Everything is Psychosomatic
by Merrily Manthey, M.S.
Part III of a three part series published in CHOICES Newsletter,
"Everything is psychosomatic," announced Dr. Candace Pert, PhD, in the midst
of her plenary session. She was speaking at the Sixth Functional Medicine Symposium, May
1999 in Tucson, Arizona. I wondered how many in the 600-person audience believed this
statement. As I looked around me, MDs, scientists, DOs, other healers from the Western
medical tradition along with naturopathic physicians, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and
herbalists were giving equally rapt attention to Dr. Pert. Offered by the extraordinary
person who discovered neuropeptides in 1972, it seemed a tantalizing moment in her
presentation on the "Molecules of Emotion." We were about to learn how
intercellular communication between the body and mind impacts our well being and being
Neuropeptides are chemicals produced by our bodies that are the actual biological
underpinnings of our awareness. Pert says we manifest these biological underpinnings
through our emotions, beliefs, and expectations. Her groundbreaking research has provided
evidence of the biochemical basis for awareness and consciousness, validating what Eastern
philosophers, shamans, and alternative practitioners have known and practiced for
centuries. The body is not a mindless machine; the body and mind are one.
The term "psychosomatic" brings various images to mind, but usually, as the
dictionary says, denotes a physical disorder that is caused by or notably influenced by
the emotional state of the patient. The word "psycho" comes from the Greek
meaning breath, spirit, soul, mind. "Somatic" refers to the body, or
"soma" in Greek, referring to the physical. Soma in biology refers to the body
of an organism. If Candace Pert says, "everything is psychosomatic," we
may have to consider creating a new charter for the practice of health care. From my
clinical experience, I would have to agree with her.
And what would that charter look like? Before I offer my thoughts on that foundational
challenge, it seems important to first bring another concept into the picture: the concept
of conscious control of bodily systems.
Surprisingly, we can consciously change our skin temperature, heart rates, and even the
drip of acid into our stomach. Biofeedback research beginning in the 1960s at the
Menninger Clinic provides intriguing evidence of the conscious control of what was then
called the autonomic nervous system. Beyond biofeedback experiments and clinical
outcomes, recent data offer additional surprises. For example, did you know that you can
control your immune system?
In pivotal experiments by Howard Hall at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio
(1990), it was shown that conscious intervention could directly affect cellular function
in the immune system. The experiments utilized self-regulatory practices such as
relaxation and guided imagery, self-hypnosis, biofeedback training, and autogenic training
(for managing stress). Using several control groups, Hall showed that those who utilized
these techniques could with their conscious mind increase the stickiness of their white
blood cells, as measured by saliva and blood tests. Up until his work, there were
anecdotal reports of an association between hypnotherapy and clinical improvements in
warts and asthma, both of which may be mediated by immune changes under subconscious
control. But there were no measurements of change at the cellular level, and no work
demonstrating the potential for conscious control.
If the immune system can be altered by conscious intervention, what does this mean for
the treatment of major diseases such as cancer? The idea that emotions are linked to
cancer has been around for a while. I first gathered retrospective data from researchers
in the 1970s relative to personality traits and illness. I was startled to discover
patterns of responding to ones experiences seemed to correlate to certain diseases.
Cancer seemed to be related to unresolved emotions; worry, repression of feelings and
In the 1940s, Wilhelm Reich proposed the then heretical idea that cancer is a result of
the failure to express emotions, especially sexual emotions. Reich was ridiculed by the
medical and scientific establishment and persecuted by the US government. In Perts
account of the persecution, "it was perhaps the only time in history that the
government of the United States held an official book burning, calling for all available
copies of Reichs lifes work to be rounded up by the FDA and incinerated."
Work done in the 1980s by Lydia Temoshok, a psychologist then at UCSF, showed that cancer
patients, who kept emotions such as anger under the surface, remaining ignorant of their
existence, had slower recovery rates than those who were more expressive. Another trait
common to these patients was self-denial, stemming from an unawareness of their own basic
emotional needs. The immune systems were stronger and tumors smaller for those in touch
with their emotions.
Can suppressed anger or other "negative" emotions cause cancer? Recent
studies including those done by David Spiegel of Stanford have convincingly shown that
being able to express emotions like anger and grief can improve survival rates in cancer
In her fascinating book, Molecules of Emotion, Pert provides a theoretical model
to explain why this might be so. Since emotional expression is always tied to a specific
flow of peptides in the body, the chronic suppression of emotions results in a massive
disturbance of the psychosomatic network. Pert wonders, could being in touch with our
emotions facilitate the flow of the peptides that help destroy errant cells? Is emotional
health important to physical health? And, if so, what is emotional health? These are
important questions to start thinking about if we take the links between body and mind
seriously. And if we take the body mind linkage seriously, we will need to define and
create the new charter or foundation on which to design an efficacious health care system.
Perhaps we can begin a dialogue in succeeding articles.
Contact the author, firstname.lastname@example.org
Citizens for Alternative
The Healing Body/Mind
By Merrily Manthey, MS