By Dr. Jaime Sanchez, April, 2006
This article will serve as an introduction to revolutionary concepts that are at the leading edge of neurological and behavioral science, and have major implications in current approaches in healthcare and how we view wellness and illness as well as health and disease. The focus is more on the integration of body-mind-spirit and how perceptions, emotions, health, and the integrity of the spine and nervous system are related. A growing body of evidence supports the mind-body connection. In fact, on November 25, 2005, our local KOLD News 13 aired a story on "Skin Shrinks" or psychodermatologists that acknowledge that the mind, or more specifically, stress and emotional issues create negative changes in the skin, including psoriasis, acne, eczema and warts. The concepts presented herein center around the works, discoveries, and ideas of some of the leading minds in their respective fields, including Donald Epstein, D.C., Candace Pert, Ph.D., and Gert Holstege, Ph.D.
It has been my experience that many people believe they are healthy when they aren't expressing any symptoms, and that they are "sick" when symptoms are present. Furthermore, many feel that it is the responsibility of someone outside themselves, most commonly doctors or therapists, to "fix" them and restore them to a previous state without symptoms. Therefore, I find it necessary to begin with definitions that will serve as a starting point in helping us break through our current self-limiting thinking and beliefs about our bodies, our circumstances, life experiences, and what it takes to experience higher levels of wellness and quality of life. For many, the idea of seeking care with the perception that nothing's wrong is a radical concept, but a wellness practitioner seeks to help one tap into their innate wisdom to improve their current state of function and experience a richer and deeper life while enhancing one's ability to self-heal, self-correct, and self-adapt.
Health, as defined by the 2003 Physician's Desk Reference medical dictionary, is "a state characterized by anatomical, physiological, and psychological integrity, ability to perform personally valued family, work and community roles; ability to deal with physical, biological, and psychological and social stress; a feeling of well-being and freedom from the risk of disease and untimely death." The World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and emotional well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
In a state of wellness, one also experiences a sense of community, peace, wisdom, and well-being
Wellness as defined in Epstein's Model of Wellness, is "an integral state linked with the personalized and undeniable experience of connection with a perceived transcendent source of strength and wisdom. In a state of wellness, one also experiences a sense of community, peace, wisdom, and well-being…manifested as movement towards deepening states of perception regarding one's total environment, refinement of adaptive responses, and an evolving pliable sense of self. Moreover, wellness is accompanied by a heightened sensitivity to emotions or actions involving gratitude, forgiveness, empathy, love and compassion in relation to the individual's life experiences. It is recognized that individuals will realize the experiences presented above in a progressive manner as their journey to wellness unfolds."
Arizona State University also has a concise, but comprehensive definition of wellness: "Wellness is an active, lifelong process of becoming aware of choices and making decisions toward a more balanced and fulfilling life. Wellness involves choices about our lives and our priorities that determine our lifestyles. The wellness concept at ASU is centered on connections and the idea that the mind, body, spirit and community are all interrelated and interdependent."
Illness, which exists on the opposite end of the continuum with Wellness, is a loss of this state
As per Dr. Epstein, developer of Network Spinal Analysis (NSA) and author of Healing Myths Healing Magic and The 12 Stages of Healing, wellness can be thought of as an enhanced "state of awareness, connection, and active participation with the world that drives us to deepened states of wholeness and more effective choices for our growth and development." Illness, which exists on the opposite end of the continuum with Wellness, is a loss of this state. One can exist at any point along this Wellness-Illness (W-I) Continuum. Furthermore, Epstein proposes that wellness and illness are independent of symptoms, pathology, or circumstance as W-I is related to one's internal experience, not one's circumstance; how we experience our bodies, life experiences, circumstances, and our ability to heal depends largely on where we are along this continuum as well as our personal, familial, and/or cultural beliefs.
Whereas those closer to wellness engage in voluntary action that will help them reach higher states of function and quality of life regardless of absence of symptoms, such as exercise, eating healthy, meditation, yoga, social/community involvement, and regular wellness care such as that provided at wellness/lifestyle-based chiropractic offices (as opposed to disease/symptom care or maintenance care), those closer to a state of illness only take action when a "problem" becomes obvious, usually through the presence of symptoms (i.e., they re-act).
Those who are closer to a state of illness on the W-I Continuum usually feel disconnected from others as well as themselves; their awareness becomes narrowed and they become self absorbed. This is accompanied by a narrowing of adaptive responses to others and life situations (resorting to dominant responses and behaviors). This is true of stress physiology as any one of us can think of a time when we faced a major crisis in life in which everything going on around us just became a "blur" as our focus narrowed.
Someone who is experiencing wellness may see symptoms as a sign of a body functioning the way it should and may view a health crisis as an opportunity for change and growth. In contrast, one who is in the mode of illness may see symptoms as a major regression, a burden, and a path to becoming self-absorbed.
