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Stress and Illness: A Bioenergetic View
[presented by Dr. Rae Baum, Ph.D.]
(Source: Alexander Lowen, M.D., Stress and Illness: A Bioenergetic View. Copyright © 1980 Monograph, with permission of the author)
Some explanation is required for the statement that despair is the typical attitude of the second half
of the twentieth century. I relate despair to the lack of love in life, not to love in the spiritual sense but to love in
the bodily sense of joy and good cheer. How much joy is there in our world? We are obsessed with power, productivity
and performance that the simple pleasures of life escape us. We are driven, to use a popular advertising slogan. Or,
to put it differently: we are slaves to an economic system that promises fulfillment but delivers frustration. The more progress
we make up the economic ladder the less freedom we have and without freedom, there is no joy. We can be fulfilled as human beings
only when our lives are rooted in our bodies, our animal nature and the earth. Unfortunately, our technological culture cuts us
off more and more from these fundamental connections. I despair of ever fully establishing my connections, gaining my freedom
or finding joy. But my despair is conscious and expressed. And since I donít believe in the system, I am not enslaved by
it. I can experience some joy in my life.
Given the characterological attitude in my personality I am more vulnerable to a heart attack than to cancer. Myocardial infarction may also be regarded as a common disease of modern, twentieth century man. I believe that my vulnerability to this disease stems from the rigidity of my chest which creates a stress for the heart. I have known a number of men who suffered heart attacks and each one was marked by a tight, rigid thorax held in an inflated position. To understand why rigidity of the thoracic cage constitutes a stress situation for the heart, we have to understand the emotional attitude expressed by the rigidity. Like all muscular armoring, it is a defense against being hurt. The rigidity of the chest wall functions like a breast plate protecting the heart. Of course, the feared hurt is not physical but emotional. In effect the person is saying, "I'll allow no one to touch my heart." This maneuver makes sense to the person because he has suffered a deep hurt. His heart was "broken" by the lack of parental love and understanding. So he protects his poor, "broken" heart by locking it up in a rigid cage.
But the heart longs to be free and open for without freedom there is no joy and without joy there is no love. Yet the person does not dare to soften his chest and open his heart; his fear of being hurt is too great. He is therefore trapped by the very defense he erected to protect himself. And his heart is literally trapped in its cage. The stress, in this situation, is created by the desire to break out and be free and the fear of breaking out or the desire to love and the fear of getting hurt. Caught in this conflict, the person is deeply frustrated and has a great resentment. But these feelings are not expressed because of a powerful sense of guilt stemming from the fear of love. This inner dynamic leads this individual into situations in which he feels trapped; it could be an unsatisfactory job or and unsatisfactory marriage. Unable to get free, he is vulnerable to a heart attack.
In my opinion the heart attack follows a reaction of panic in the individual. The panic is not experienced as such before the heart attack; rather, the myocardial infarction itself is experienced as panic. One might think, therefore, that the heart attack is the cause of the feeling of panic, but this view overlooks the fact that panic is the emotional attitude of persons who develop heart attacks. That panic is expressed in the rigid, over-inflated chest, and is the feeling of being trapped. Although we say "I feel trapped," it is more accurate to say "I feel panic because I sense that I am trapped." However, the rigidity of the chest wall which constitutes the trap and creates the state of panic is at the same time a defense against the perception of the panic. The armoring negates the personís vulnerability and panic while it expresses both.
Most persons who become ill are not aware of the forces in their personality which predispose them to illness. This lack of awareness allows the stress to build to the breaking point. The potential heart attack victim does not sense that he is trapped nor the panic associated with it. He may and often does take special measures to suppress this awareness. The most common means is the abuse of alcohol. This was illustrated by the case of a man who, after returning home in the evening from a high pressure job in the city, had several drinks before dinner following which he watched television until he fell asleep; a pattern he repeated almost every working day. It was the behavior of a trapped man who could not face his life situation. One morning on his way to his office he dropped dead of a heart attack.
If we can recognize in some individuals a predisposing cause of heart attacks, we can only guess at the precipitating cause. What happens to set off the coronary closure which causes the heart attack? Why does it occur at one moment and not another? Why this day and not an earlier one? We can answer that prior to the attack the person is in the stage of resistance or adaptation. He is coping, so it seems, with the stress. When an organism is in the stage of adaptation or resistance, it means that the stress has been overwhelming and that coping was achieved by mobilizing the reserve energy and the will. The nature of the stress that leads to CHD (coronary heart disease) was intensively studied by Rosenman and Friedman. That stress according to these authors resides in a situation in which a challenge to achieve or accomplish is accepted by an individual who "exhibits enhanced personality traits of aggressiveness, ambitiousness, competitive drive, is work-oriented with preoccupation with deadlines, and exhibits impatience and a strong sense of time urgency." Persons showing these traits are called Type A individuals. They frequently have high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol levels. The high blood pressure reflects a high intensity drive which is maintained by a rigidification of the arteries. The arteries, including the coronary arteries, of these individuals become more and more atherosclerotic. This hardening of the arteries which is associated with a narrowing of their lumen is the product of the stress these persons are under. The stage of adaptation is limited time-wise, as we know, by the available reserve energy and when that is used up, a breakdown must occur. This is a quantitative factor which operates in all illness.
The diagnosis of Type A individuals is most easily made by the personís physical characteristics according to Rosenman and Friedman. Some of these are an overall state of body tension (lack of body relaxations, upper chest breathing, taut facial musculature, explosive and hurried speech patterns, brisk and impatient body movements, etc.). These bodily signs express a degree of pain as well as drive. The sense of urgency also reflects an underlying panic. In fact the drive of the Type A individual is motivated by an unconscious panic. He is to break out or break free because on some level he feels trapped. There is no joy in the life of the competitive person and, by implication, no freedom. By the same token he has neither the time nor the energy for love. To my great surprise I found the following statement in a fortune cookie: "Love is a softening of the hearteries."
In addition to the predisposing effect of continuous stress, CHD is often precipitated by a new emotional shock which adds an extra burden of stress to an already over-burdened organism. In the case of heart attack, the new shock may be the failure of an attempt to break free from the trap. Strangely, it is just the attempt to break free which evokes the panic as an active force. I have seen this happen often in therapy where, hopefully, the person is prepared for such a development. The breakdown of the defensive position allows the suppressed feelings to emerge. If the defense is based upon a rigid chest wall, mobilizing the chest through deep breathing can evoke the underlying panic. This happened to me in my first therapeutic session with Reich which I described in Bioenergetics. The attempted break out can
take the form of a new move, a surge of feelings or an exciting thought. If the person
can't handle the ensuing anxiety or panic, he will close down the opening. Something
like this occurs during the heart attack which is a closing down of an artery in the heart which
may cause a closing of the heart itself.
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