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Foundations for Healing

by Andrew Pallas(more info)

listed in healing, originally published in issue 38 - March 1999

"I'm so confused" said Jenny, "I've had three different explanations for my problem, they all seemed to make sense, but how can I tell which one is right?"

Jenny was a forty three year old woman who was married with three children of school age. Her children's school was in an "affluent area", where parents actively supported school activities, she felt pressure to "be doing her bit too." Her partner's job involved lots of travelling, leaving her responsible for the lion's share of the parenting.

She worked as a school secretary so she would be home when her children were out of school, or at least that was the theory. Her school was poorly funded and poorly supported. Her workload increased continuously, with no additional resources. So she was sitting at her computer for longer periods, spending more time in stressful meetings, and generally resembled a blue bottomed household insect.

Maybe you can already begin to guess at some of the symptoms that had driven her to seek help. She had neck and back pain, with frequent headaches. She had suffered increasing colds and now had almost permanent sinus symptoms. In addition, when she complained of abdominal pain and bloating, with bouts of diarrhoea, her GP had diagnosed Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). You could just have easily guessed at migraines, skin conditions, hypertension and any number of other dysfunctional patterns presented to healthcarers on an increasingly frequent basis.

And what opinions had she had so far?

An osteopath had discovered muscle tension and restricted joints in her back and neck. These she said would irritate nerves which could account for Jenny's headaches and digestive upset as well as the back and neck pains.

The osteopath also diagnosed dysfunction in Jenny's cranial rhythm, which could cause the sinus symptoms, and via their effect of her autonomic nervous system, contribute to the digestive problems. The proposal was for treatment of the mechanical dysfunction, with exercises and advise to help Jenny correct her posture, so reducing the stress on her body.

Next Jenny saw a nutritional consultant. He said that Jenny suffered from a combination of toxic overload, due to a diet high in refined foods, and possibly some food allergies or intolerances. He said that Jenny's diet and stressful lifestyle had also left her deficient in several essential nutrients, which in turn would limit her ability to cope with stress.

The suggested treatment consisted of a multi nutrient supplement rich in vitamin B complex, an increase in wholefoods to provide natural dietary fibre, and peppermint oil capsules as an anti spasmodic for her colon. This was to start building her up while they did tests for food allergy or intolerance.

Finally, a friend persuaded Jenny to see a counsellor. The counsellor was very sympathetic and appeared to really understand Jenny's situation. She explained how Jenny's high stress levels were upsetting her digestive tract; causing tension that produced the headaches, back and neck pain; and impairing her immune system, leading to all the infections.

Her advice was that Jenny needed to understand, and resolve at least some of the conflicts she suffered over trying to juggle workloads, parenting, and also her needs as an individual. The counsellor said that once Jenny became conscious of what was really important in her life, she would be able to prioritise the use of her time more effectively. In the short term she advised learning some useful stress management strategies.

Could you pick one of these explanations as being true? If you can, how would you justify discounting the others? I believe that they were all true, and being able to see Jenny's situation from this variety of perspectives, illustrates three principles which I believe to be the foundations for healing, hence the title of this article.

These principles together form a model of health and healing that crosses the boundaries formed around specific therapies and modes of treatment. This is a model therefore that allows for greater understanding between practitioners of differing disciplines. It is also a model that empowers "patients" in taking responsibility for making decisions regarding their health and when appropriate, their healthcare by others.

The model was introduced to me during my training in naturopathic principles (for which a big thank you to Joe Goodman, then Dean of The College of Osteopaths). Since then I have come to realise that practitioners of many other disciplines resonate with such principles, and that the model can aid in understanding patient needs whatever the therapy being practised.

The three principles are

It is the patient that does the healing. Whatever the therapy, no practitioner can heal anyone else. When a surgeon has finished operating, they sew the appropriate tissues together and let the patient get on with the job of healing.

When the nutritional consultant prescribed dietary changes to Jenny, it isn't these changes that do the healing. Whatever foods you give a corpse, they will produce no effect. It requires the individual to utilise them, before any effect is produced. Even osteopathic manipulation "fixes" nothing. The osteopaths job is to assist in improving function, but it is the patient who is responsible for that function. The osteopath cannot function your body for you, they are usually too busy trying to cope with their own.

The person is a whole. One story got this idea across to me more graphically than any of the philosophical and academic arguments I had heard. The lecturer, Bill Wright, told us of a new patient that had phoned him that morning, with the query "Do you treat kidneys?" "Yes certainly" said Bill, "just pop it in a jar and send it round!" I don't know if the story was true (with Bill I could believe it was) but it worked because it exposed the complete absurdity of considering a person as anything other than a whole.

Jenny's case, as explained by her three practitioners, illustrated several examples of how problems in one area can influence the function of another area. For example, the pains caused by poor posture adding to her stress load; which in turn upset her digestion; with the reduced nutrition impairing her ability to cope with stress, and resulting in more depressed posture.

