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Women - Understanding the Body-Mind




Excerpted from
Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing
By Christiane Northrup, M.D.

The science of the mind-body connection, or psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), helps explain how the circumstances of our lives can affect our bodies. PNI and related research show that the hormonal and neurological events within the body and the subtle electromagnetic fields around and within the body form a crucial link between cultural wounding, which we think of as "psychological" and "emotional," and the gynecological or other problems women have, which we think of as "physical."

Many women who've survived sexual abuse, for example, divorce themselves from their bodies. Some experience themselves in their bodies only from the neck up. As one of my patients with continual menstrual spotting said, "I don't want to think about anything below my waist. I hate that part of my body. I wish that part of me would just go away." This was an important understanding for her; it indicated where she needed to take a step toward healing. Her menstrual spotting continually drew her attention back to a disowned part of her body that needed healing. An associate of mine sometimes has patients draw pictures of themselves. She told me of a patient with chronic pelvic pain who drew a self-portrait only from the waist up. My associate pointed out to this woman that maybe her pelvis, which she was leaving out, was using pain to try to get her attention.

If the science of the mind-body connection helps explain how our emotional and psychological wounding becomes physical, it also sup ports our ability to heal from those conditions. All distress, all healing of distress, and all creation of health are simultaneously physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual.

Up until fairly recently, scientists believed that information was passed linearly in the nervous system from nerve to nerve, just like in electrical wiring. But now we know that our body organs communicate directly with the brain and vice versa through chemical messengers known as neuropeptides, the release of which can be triggered by our thoughts and emotions. It used to be believed that receptor sites for neuropeptides were located only in the body's endocrine and immune system cells, as well as in nerve cells. Now we know that body organs such as the kidney and bowel also have receptor sites for these so-called brain chemicals. It's the same with blood cells and all immune system cells. These chemicals are part of the way in which our feelings directly affect our physical bodies.

Not only do our physical organs contain receptor sites for the neurochemicals of thought and emotion, but our organs and immune system can themselves manufacture these same chemicals. What this means is that our entire body feels and expresses emotion-all parts of us "think" and "feel." It is well documented, for example, that the gut makes more neurotransmitters than the brain. Moreover, white blood cells produce morphine-like pain-relieving substances, and those cells in turn contain receptor sites for the same substances. Thus we each have the ability to modulate pain without medication by virtue of the mind-body connection.

Herbert Benson, M.D., of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, believes that the gas nitric oxide is the key to the power of the placebo effect. The positive and hopeful emotions a patient feels when she's taking a medication she thinks might be beneficial trigger an increase in nitric oxide in her body, and the higher levels of nitric oxide in turn have a positive effect on her health-even if the medication contains no active ingredients. The effect of nitric oxide is experienced throughout the entire body instantaneously. Nitric oxide is also associated with lower blood pressure. Benson further suggests that higher levels of nitric oxide molecules in the brain can trigger yearnings that are linked with profound spiritual experiences.

Clearly the uterus, ovaries, and breasts are also profoundly influenced by nitric oxide and all the other neurochemicals of thoughts and emotion, which include hormones. The ovaries and adrenals are primary sites of hormone production. They, along with the uterus, vagina, and breasts, are also loaded with hormone receptor sites to receive messages from the brain, immune system, and other organs. It's easy, then, to understand that when we are sad, our female organs "feel" sad and their functions are affected. And when we are happy, our female organs respond in kind.

Our thoughts, emotions, and brains communicate directly with our immune, nervous, and endocrine systems and with the organs of our bodies. Moreover, although these bodily systems are conventionally studied and viewed as separate, they are, in fact, aspects of the same system. If the uterus, the ovaries, the white blood cells, and the heart all make the same chemicals as the brain makes when it thinks, then where in the body is the mind? The answer is, the mind is located throughout the body and even beyond. In fact, an extensive body of research on prayer has documented that our minds are nonlocal and have profound effects at a distance from our bodies.

Our entire concept of "the mind" needs to be expanded consider ably. The mind can no longer be thought of as being confined to the brain or to the intellect; it exists in every cell of our bodies. Every thought we think has a biochemical equivalent. Every emotion we feel has a biochemical equivalent. One of my colleagues says, "The mind is the space between the cells." So when the part of your mind that is your uterus talks to you, through pain or excessive bleeding, are you prepared to listen to it?

When I asked a married thirty-five-year -old lawyer who had a sudden onset of bleeding between her periods what was going on in her life, she bristled. "I think this problem is medical," she said. By that, she meant that the problem was purely physical and was not related in any meaningful way to the rest of her life. I gently explained to her that I would have asked her the same question had she broken her leg, and I pointed out that all symptoms are "physical." My patient then calmed down and told me the truth: Recently she had had an extramarital affair and was feeling guilty, and she was terrified that she had acquired a sexually transmitted disease. Her irregular bleeding had started soon after her affair began. This additional history enabled me to give her better and more appropriate medical care, while she learned that she didn't have to separate herself into unrelated parts.

One of my patients went to see a biofeedback therapist about shoulder pain caused by chronic muscle tension. While she was learning to relax the muscles of her shoulder; she noticed that her muscle tension increased whenever she was thinking certain thoughts. One of these thoughts was of being spanked as a child. Another was of her husband's ill health and its possible implications for her. On the other hand, when she thought of the positive aspects of her life, her muscle tension lessened. She came to see that her fears and beliefs were encoded in her body. Through biofeedback, she learned that her muscle tissue had feelings, thoughts, and memories that were part of her body's wisdom.

The mind and the soul, which permeate our entire body are much vaster than the intellect can possibly grasp. Our inner guidance comes to us first through our feelings and body wisdom-not through intellectual understanding. When we search for inner guidance with the intellect only-as though it exists outside of ourselves and our own deepest knowing-we get stuck in the search, and our inner guidance is effectively silenced. The intellect works best in service to our intuition, heart, inner guidance, soul, God, or higher power-whichever term we choose for the spiritual energy that animates life. Once we have acknowledged that we are more than our intellect and that guidance is available to us from the universal mind, we have accessed our inner healing ability. As William James once said, "The power to move the world is in the subconscious mind."



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