Healing – the ‘fine-print’
Written by Gunnel Minett
Healing has become a concept that is used in a variety of situations, usually assuming that we know what it means. Still most of us only know
the effects of healing rather than what healing itself involves. This applies in particular to psychological healing where a variety of different approaches have emerged since Sigmund Freud first introduced the idea of psychotherapy. As the different techniques have been established they have developed their own theories as to how healing works, sometimes contradicting each other and leading to discussion of what is right and wrong. It is not until recently that neuroscience has been able to actually identify the various parts of the healing process and offer more precise explanations.
Is it illness?
Freud, who started his career as a neuroscientist, saw a correlation between ‘malfunctioning’ brain processes and psychological problems. Although met with a lot of scepticism at first, he also realised that it was in fact possible to ‘cure’ psychological problems through simply changing our thoughts. A satirical song about Freud argues that when not enough people in Vienna got sick, he invented neurosis and psychosis to get new patients. Even if this is only a joke, the fact remains that with psychotherapy came the concept of psychological illness, either from biological malfunctioning or from a problematic life situation. Along these lines, and with the growing understanding of how the brain works, drug treatment has become a common cure. The brain is a biological computer run by chemicals and hormones (which most likely is why breathwork has such a powerful effect). By adding chemical/s to a malfunctioning brain, the function/s can be stabilised and lead to more ‘normal’ thoughts and behaviour. In other words, it is possible to change who we are and how we feel simply by changing the chemical makeup in the brain.
A common misconception of healing is to focus on short term effects, often in weekend courses that offer some form of ‘personal empowerment’. One such example is fire-walking. Measured by the immediate effect, there is no question that such a huge mental and physical challenge boosts the confidence. But this may not be healing at all. Ignoring (or even suppressing) our fear reaction by ‘facing fear and doing it anyway’ (as a popular book title described it) may have little or nothing to do with healing. Instead this type of courses tends to focus on teaching a person to overcome unwanted emotions. This is to misunderstand the role of our emotions. In effect, dividing emotions into ‘good and bad’ may have a negative effect on the real healing process. Emotions of all kinds are our most direct communication with the parts of the brain that are most likely to be in need of healing.* The same way as pain is body’s way to signal that something is wrong and requires our attention, painful or negative (i.e. ‘bad’) emotions are simply signals that not everything is right inside us. If we learn to simply manage/overcome our negative emotions by challenging ourselves, this is not healing.
The role of psychotherapy
As Freud rightly concluded (healing) change can be achieved by dealing directly with thoughts and behaviour. Simply talking about our problems can initiate a healing process in the brain that will rebalance our thoughts and behaviour. Paradoxically, from the attitude of treating illness, modern psychotherapy has realised that an important part for the healing is to make the patient understand that s/he is not really sick at all. A better definition is that psychological ‘illness’ can be our best attempt to deal with a specific life situation. It is usually both our own and society’s ignorance that makes us feel and behave as if we are suffering from psychological illness. The role of the psychotherapist can therefore be to help the patient understand why and to what they are reacting.
Hardwired emotions and basic needs
All human beings are born with a sort of ‘roadmap’ of what we want/need in order to feel satisfied with what we get out of life. It is a set of basic requirements that we need to have met if we are to develop into healthy, harmonious human beings. We need personal safety, food and shelter, manageable levels of stress (in particular during childhood) and we need to be noticed by others, touched and appreciated etc. If we get these basic needs met in an acceptable way, we feel satisfied with life and are able to maintain a healthy mental state throughout life.
We keep in touch with these basic needs through our emotions that keep us constantly ‘updated’ on how well we doing. So our emotions can be seen as a reflection of our goals in life. Depending on who we are we may include intellectual stimulants, contact with nature, solitude or physical activity in our ‘basic needs’. This very straightforward recipe for a successful life is however not always that easy to achieve. And paradoxically, despite our growing knowledge in this area, it
does not seem to become easier to meet our needs. On the contrary, much in the average modern western life style acts in the opposite direction. The result is often increased malfunction rather than improvement.
The role of the psychotherapist
If we are one of the less fortunate who did not get our basic needs met we may need help to sort out what has gone wrong. If this means that we come across a powerful technique such as breathwork we may notice some startling results after just one session. During the breathing we may be reminded of childhood incidents, have strange experiences of reliving scenarios that we only vaguely feel associated with etc. The therapist may explain that is due to the breathing that is able to somehow reactivate old memories, thoughts and emotions. But overwhelming as it may be, this is not where the healing takes place. To activate old memories is only the initial phase of healing. What happens next determines if healing will take place and is very dependent on the kind of relationship the therapist is able to create with the client. Healing usually involves the client being able to access material closely related to the basic needs, deeply buried in the unconscious. The real communication needed for this will take place between the unconscious part of both client and therapist. In order for this to happen a number of things need to be right in the therapeutic environment.
