for with only exercise because you can not outrun your fork. Avoid sugar, processed foods, energy drinks, pop, juice and simple carbs, like in pasta, breads and white rice. Eat lots of raw oats, nuts, berries, whole fruit, vegetables, and complex carbs, like brown rice or ancient grains. Supplement your diet with wild fish oils, flax meal and vitamin D especially in the winter if you live in Northern areas like Canada.
Aerobically exercising every second day for twenty minutes to two hours will keep us in shape as well as burn off the go fast drugs we create from our fight or flight system. Our little adrenal glands pump this stuff into our bloodstream and it makes sense to burn it off on a regular basis. If not we are floating in adrenalin and other exotic go fast drugs designed to help us run away from bears or chase after rabbits. These drugs can create anxiety, depression and sleep disorders if we don’t burn them off. Long term Cortisol can lead to auto immune disorders like colitis, arthritis and even heart disease. Adding some anaerobic bursts into our workouts will also help you reach your goals of burning off stress drugs and building your endurance. Short two minutes bursts of flat out cycling, running, power walking or swimming added to you aerobic exercise will make a big difference in your work out and how you feel after your work out. I prefer cycling as it allows me to exercise hard without the stress on my body running or even power walking can produce. I have trouble with swimming in pools because soaking in chlorine and walking in your average change room is not what I would consider hygienic but if you can find a lake or clean ocean go for it.
Through ANT Therapy (Google Dr. Amen’s ANT Therapy) we learn to recognize negative thoughts, reframe them into positive ones and then install them. We can then change the negative feelings into positive ones without the use of drugs like anti depressants. We can do a lot to control how we feel but it takes work and commitment. Mindfulness exercises like mindful breathing can help us relax our bodies and desensitize ourselves to our thoughts. Mindful breathing is best practiced twice daily, three minutes in the morning and for five minutes an hour before bed. Do this properly for a month and you will be amazed at the results such a simple exercise can produce.
So with tools like this I can help a client inventory their skills, strengthen weak one, establish new ones and extinguish dysfunctional one. After a few months they are empowered enough to go at it on their own and if they need more work have the skills to deal with exploring deeper repressed issues like childhood trauma.
We tend to run to the doctor for anti depressants before we do what we can to address the situation. We may need some meds but first do what you can with what you’ve got. We can watch what we eat, exercise aerobically at least three times a week, practice ANT therapy until it becomes a reflex or a habit, do our mindful breathing daily. By practicing these basic skills we can change how we feel drastically in about a month and by continuing to use these skills as maintenance we can change our lives for the better.
Read through my other blogs, on Mindful Breathing, The Mindful Meadow, and the Negative Narrator and others for more details. I have practiced these skills for almost thirty years and have taught hundreds to do the same. When they turn these skills into habits, what at first seemed clumsy or odd soon become engrained habits like brushing your teeth. Your mind is a very powerful organ; it can work for you or against you. It’s up to you to understand it as much as you can. Learn the basics and then if you need more help see a therapist who you feel you can relate to. Develop a relationship with your family doctor based on you doing your part. They can be an excellent coach if you take responsibility for your own physical and mental health.