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Symptoms Are the Body's Wisdom

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The days of denying that the mind and body are a unit has been replaced with scientific evidence to the contrary (Pert, Candace, Ph.D., Molecules of Emotion, New York, Scribner, 1997). Some still either deny this phenomenon or have trouble wrapping their brain around it. While there is no requirement that you subscribe to this belief, if you are suffering with mental, physical or existential pain, you might want to reconsider.

My training in mind/body therapy was extensive and I dedicated myself to practicing all aspects of what I had learned so I could teach with authenticity. One of the things that I learned from Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of and my teacher at Harvard's Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine where I took my training, was that when it comes to overall health, doctors can offer surgery and pharmaceutical solutions. But according to Dr. Benson, as much as 75 percent of what brings people to their doctor results from a failure of self-care, something that doctors cannot do for us. (Benson, Herbert, Timeless Healing, New York; Scribner, 1996, page 23); Let's call self-care using your mind to take care of your body. The mind/body interventions that I learned and that I teach focus on this missing piece.

Mind/body approaches can be cognitive, meditative or a combination of the two. (And all approaches are about stress management, since life on planet earth is about coping with inevitable stress.) Cognitively, you can ask yourself what needs to change to mitigate the stress in your life. What is the problem and what is the solution? For example, one cognitive exercise that I teach is called cognitive restructuring where you can learn to transform (and therefore get relief from) negative thinking. Negative thinking is universal, emanates from within and intensifies the experience of stress.

Meditative approaches commonly rely on the breath, our built-in tranquilizer, which can serve as a metronome to hold your attention in both a mindless and mindful way, squeezing the tumult that may be intensifying stress to the outskirts of your awareness. In this way, the spasm of stress is broken, providing relief. There are many meditative techniques to be learned.

One mind/body exercise that can reveal the truth about what is really going on is journaling, which can be both cognitive and meditative. Journaling is a recommended part of the program because at the very least it is a way to discharge built-up tension, and at most it is a way of getting in touch with inner wisdom. When I wanted to be able to speak of journaling's effectiveness by virtue of my experience of it, I began to write in a journal on a daily basis.

At one point, coincident with this practice, I had a pain in my hip that wouldn't go away. Yoga relieved it for a little while. Massage relieved it for a little while. A hot bath relieved it for a little while. No matter what I did, it always came back. But then, as I journaled in a stream of consciousness manner, I surprised myself by writing, "And Edith is a real pain in my a**." No sooner were the words on paper than I felt the pain in my hip let go. My body was not going to give up on the pain until I identified the deep-down source. Once I recognized who Edith really was (the wisdom supplied by my pain), my body let go of kicking me in the butt.

Perhaps you need an experience to open your eyes to the way that the body "speaks," confirming the unity of mind and body. What we experience mentally lands in the body. What we feel in the body impacts the mind. It's a two way street.

Mind/body techniques have so much to teach -- mostly about how you can be empowered to bring healing to yourself, by virtue of the self-care that Dr. Benson cited as the missing component of overall health. Say it another way, empowerment is about developing mind/body coping skills that facilitate awareness of the message inherent in the symptom.

I write this at the risk of sounding simplistic. Sometimes the complications of trying to understand the message in a symptom have complications. You may need professional guidance to puzzle through the message to find relief. There is no magic. There is no stress-free existence. Life happens. It just happens with much more intensity at various times, as adversities of all kinds come and go. Mind/body stress reduction skills are a program for life. Leaning these ways of coping with stress is only the beginning. The bad news is that they only help if utilized. The good news is, if utilized they help enormously.