Healing early trauma
During the first 18 months of our lives the right half of the brain (the ‘unconscious’ part) is by far the most active. It deals primarily with our basic needs that are hardwired into our brain, including the newborn child’s affection for the primary carer (mother). We are born with a very strong (hardwired) urge to love our parent(s) regardless of how they treat us. Sadly this does not make us immune to bad treatment. On the contrary it is more important than ever to have our basic needs met early in life. Without it we will start life with a weakened ability to handle relationships, stress etc – in short to cope life in general.
Much of our future ability to form relationships is determined before the age of three months. This means that our psychological problems may stem from the very first period of our lives. Healing them consequently involves accessing deeply unconscious material. Although breathwork may activate old memories from this time, we also need to be able to ‘process’ them by giving them a new ‘happy ending’. That means to change a negative connection in the brain to a positive one, i.e. to replace experiences of “I will be disappointed” with new experiences of “I will get my needs met”. The therapist’s role is to provide this connection in a positive way. During this process the therapist will act as a kind of ‘substitute parent’, usually by helping the client understand and by offering genuine (right brain) empathy. The client needs to have his/her pain understood and felt. To have a positive experience in connection with the memories of what s/he is (painfully) missing will make a new (and positive) connection in their brain. This is the first step to healing. By systematically accessing old negative brain connections, through emotions and memories, and replacing them with new positive ones, we are able to heal our psychological problems.
With so much taking place in the unconscious mind, it is essential that the therapist is able to offer support on the unconscious level as well as the conscious. If the therapist is unable to offer this level of unconscious support due to his/her own unhealed experiences this may simply reinforce the negative pattern that the client is reactivating in the session. This does not mean that a therapist has to reach inner perfection before s/he can start to work with clients. On the contrary, many good therapists are drawn to their profession because of their own inner scaring. This can help them to identify with the client’s problems. Their challenge is instead to keep their own inner wounds separate from the client’s. If they are unable to do so the client may end up struggling with two sets of negative eperiences rather than getting help to find a positive ending for their own.
A safe space is essential for all healing. The therapist has to do everything possible to create an environment where the client feels safe enough to open up to experiences of intense vulnerability. The practice itself has to be safe and calm and offer physical safety. Everything during the session needs to be covered by confidentiality, and (of course) the client must be able to trust that the therapist will not take advantage of any vulnerability the situation may cause. If the client does not feel secure enough their defence mechanisms will prevent them from accessing sensitive material as a safeguard against further damage. And with memories deeply buried in the unconscious, re-assurances from the therapist may not be sufficient. If the therapist is unable to be truly and honestly present during the session, this will be conveyed unconsciously to the client and lead to a mixed message.
Touch may be a very sensitive issue for the client. During the first (unconscious) part of our lives touch plays a very important role. In fact, parents who have difficulties expressing their love for the child can compensate for this with body contact. Holding, gently caressing or massaging may be good substitutes for lack of ‘emotional’ connection. But it requires that the parent is aware enough of their negative emotions to keep them out of the situation. In particular young babies react intensely to being held by someone who is expressing negative emotions. (As all stressed parents have experienced, a child that has been screaming for hours in their arms, may suddenly go quiet and fall asleep peacefully when it is being held by someone else, presumably a calmer person.) A client with bad memories of being touched may be very sensitive to touch in connection with the therapy session. Even a heartfelt, loving hug from the therapist may be too much for the client. Just as painful memories may be too much to deal with in one session, a client with negative memories of not being touched (lovingly) enough may be as overwhelmed by positive touch as by negative. This is something the therapist must always be aware of and try to get right.
The right balance
The client may similarly experience too much vulnerability lying down for a breathing session. If the therapist is not fully focused on the client’s individual needs, sensitive details like this in the therapy session may prevent the client from feeling safe enough to actually be able to open up to real healing. In particular with a powerful technique such as breathwork, the healing potential is directly linked with finding the right balance of trust and safety for the client to benefit from the inner journey the breathing will initiate. Only when a person is able to connect on all levels, conscious as well as unconscious healing can take place (sometimes also as spontaneous healing and/or with the placebo effect). If not the defence mechanisms may take over and try to reconstruct a compensatory scenario to handle the new situation rather than the one that really needs to be healed. This is why participants in ‘empowerment courses’ may think they have conquered their fear, only to discover that it may still be there when the excitement of the workshop starts to wear off.