The spinal system (spine, spinal cord, and meninges) can be thought of as the "sense of self" as most perceptions, feelings, and actions are directed through it. It is the "intersection" for all internal and external environmental information from the body to the brain and the signals from the brain to the body. As Epstein maintains, it is the "precise interface between how you experience your body…and how you experience and adapt to your life and your world." Furthermore, Pert's research on neuropeptides led to the very important discovery that the limbic system isn't limited to the brain as there is a great concentration of neuropeptide receptors for these "molecules of emotion" in the dorsal horns of the spinal cord (where information from the environment and body comes in before going to the brain). It can be said that emotions are felt in the body, not just the head. Information reaching the brain is filtered through our most dominant emotional patterns in the spinal cord. The greater the range of emotional neuropeptide "expression", the greater the range of adaptive choices one has when presented with various life situations.
Negative emotions and stress are usually associated with defensive posture
Holstege's research strongly suggests that the "Emotional Motor System" sets the tone for excitability of the sensory and motor systems at every spinal level. What this means is that when someone is experiencing negative emotions, the threshold for sensory information such as pain is lowered (i.e., it takes less signals from pain receptors to "feel" or be aware of pain signals). You may have seen the commercial for a new antidepressant drug, which supports this notion as it centers on the connection between depression and associated body pain. Since the motor system is influenced as well, it's common to see postural changes consistent with one's emotions. Negative emotions and stress are usually associated with defensive posture (armoring) characterized by a head that is held in a forward position in addition to rounding of the spine, which leads to a sympathetic (fight/flight) response. Dog owners may be familiar with this postural change when it comes to acknowledging emotional states of their pets (happy dog = head & tail up, angry dog = head & tail down). We seem to "wear" our emotions and defense patterns.
When overwhelmed by stress or trauma, we function more from our lower brain centers and nervous system responsible for survival-promoting split-second "decisions" and actions, such as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car without first having to analyze and give meaning to the situation (the greater the stress, the lower down the nervous system from which a response is initiated [higher brain centers---emotional brain---reptilian/instinct---spinal cord/reflexes]). Often times, the defense patterns associated with stresses and traumas that the body-mind perceives as unsafe to fully experience or remain aware of are anchored in the spinal cord and the body (out-of-mind doesn't necessarily mean out-of-body). The vertebral subluxation complex, important to subluxation-centered chiropractors, is an effect of this adaptive strategy or defense pattern. In this state of hyper-vigilance, it becomes more difficult to make healthy choices for our bodies, emotions, and life as we resort to our most dominant behaviors and adaptive responses. It is difficult for the body to recover and for the lower parts of the nervous system (e.g., emotional) to hand over control to higher cortical function (frontal lobes), like an "emotional hijacking of the body-mind", according to Epstein. This state may, for the most part, go unnoticed by the individual as awareness and perceptions of the body (spine, breathing, rhythms, subtle cues, etc.) have narrowed.
an individual's spine and nervous system can shift out of defense/stress
Recent research in the arena of wellness conducted at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Southern California strongly suggest that an individual's spine and nervous system can shift out of defense/stress physiology and reorganize to higher levels of efficiency/function (supported by functional MRI and surface EMG studies), integrity, and adaptability through the application of very light force or touch along specific areas of the spine that Dr. Epstein calls Spinal Gateways or "Healogenous Zones"; that one is able to transcend whatever state he/she is currently expressing and create new emerging strategies for self-organization and levels of wellness & quality of life. In fact, results showed that those undergoing NSA care demonstrated improvement of all the parameters of wellness assessed of nearly double when compared with those engaged in constructive healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as yoga, meditation, and exercise alone. Moreover, there was no evidence of a "leveling off" effect in over three years of care (i.e., improvements accumulated with no plateau effect even after three years of care). As one progresses through NSA care, two distinct "healing waves" emerge that help one "unwind" tension and use it as "fuel" for reorganization of spinal and neural function, and for healing; one is a respiratory wave, and the other is the Somatopsychic Wave unique to this type of care, which was recently studied at the Department of Engineering and Mathematics at USC using a non-linear mathematical model and sEMG to assess biological self-organization as depicted by the higher levels of complexity these signal demonstrated as test subjects progressed through care..
wellness care as presented above can help one move away from defense and toward growth
Simply put, wellness care as presented above can help one move away from defense and toward growth, enhance his/her ability to adapt to stress/life situations more efficiently, and experience greater levels of health, wellness, and life enjoyment/quality of life regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms or disease. It's not about the practitioner treating or fixing something or restoring one to a previous state as has been the case with just about every healthcare approach to date, whether allopathic (medical) or non-allopathic, but instead opening the door to new possibilities for an individual. I truly believe, as Dr. Epstein does, that "health is the outward manifestation of our inner journey of discovery."
Jaime G. Sanchez, DC, FICPA
Life Energy Wellness Center Family Chiropractic, Inc.