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Self-Regulation for Immune System Disorders; part 2

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Message Patricia Norris
Continued from part 1 Self-Regulation for Immune System Disorders

Exercise is another important element of health that is included in our wellness model. Recommendations for exercise are individually tailored to meet the preferences and comfort of the patient, but the emphasis is on improving flexibility, muscle tone, and general health. Symbolically, exercise gives a message to our bodies that we are building our strength, and moving toward health. Taking part in as many healthful things as possible gives the whole self a message, consciously and unconsciously, of the intention to get well, that the process of getting well is already occurring.

Diaphragmatic Breathing:
Good breathing is an essential part of good health. Proper diaphragmatic breathing promotes efficient gas exchange in lung cells and rehabilitates oxygen deficiency disorders, balances the autonomic nervous system, reduces physiologic correlates of anxiety, massages the mesentery and splanchnic areas (promoting better blood flow) and pumps the lymphatic system, particularly the cisterna chylii. Breathing also can have a profound effect on states of consciousness, and conversely, breathing styles are often a reflection of states of consciousness. Rapid, shallow breathing is often a sign of anxiety and has long been noted to be a secondary consequence of panic and fear. Almost everyone who does rapid shallow breathing for a few minutes experiences feelings of anxiety, and in agoraphobic patients this procedure provokes symptoms identical to those of panic attacks.

The breathing cycle is intimately connected to both sympathetic and parasympathetic actions of the autonomic nervous system. Conscious deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best ways to quiet the autonomic nervous system. It has the effect of initiating a cascade of visceral relaxation responses. As yogis have long maintained, breathing, more than any other bodily activity, can be either voluntary or involuntary, can be either conscious or unconscious, and can therefore serve as a bridge between conscious and unconscious psychological and physiological processes.

Our therapeutic protocol includes exploration of mental and emotional stresses preceding the onset of cancer, present life stresses, and psychological and psychotherapeutic issues such as denial and repression, hope, grieving, and attitude toward death. We use a theoretical model for psychological self-exploration, growth and transformation based on Psychosynthesis. Goal setting, and participating as fully as possible in living, engaged in productive, enjoyable activities are encouraged. They constitute a conscious "vote for life."

Biofeedback, Stress Management, Psychopysiologic Self-regulation:

Biofeedback-assisted self regulation plays three vital roles in clinical psychoneuroimmunology. First, it ameliorates stress, and for a cancer patient, there is a triple stress to deal with, (1) the stress which predated the cancer, which seems to almost always have been present as a factor leading to its onset, (2) the stress of having cancer and dealing with the threats to self image, identity and personal security, and (3) the stress of a treatment that can be painful, frightening, and depleting of energy and healing resources.

On the other hand, the acquisition of volitional self-regulation modifies how stress is perceived, and modifies the physiologic responses to stress. Biofeedback helps provide skills and resources for dealing with stressors, for seeing stress as a challenge, and as a learning opportunity. Learning to control physiologic responses to stress generally leads to a sense of energy and exhilaration, as opposed to worry and despair, and this has a powerful healing effect. Learning to control stress responses means learning to manage limbic system perurbations. Limbic arousal increases adrenergic and cholinergic responses, and has mutagenic effects such as decreased lymphocyte production, impaired natural killer cell activity, and decreased phagocytosis. At the very least, learning to lower limbic arousal decreases these mutagenic effects, and may well reverse them.

The basic biofeedback strategy for stress management is to be able to achieve, and eventually maintain, (1) warm hands, accomplished by lowering sympathetic nervous system tone, promoting quiet emotions; and (2) relaxed muscles, promoting a quiet body. Often a quiet body and quiet emotions are sufficient for promoting a quiet mind, but sometimes we use EEG alpha and theta training to reduce mental stress and achieve mental quietness. A quiet body, quiet emotions, and a quiet mind constitute the physiologic state that is most conducive for visualization to be effective.

In addition to stress control, biofeedback training often helps patients to ameliorate many of the side effects of medical treatment, reducing pain, anxiety, nausea, fatigue. This promotes healing, and makes patients feel more in control of their own physiologic responses. This "benign circle," as opposed to the "viscious circle" of negative thinking and "feeling worse," helps patients stimulate, or direct, or reinforce, their healing processes.

Visualization and Imagery:

Visualization and imagery are directed toward the specific healing process, and as a vehicle for conscious-unconscious communication of psychological and physiological processes. From the very beginning of therapy we make it clear that there is an inextricable connection of visualized imagery with biofeedback. In simplest terms, visualization tells our bodies what to do, and biofeedback tells us how well the body carries out our instructions.

It is necessary to differentiate between two complementary concepts, visualization and imagery. Visualization is the consciously chosen, intentional instruction to the body. Imagery is the spontaneously occurring, "appearing in consciousness" modifier, qualifier, or belief emerging from the unconscious. A two-way communication exists between visualization and imagery. Visualization acts as a message to the unconscious, which includes the subcortical parts of the brain, especially the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary axis. On the other hand, spontaneously arising images are messages from the unconscious to the cortex, to consciousness, and, like dreams, carry insights and symbolic meanings.

In starting out with a client, it is necessary to explore whatever conscious and unconscious imagery already exists regarding internal states of health and disease, what they imagine is presently occurring in their own body. Ready-made visualizations on video and audio cassettes, however much touted, are of only limited value, or of value only as examples for forming individualized imagery that matches the patient's own unconscious beliefs and conscious knowledge, about what is actually happening in their own body. Often it is necessary to help a client modify, or reinterpret, seriously misunderstood imagery or fearful fantasies about what may be occurring.

The goal of this first stage is to help the client be realistic about what the condition actually is, neither exaggerated or minimized, and to be optimistic about what can occur. In other words, a crucial part of self-regulation for amelioriation of immune system disorders is development of one's own individual visualization, using internal symbology which has deep unconscious personally unique meanings.

reprinted with permission from article at Life Sciences Institute of Mind-Body Health

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Psychophysiologic psychotherapist Patricia Norris, Ph.D. is a past president of AAPB with over three decades of experience with psychophysiologic self-regulation. She has specialized in psychoneuroimmunology applications, emphasizing (more...)
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