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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.)

A. The Nature of Illness
B. The Nature of Stress

    (available upon request)

C. The Psychosomatic Illnesses

In this section I will present my ideas about certain illnesses which, I believe, are largely determined by stress.  These are the psychosomatic illnesses so-called because there is no specific etiologic agent solely responsible for the disease.  In the genesis of these illnesses emotional factors play an important role.  But in a broad sense all illnesses are psychosomatic because a person's attitudes and feelings influence both the onset and course of the disease.  For example, even in such a disease as tuberculosis where the etiologic agent is known.  Holmes found that "in two years prior to the onset of tuberculosis, a highly significant number of life changes was experienced by those who got the disease."  (Thomas H. Holmes, Life Situations, Emotions and Disease, Psychosomatics, Vol 19, No. 12, Dec. 1979, p. 753.)
     The emotional and personality factors in illness have been extensively studied.   Psychosomatic Medicine by Weiss and English has been a classic for many years.  It is interesting to note that ... English was analyzed by Wilhelm Reich.  Another important book on the subject is Mind and Body by Flanders Dunbar, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine.  She was married to Theodore P. Wolfe, who brought Reich to the United States and translated several of his books into English.  The wealth of published material on psychosomatic factors in illness is enormous.  It is not my intention to review the literature.  I would like to offer some new insights into these illnesses based upon an understanding of the energy process involved in the underlying stress condition.  I believe it is well known that Reich was my teacher and analyst.
     When I was in medical school in the years 1947-1951, I became interested in tuberculosis because I thought I could sense the emotional element in the disease.  My interest also stemmed from my association with Wilhelm Reich and from my experience as a Reichian therapist for two years prior to going to medical school.  Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then known, was a fairly common disease in the nineteenth century.  It entered into the literary productions of that period.  Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is the best known but not the only story of life in a sanitarium.  More important for our purposes is the picture of the consumptive heroine in the story, La Dame Aux Camillias, upon which the opera, La Traviata is based.  In my view, the romantic longing of the heroine is associated with consumption.  I see the person being consumed by a longing that cannot possibly be fulfilled.  The same element of romantic longing is found in the music of Chopin who also suffered from tuberculosis.
     Why should romantic longing be associated with pulmonary tuberculosis?  Longing or the desire for closeness is experienced as a flow of excitation along the front of the body which charges the mouth, lips and arms.  It is the feeling that would make a child or infant reach out to its mother for contact or to nurse.  The fulfillment of that desire in a child leads to bliss; but if the oral needs of the child are not satisfied, the longing persists into adulthood as an aching pain in the chest and throat.  In the nineteenth century when breast feeding was common, children knew this bliss.  But when they were weaned too early, the search for oral fulfillment which equals bliss becomes transformed into the search for a romantic love which cannot possibly fulfill the oral need.  For an adult, fulfillment is possible only on the realistic level of sexuality as orgasm not on the romantic level of love as bliss.  In the romantic individual of the nineteenth century, who was also sexually inhibited, the unfulfilled oral longing was held in the chest creating tension and imposing a stress upon the lungs.  This stress predisposed the person to tuberculosis.
     The emotional stress of unfulfilled oral longing is not the only causative factor in this disease.  The person has to be exposed to the germ.  It has long been recognized, however, that not every person exposed to the germ develops the illness.  We must look, therefore, for other factors.  Poor living conditions, overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, lack of fresh air and exercise, and fatigue operate to deplete a person's energy and make him unable to cope with infection.  However, the person's characterological attitude is the factor that largely determines what illness he will develop if the stress of life becomes unbearable.
     If tuberculosis can be considered the representative disease of the nineteenth century in part because it was related to the romanticism of that century, what disease is associated with the attitude of twentieth century individuals?  When I posed this question to my friends after having described the relationship of tuberculosis to the romanticism of the past century, they immediately answered cancer.  I had thought the same thing.  This means that there is an emotional attitude which has the same relation to cancer that romantic longing has to tuberculosis.  It would also be the typical attitude of the second half of this century.  This attitude is despair.  The idea that disease and culture are related is expressed by Henry E. Sigerist.  He says, "In every epoch certain diseases are in the foreground and...are characteristic of this epoch and fit into its whole structure."  (Henry E. Sigerist, as quoted in H. G. Wolfe, Stress and Disease, op.cit., p. 2.)
     Let me say that Wilhelm Reich had the same idea.  He proposed that the terrain in which cancer developed is emotional resignation.  He described the cancer process as a shrinking of the life energy in the body and the cancer cells as a product of the disintegration of normal tissue.  Anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the cancer process than is offered by traditional medicine should read Reich's book, The Carcinomatous Shrinking Biopathy.  However, despair is not the same thing as emotional resignation for despair does not exist without hope.  When hope is lost or given up, despair becomes resignation which is a surrender to death.  In the cancer patient these emotional attitudes are not conscious.  It is characteristic of the cancer patient to deny his despair and, later, the emotional resignation in which it ends.
     The denial of despair creates a situation of stress for the organism which slowly depletes its energy reserves.  This is clear when we realize that the denial consists of a program of seemingly meaningful activity enveloped in a facade of optimism.  The false optimism is a defense against the underlying despair and prevents its discharge in weeping and wailing.  The activity, too, leads nowhere since it is unconsciously designed to deny the despair.  It takes considerable energy and will power to keep the body up and moving in the face of an intense desire to give up and let go.  When exhaustion finally sets in, the organism resigns itself to death and slowly surrenders its life.  That is the unconscious process.  On the conscious level every effort is made to maintain the facade of optimism and to carry on.  It may seem like a contradiction to say that if one gives in to despair, one finds life and joy, but it is true as I explain in my new book, The Fear of Life.  The despair stems from the experiences of childhood and represents one's helplessness to gain the love of the parents.  We are equally helpless as adults to gain love but our need is more to love than to be loved.  We also need to love ourselves.  On that level, we are not helpless and there is no real cause for despair.   To continue...

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