Intuition is often another word for the unconscious processing in the brain that is carried out in nanoseconds compared to the conscious part that operates much slower (including communication on an interpersonal level). Because of the difference in speed between conscious and unconscious we know we have arrived at a strong conclusion without being able to follow the actual process leading there and call this intuition. Intuition plays an important role in the healing process. The therapist can often intuitively understand what the client is experiencing. This is connected with mirror neurons in the brain. They react to neural signals sent in another brain and trigger similar responses in ones own brain. This is how the newborn child does its first learning and this is how we can react with empathy to others. This is why we cry watching sad films or when we hear/see someone else being hurt and react by feeling the same pain in our own bodies.
The therapist is often able to also have a fair guess as to why the client is having a particular experience. In such a case it is extremely important that the therapist
is familiar with their own problems. If not they may end up projecting their own reaction onto the client, thus putting the whole therapeutic relationship at risk.
To be able to react wholeheartedly to what happens to the client is very valuable for the healing process. In particular if the therapist has had similar problems and been able to heal them s/he will be able to guide the client by acting as a ‘role model’. The client will feel the therapist’s empathy for their situation. This will help to confirm the validity of the situation, a valuable aspect in itself. With the help of mirror neurons, the client will also be able to mimic more positive pathways in the therapist’s brain as well as establishing more positive connections associated with the trauma they have brought up. All of this constitutes healing for the client. This is why it actually can be an advantage with a therapist who has been through difficulties themselves. But in order for the intuitive empathy to be helpful it requires that the therapist has acquired sufficient insights into their own problems and healed them sufficiently to be able to keep them at the right distance from the client’s problems. If not the risk is great that the therapist will be too emerged in the activation of their own trauma to be able to help the client. To add to the problem, it is often the case that the client’s problems originated from having parents with too many problems of their own to be able to be supportive enough for their child.
The brain is hardwired to ‘construct realities’. It constantly searches for familiar patterns in the environment to provide us with ‘guesses’ of what we see based on previous data stored in the brain. Similarly it attempts to interpret our emotions rather than not knowing what is going on. This may play a role in the interpretation of material that the breathing session has triggered. Another factor to consider is that if we try to talk about our emotions we have to transfer data from the right emotional side of the brain to the left side that handles speech (unlike some emotional expletives that are generated in the right side). A common scenario in breathwork is that the client experiences strong emotions during the breathing. If client and therapist try to analyse the session by simply talking about it, this may be too crude. In particular if it is linked too directly to a specific theoretical framework (such as the Rebirthing theories of birth trauma, sibling rivalry, death urge etc). Attempting to analyse this way may lead to false interpretations that can be doubly unhelpful for the client. Not only will s/he see the therapist as an authority figure (more) able to provide the correct interpretation (and therefore be keen to accept their suggested version). If the client does not experience a positive change (i.e.the real cause of the problem was not address) this may also reinforce a previously held negative reaction. Each of us have our individual way (and language) to communicate with ourselves. Just as in dreams we may use colourful images, black and white words and/or symbols to express emotions and other unconscious material. As Carl Jung showed, there are common features such as archetypes and certain logic in this communication. It is the therapist’s role to help the client understand their own unconscious communication. This is not the same as telling the client what it means. On the contrary, the client must be allowed to find their own understanding (often signalled by an ‘aha experience’). If not the healing opportunity may be missed altogether.
The need for an interface
Because so many of the client’s problems may originate in the pre-verbal period (before 2 years of age) s/he may be unable to put the experiences into words. Although the emotions may be strong and clear, they may require an (right brain based) interface that will not corrupt their interpretation. There are many ways to create such an interface between the conscious and unconscious. Sand play and painting are two such ways. They allow the hands to interpret and express the emotions without ‘interference’ of the conscious (thinking) mind (also referred to as ego sometimes). When the client makes a drawing of the experience, it will be expressed in its original way (brought directly to the outside so to say) without being influenced by our attempts to interpret (guess) the meaning. The therapist and client can then interpret the painting rather than the original experience. By using the right type of (open and non-leading) questions (such as for instance in dream interpretation) the therapist can help the client to understand the symbolic language of the unconscious. This means that rather than asking what the painting as a whole means, the therapist will ask about details, (why is the bird blue, what does blue mean to you, what does a bird represent etc).
The skill is in the detail
For many breathwork therapists the assumption is that the healing is in the actual breathing. But as we have seen, healing requires greater attention to detail than that. For real healing to take place we also need to read the ‘fineprint’, to understand the importance of the various mechanisms involved. If not we run the risk of simply replacing one set of thoughts and behaviour (life strategies) with another. This may serve as a good substitute for inner weaknesses but it should not be confused with the type of permanent healing that we may like to offer our clients.
Key words; psychotherapy, emotions, safety, intuition, dreams
*For a further explanation of emotions and our basic needs, see also my article “Why do I get upset”, September 2008
© Gunnel Minett, October 2008