“It can perhaps be conjectured that unresolved trauma is responsible for a majority of the illnesses of modern mankind.” – Peter Levine, Ph.D.
For much of the 20th century, the human body was treated as a machine, and epidemics, germs and viruses were the targets of the pharmacology-based approach to sickness and disease.
Over the last 40 years, the focus has started to change, initially thanks to the science of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). Classically, neuroscientists have dealt exclusively with the brain, endocrinologists with the glands and hormones of the endocrine system, and immunologists with the blood cells of the body’s immune system and the organs that produce them (the spleen, bone marrow and lymph nodes). However, the pioneering work of Dr. Candace Pert has shown that these three systems are inextricably linked “in a multidirectional network of communication, linked by information carriers known as neuropeptides.”
PNI demonstrates that each cell of the body has a number of different receptors, which different neuropeptides can attach to. Each cell operates in the way it does because of the particular neuropeptides that have attached themselves to it. These neuropeptides are dependent on our endocrine system and the mental and emotional states or moods that we have experienced throughout our lives.
With one sort of experience we release one set of hormones that bind to cells in a particular way, leading them to operate in a certain way, while with another sort of experience we release a different set of hormones that bind to different receptors in the same cells, leading them to operate in a different way. Simplistically, one set of emotional experiences will lead to good health and another to dis-ease.
When we understand this, we’re able to realize that if we really want to be healthy, we can’t just treat physical symptoms of depression and ill health—we need to get down to the emotional and psychological causes of these problems. As Dr. Allan Schore of the clinical faculty at UCLA writes in The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy, “there is a growing consensus that human disease states fundamentally involve a dysregulation of an organism’s psychobiological stress coping systems.”
To discover the psychological causes of our stress and disease, we have to be brave enough to revisit our repressed wounds and traumas. Only by seeing, acknowledging and releasing these can we heal and learn to love ourselves just as we are, relinquishing the past to allow ourselves to live fully in the present.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the preferred safe space to do this kind of work was often with a psychotherapist, and talking would be used in attempts to unlock the unconscious mind. But recent discoveries in neuroscience have led to the conclusion that talking to the mind is not enough, or at least talking to the left brain, the source of language, is not enough. We also need to access the memories stored in the body, in each and every cell, a process that necessitates the use of the non-verbal language of the right brain.
It is now known that the structure and functionality of the left and right hemispheres of the brain are very different.
|Left hemisphere||Right hemisphere|
|Abstract and impersonal||Sees things in context|
|Excels at linear, sequential reasoning and systematic thought||Interested in the personal and in others as individuals|
|Precise and focused||Centre of empathy|
|The centre of language and symbol manipulation||Orbitofrontal cortex is essential to emotional understanding and regulation|
|Appears to see the body as an assemblage of parts, something from which we are relatively detached||Regulates the neuroendocrine interface between the body and emotions|
|Needs certainty, needs to be correct||Responsible for our sense of our body as something we live in|
|Things are explicit, compartmentalized, fragmented and static||Specializes in non-verbal communication|
It’s the right hemisphere that controls the neuroendocrine system that’s responsible for dis-ease or health, and it’s the right brain that’s associated with our body, our emotions and our connectedness to others.
This rapidly leads us away from cognitive psychotherapy (the domain of the left brain), to affective psychotherapy (the domain of the right brain). Schore writes, “at the most essential level, the intersubjective work of psychotherapy is not defined by what the therapist does for the patient, or says to the patient (left-brain focus). Rather, the key mechanism is how to be with the patient, especially during affectively stressful moments (right-brain focus).” (emphasis added)
Fortunately, being with the patient, with a focus on the right brain, seems to lead naturally to working directly with the body. It’s our bodily experiences of stress that make us sick and our bodily experiences during trauma that are triggered and re-enacted after the fact.
Peter Levine is an expert on trauma that is held within the body. As he describes it in his recent book, In An Unspoken Voice, “In order to unravel this tangle of fear and paralysis, we must be able to voluntarily contact and experience those frightening physical sensations; we must be able to confront them long enough for them to shift and change.”
Undoubtedly, bodywork can be done on our own, using a variety of proven techniques that enable us to interact with the endocrine and nervous systems in a positive way, in order to reduce the impact of stress on the body. These techniques include meditation, breathing techniques and movement practices such as Kundalini yoga and 5Rhythms dance. The intention of all these is to switch the nervous system from being dominated by the sympathetic division (which stimulates stress) to the parasympathetic division (which promotes ease).
But, of course, it can be painful and difficult to contact and experience our fears, guilt, shame, anger, feelings of rejection and abandonment, and all the other frightening sensations and judgments we carry around. For many people, this is too much for them to face alone, so they need the support of a bodywork therapist in a safe space.
One of the key ways that I help clients reconnect with their bodies and release the stress and dis-ease embedded in the various cells is by holding specific body parts. I feel them and talk to them, giving them a voice of their own and allowing them to express their memories and needs through sound or movement, separate from the requirements of the loquacious left brain-driven head.
It’s amazing what arises when neglected parts of the body are held and acknowledged and given permission to speak and move. Often, the two legs may have very different things to say, or an injured part of the body may want to be acknowledged and be allowed to release its trauma. I often invite the heart to express what it needs and desires, and the sexual organs, likewise. Of course, it’s also important to allow the head to respond to the other parts of the body.
As the body parts are allowed expression, significant conflict may arise. Quite frequently, the head may not like what it hears from the heart or the sex centre, or the heart and the sex centre may be unable to communicate. The aim is to move towards a resolution, with the body parts, energy centres and mind working together, rather than in opposition. But the first step has to be allowing disagreements to be expressed and acknowledged. This permits the left- and right-brain ways of thinking and being, represented by the head and the body (often aligned with the survivor and the traumatized parts of the psyche, respectively), to move towards integration and harmony, releasing painful memories from every cell of the body and allowing for a different flow of neuropeptides.
Due to years of experience, Levine is optimistic that bodywork is capable of providing a solution to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes very quickly. He states, “It is also possible to eliminate, sometimes instantaneously, psychosomatic, emotional and psychological symptoms that may have plagued you for decades.”
What may be hard to visualize at the beginning of such a journey is that if we can look at our wounds and mistakes with compassion and without fear, we may discover that they also hold lessons and gifts. If we can just be brave enough to enter the shadows and the places we fear to tread, we may come to our greatest insights and realizations. But we’re unlikely to get there solely through the mind and the left brain. Instead, we must involve the right brain and each and every cell of the body, as these contain pain and wisdom that we need to explore.