Posts Tagged ‘mental-health’

There’s a chapter in James Hollis, the Jungian analyst’s book, Creating a Life, entitled, “Attending the Soul”. This particular chapter is about the practice of psychiatry and he completely nails an important point.

If we consider health, acute and chronic illness, to be a spectrum of experience, then we need to do more than control or manage disease in order to be healthy.

Here’s how James Hollis puts it….

In seeking scientific verification of success, many of these practitioners [psychiatrists] have narrowed the definitions of pathology to behavioural patterns, faulty cognitions and flawed chemistry. While it is certainly true that we are behaviours, and behaviours may be corrected, and we are cognitions which may be challenged by other cognitions, and we are chemical processes which may be compensated by other chemical processes, none of these modalities – behaviourism, cognitive restructuring and psychopharmacology – should be confused with psychotherapy.

He goes on to say that psychotherapy seeks to address the whole person, even the meaning of the person, the meaning of their suffering or even the meaning of their life.

This same point applies across the whole of Medicine. Illness may include physical pathologies which can, and may, be addressed with drugs or surgery, or it may include adaptive, or protective symptoms and behaviours which can be changed. However, if we are interested in healing, in facilitating the experience of wellbeing, resilience, and health, then we face the fact that a whole human being is more than the sum of his or her parts.

Here’s how he concludes his chapter…

To stop at behavioural change, as important as it is, or cognitive restructuring, liberating as it may be, and pharmacology, necessary as it sometimes becomes, betokens a failure of nerve and sells the soul very short indeed.


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Sometimes (quite often actually), I wake up with a word or phrase in my head. This morning it was “heart of the universe”. The particular word or phrase can set off all kinds of different thoughts and where this one quickly went was “It’s 2013. It’s 40 years since I dissected a human heart. Second year, Medical School, Edinburgh University. That year we learned Anatomy and Physiology. I was amazed at the structure of the heart. It’s four chambers, the valves, the specialised heart muscle cells which each had their own rhythm, the conduction pathways from the “AV node” which carried the co-ordinating electrical beat to produce the two, opposite states of the heart – systole and asystole.

It was two years later before they told us to put on white coats, buy a good quality stethoscope, and led us on ward rounds, to stand collectively around patients’ beds, and one by one, place our shiny new stethoscopes on their chests to listen for the “lub dub” of the “normal” heart, and listen carefully for the clicks and sounds which filled the silences and revealed the disorders of the valves.

Over the years as a GP, I prescribed the drugs to slow hearts down, to regulate disordered rhythms, and to improve the blood supply to get the oxygen to the cells starved by blocked arteries and causing angina. I also found people presenting with pain, flutters and skipped beats of the heart whose investigation results showed no obvious pathologies. What were we to do with them? And where was the explanation for their symptoms? If their symptoms weren’t signposts to pathology, then what were they?

Gradually, I became aware of how we use heart in our language, as people told me about “broken hearts”, “heart ache”, “longings of the heart”, “an emptiness in my heart”, “getting to the heart of the problem”, “filling my heart with joy”. Of course, from early years I became familiar with the shape of a heart as we would draw it to communicate love. We see that shape everywhere.

three leaves

cafe love



Why the heart? Why not the liver, or the pancreas, or the spleen? Why not the kidneys?

I knew there were intimate connections between the brain and the heart, mainly channeled through the “autonomic nervous system”. Then only in the last few years did I learn we’ve discovered that there is a neural network around the heart and associated with that is the production of neuropeptides (the small proteins which act on the brain) within the heart and its neural network. So, the links are more intimate than I realised, and, most importantly, more two way than I realised – the brain acts on the heart, but the heart also acts on the brain. In fact, it seems we do some of our mental processing using these neurones around the heart. (That dismissive phrase which I never liked – “it’s all in your head” – turns out to be even more stupid than I always thought it was)

And as time passed, and I experienced encounters with more patients, I began to see that sometimes (not always but often enough to always consider), there were direct links between “heart issues”, “heart language” and “heart symptoms”, irrespective of the presence or absence of pathologies.

So, here’s something to consider as you think ahead into 2013. How about building your “heart intelligence”? That’s a concept that means somewhat different things to different people, but let’s just use it as it is, without detailed definition.

Try the Heartmath technique. Sit quietly, focus on your heart area, take three deep, slow heart breaths, then recreate for yourself a heart feeling (you can find the details here). In this state of “coherence”, ask your heart a question, and wait to see what answer appears. Write it down.

What does your heart tell you about 2013?

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Your other brain?

You probably imagine that you do all your mental work – perceiving, analysing, thinking, feeling and so on – with your brain – that organ inside your skull. However, we’ve known for some time that there are networks of neurones around the hollow organs of the body, especially around the heart and the intestines. We’ve also discovered “neurotransmitters” originating from those parts of the body. So, at very least, we are aware that there are two way connections between the heart and the brain, and the gut and the brain.

A recent article in New Scientist magazine described the network around the gut and named it the “Enteric Nervous System” (ENS). There are around 500,000 neurones around the gut (where there are about 85 billion in the brain). Most surprisingly, alongside the 40 or so neurotransmitters in this network, two chemicals known to affect mood and mental functions, dopamine and serotonin, are also present. In fact, it is now thought that 50% of all dopamine is produced in the brain, and 50% in the ENS. Only 5% of serotonin is produced by the brain, and 95% of it in the ENS. This is quite astonishing when you consider the roles these hormones can play in our behaviour.

The other fascinating fact the author of the New Scientist article highlights is the presence of Lewy bodies in the ENS (these are the pathological lesions seen in the brains of patients with Parkinsons Disease), and patients with Alzheimer’s have characteristic lesions on both their brain and ENS neurones. Do those “neurological” diseases begin in the brain, or in the gut?

It’s good to see scientists discovering how interlinked our bodily systems are, and how difficult it is to reduce a person to parts – even the two parts of Mind and Body. Are those parts really such separate parts of they are so connected and inter-related?

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