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Stress and Illness: A
[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)
Arthritis is a disturbance of the motility of an organism. The arthritic joint is literally frozen due either to the pain of the inflammatory process or to degenerative processes in the articular surfaces. But the inflammation and the degeneration are both secondary phenomena. The disturbance in motility actually precedes the arthritic condition. We know from our study of persons with this condition that they have in their personality a strong conflict about the expression of aggressive impulses. This conflict is just under the surface in contrast to masochistic individuals where it is more deeply suppressed. The arthritic person tends to have a rigid character structure although masochistic tendencies are present. There may even be a marked schizoid element in the personality. It is the rigidity which predisposes the person to arthritis. For example, in hands which have some arthritis, one finds a tendency for contracture in flexion of the fingers. The arthritic hand in its contracted state often resembles a claw. One can surmise that the unconscious blocking of the impulse to claw is what creates the contraction.
In a case where the arthritis in the hands was very severe resulting in a pronounced claw-like malformation, I suggested to the person that her condition may be due to suppressed aggressive impulses. The suggestion was vehemently rejected. This person was an artist and saw herself as sensitive and considerate. Her ego image would not admit the possibility that she could harbor hostile or negative aggressive impulses. But since such impulses exist in all persons in our culture, her denial betrayed the conflict. The need to suppress them imposes a considerable stress upon the body.
However, as long as one has the energy to meet the stress, the person is in a state of resistance and symptoms of the illness do not develop. Energy depletion or additional stress in the form of a shock could throw the organism into the illness.
When the expression of feeling meets a strong hostile response from the environment the organism is thrown into a state of shock. Children are constantly being shocked by the negative responses of their parents. As we have seen the shock is due to the withdrawal of energy from the surface of the body. The effect of shock is to freeze the body into immobility. This shock is similar to that which produces the schizoid condition. In the latter case, the shock is more severe and more prolonged and results from a denial of the child's right to be. The schizoid personality is, therefore, locked into a state of frozen immobility. When the parents are less hostile and the shock in consequence is less severe, there is an energetic rebound which overcomes the frozen state. Some aggressivity is restored but the child soon learns to be careful not to antagonize his parents. He develops control over the expression of negative feelings through the formation of a superego. This control is manifested on the body level in the form of muscular tension and rigidity. The child has made a seemingly successful adaptation and the situation has become stabilized. The stress is still operative on an unconscious level. The organism is in the stage of resistance.
The arthritic attack generally develops following one or more shocks in response to some aggressive impulses. The shock need not and often does not result from some outside action. The person becomes frightened by his own aggressive feelings and unconsciously withdraws his energy from his limbs, which are his aggressive organs. The withdrawal of energy from the periphery of the body is generally followed by a resurgence of energy. This rebound or flow of energy back into the frozen joint produces the inflammation characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis and the associated pain. Such a sequence of events is in line with our basic concept that the illness represents the body's attempt to regain its full functional capacity.
Adele Davis, the famous nutritionist, who had been in Reichian therapy, tells the story of a woman who consulted her about an arthritic condition in her hands and elbows. In talking to the patient, Davis realized that the woman had a great anger towards her brother. Davis produced a pillow and had the woman beat the pillow with her fists to vent the anger. Immediately following this expression of anger, the woman's hands and elbows felt free from pain and in a short time the arthritic condition cleared up.
I have worked with a number of arthritic patients and I must confess that I have not had a similar result. I have not been able to get any of them to fully express their anger. My attempts to have them do so have generally resulted in a worsening of the arthritic condition.
And, consequently, they stopped the therapy. My failure was due to the fact that I never got them to express any real anger because they were too frightened or felt too guilty. So instead of getting the energy through into their hands and limbs, they withdrew energy leading to shock and an exacerbation of their illness. I have come to the conclusion that in the future I
would require the patient to confront his fear and guilt about his hostility before getting him to express anger.
Let us now look at ulcerative colitis. Wolfe who studied some of these patients says, "The patient with ulcerative colitis is characteristically an outwardly calm, superficially peaceful individual of more than usual dependence. On going beneath this calm exterior it becomes apparent that this outwardly placid person is 'sitting on a powder keg' of intense hostility, resentment and guilt." (Wolfe, Harold G., Stress and Disease, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Ill., 1953, p. 52.) But this description also fits many arthritic patients and even others who do not react with physical symptoms. We need to know why the attack strikes one person in the gut, another in the joints, and a third elsewhere. In part this answer can be supplied by an analysis of the patient's background. But another part of the answer must be derived from an analysis of the dynamics of the illness.
The withdrawal of energy from the lower gut is associated with the
emotion of fear. The basis for this statement is the language of the body.
In this language "to have guts" is to have courage. However,
since everyone has "guts," the expression makes sense only if it refers to the feeling
of the guts. A person who feels his guts has courage, the person who doesn't
is a coward, that is, frightened. Sensing or sensation is a function of the
energetic charge. Thus, when a person is very frightened, "scared shitless,"
as the expression goes, energy is withdrawn from the guts. This constitutes a state of
shock in the abdomen. The rebound or return of energy and blood produces the bloody
diarrhea of ulcerative colitis. This reaction is due to the fact that the "shocked"
state of the mucous lining of the gut cannot hold the returning charged fluid which then pours
into the colon together with the sloughed-off lining of the gut. In less severe cases,
the result is a mucous colitis. When the stress or fear is more severe, ulceration
occurs in the gut as Selye observed and there is bleeding into the intestine.
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