Symptoms That Speak

Q I am interested in the body-mind connection. Do symptoms in the body reflect issues, experiences, or emotions that are in our minds? I would think so.

A Your belief is very similar to those held in Chinese medicine, ayurveda (a healing system originating in India), and what is now called integrative medicine and integral psychology. Freud discovered that “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” Recently, depth psychologists have discovered that the body is another road to the unconscious. Like dreams, bodily symptoms present information of which we’re unaware. In a dream, this information comes as symbols. In the body, it comes as symptoms. Many of you have heard the statement, “the body doesn’t lie.” The body is the direct expression of the psyche, and it’s difficult for the body to hide the truth of our internal experiences. This is both a blessing and a curse. The shape, aches, movement, twitches, diseases, and symptoms are the words the body uses to convey our authentic feelings. I have witnessed this phenomenon in counseling people for the last 14 years.

In his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life,” author Gregg Levoy has gleaned several examples from medical research where people’s symptoms reveal what is missing in their lives:

A man suffering from lower-back pain whenever he sits down experiences a complete reprieve of his symptom when he realizes, “I hate where I’m sitting,” and quits his desk job to start his own company. A woman whose doctor says he can find no physiological reason for her internal bleeding says she can’t help feeling that “I’m crying from the inside out.” A man who suffers a heart attack after having stomach cancer, which necessitated the removal of half his stomach, concludes: “Eat less, love more.”

What is the most helpful and healing attitude with which to meet our illnesses? Stephen Levine, author of One Year to Live, says: “We are responsible to our illness, not for our illness.” Rather than using sickness to beat yourself up, it’s better to understand

Symptoms That Speakthat illness and pain are designed to get our attention. The question is not so much what to do about our suffering, but what to do with it. Being responsible, Levine says, means asking not, “why am I ill?” but rather “what is illness?” Not, “why am I in pain?” but “what is pain?”

There are many modalities to access the underlying issues or messages behind physical symptoms. By relaxing, being with, and observing your body, you can ask what your bodily experiences might convey. Insights and feelings begin to emerge. Thus, your symbolic body connects with your insightful mind. This body-mind communication is the first step in healing. Feelings associated with symptoms may begin to arise. You might get sad, angry, tense, relaxed, anxious, powerful, weak, fearful, and feel grief or loss.

Allowing those feelings to surface will help release tension and pain in the body. You can then learn to directly express the underlying issue through words, not symptoms. This congruency helps creates confidence, strength, and well-being.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393.


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