Diagram of the health model
Diagram of the health model

Health = Vitality – Obstructions. This very simple yet profound mathematical equation is based on the Hippocratic idea of Vis Medicatrix Naturae, the healing power of nature.

This healing power is innate, hence cuts heal over and a cold doesn't go on for ever. Healing is one expression of the life or vitality of the organism. Healing only fails when there are obstructions which vitality cannot overcome. Hence a cut may not heal if a foreign body is left in the wound, the foreign body being an obstruction.

As health equals vitality minus obstructions, the job of any practitioner who wishes to increase a patient's health, is to assist in the removal of obstructions. This is true irrespective of their chosen discipline. So the nutritional consultant assists in removing the dietary deficiency that obstructs healing; or the counsellor helps the patient to discover and address unhealthy beliefs or attitudes which could limit health.

Now I would be surprised if you stood back in amazement at this point, as I expect you have heard these principles before. The value I see in them though, is to consider them together. Combining them produces the model that can guide your decision making.

So what did this model have to offer to Jenny? Firstly the realisation that no-one was going to cure her. It can be daunting for many of us to realise that the final responsibility for our lives lies in our own hands. However, it is also empowering when you realise that the other side of the coin from responsibility is authority. In fact, you cannot be truly responsible for something over which you have no authority.

How many of us as teenagers had that lecture from our parents or guardians. We wanted more independence, they said we needed to be more responsible. Well they were right! As you become more responsible, you gain the authority or power over your life that we all value.

I want to differentiate this from the common practice of blaming people for their health problems. Blaming is a way to disempower people, often while shedding responsibility ourselves. Encouraging people to become response-able on the other hand, empowers them by having them take authority over their health. Your genetics, background, miasmic tendencies or Ayurvedic body types are not the issue here. It is what you do with them now that counts, and becoming response-able is needed before you can do anything.

So taking responsibility for her health and healing means that it is up to Jenny to make the decisions that fit with what is important to her, and to take the appropriate actions.

Next the model explains that Jenny, like the rest of us, is a whole. The explanations offered by her practitioners began to illustrate how symptoms in one aspect of her health could be caused by problems elsewhere. Such as mental stress causing infections, or structural problems causing indigestion.

There is a common model that looks at the three elements effecting our health over which we have influence. These are the structural or bio-mechanical, the biochemical, and the psycho-emotional. This is a useful model, and one which I think could be expanded to include the energetic and spiritual aspects. I have added an outer circle to signify the spiritual realm which includes, but is greater than, the individual. Also the arrows signify the movement of energy within and around the individual. Such a representation is a handy place to start to examine the ways in which influences can move around different aspects of the individual and their surroundings. It also makes more obvious the way in which these various influences add up to create the alterable health of the individual as a whole.

People will often readily accept the way that negative influences add up to create a detrimental effect on their health. It is important to remember that this is a two way street, and that positive influences add up to produce beneficial effects too.

These beneficial effects can equally move around the different aspects of the individual, such as better nutrition relieving depression, or a change of outlook improving back pain.

Finally the model looks at our equation of Health = Vitality – Obstructions. With this in mind we can see that not all of Jenny's obstructions need to be removed before she can begin to move towards health. Just enough so that her vitality can begin to overcome the obstructions, it is Jenny that does the healing after all.

The fact that a wide range of practitioners and healing systems could benefit the same individual now makes sense. Clearly choosing the practitioner that will deal most effectively with the major obstacles is sensible, but removing any obstacle will be of some help.

Equally the fact that one approach helps an individual towards health in no way invalidates other approaches, they may simply be removing other obstacles. If a practitioner works skilfully and compassionately, and their patient doesn't improve, this does not mean the practitioner has failed, it just means they may be striving to remove less relevant obstructions. The option then is to try a different approach. Whether the same practitioner or someone else does this is of no real importance, after all a good referral is a successful action by the practitioner.

So what happened to Jenny? Well she decided which bits of advice and treatment made most sense for her. She had a short course of treatment from the osteopath to help her begin the process of becoming more relaxed at work. The osteopath also gave Jenny valuable advice on rearranging her workspace to reduce its bad effect on her posture.

Jenny also began to make changes in her diet, introducing these gradually "in bite size chunks." This was to prevent dietary change from becoming something else for her to get stressed about. She also found the peppermint oil capsules gave her some symptomatic relief while she was improving her life.

Looking at her priorities in life was rather more challenging, as it dealt with some long ingrained values and beliefs. But the changes produced by this process have allowed her to commit herself to less involvement at her children's school, and to be able to say no to some of the increasing demands at work.

She may not be out of the woods yet, but she is at least cutting a clear path, and it is a path which goes from where she was, to where she wants to go. The overall model allowed her to make informed choices, while not limiting her to the more specific models used by her practitioners. The result has been progressively improving health.

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About Andrew Pallas

Andrew Pallas ND DO MRN is a Registered Osteopath and Naturopath, and a certified Master Practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) in private practice in Leeds. He also runs post graduate seminars for other healthcare practitioners, and has delivered NLP based training for a variety of business organisations.

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