So you want to get better faster? By Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.
Pairing therapies for accelerating progress
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If you plan to get better faster, you have to involve your whole self: your mind, your body, your nervous system, and your spirit. There is a science of getting better faster, and this science appreciates that all these human dimensions need convergence and coordination to best succeed.
This paper makes a case for pairing a selected talk therapy with at least one non-verbal therapy for maximal nervous system engagement, all in a context of the impetus provided by dedicated awareness.
Widespread today is a general expectation for rapid therapeutic results. Applicable equally to medical problems and to psychological challenges, this pattern is pushing psychotherapies of old to adopt new frontiers of efficiency. In the context of a quest for positive evidence-based results is a demand for psychotherapies that yield better and faster outcomes.
In step with this trend is the reliance on medication therapies that can indeed offer symptom relief and step up return to normalcy. But medications, if adopted as sole approaches to healing, have serious caveats. Chemically manipulating the nervous system, they minimize the role of the self in enhancing wellness and often lack staying power.
Traditional therapies use verbal dissections of memories and emotions. But language, it is now appreciated, while possessing extensive ramifications in the brain and eventually into bodily organs, still commands limited spheres of influence into the wholeness of the organism.
Getting better faster thus necessarily involves reaching dimensions of us that, while including the gifts of language, also transcend language. From creative arts to Yoga, the beyond-verbal dimensions of our nervous systems contribute their essence to dynamic development synergy.
Reaching beyond language
Words connect to their full significance through their trajectories into different areas of the brain. On hearing the word “home,” for example, the acoustic section of the brain receives the sound then sends it to various processing centers, including the limbic system where it may elicit feelings of warmth and safety. Simultaneously, it travels to the occipital lobes and its association spheres, where pictures may come up of the house that sheltered you as a child.
Language defines and clarifies but also restricts; it shapes reality into patterns that, if too well travelled, become comfortable to espouse but harder to transcend. Words give the world definition. As building blocks for thoughts and concepts, they crystalize feelings and memories, and provide notions of self. But they also confine in that the very brain schematics that make use of language, can also prevent access to other capabilities of mind, namely innovation and creativity. They also often come in the way of perceiving the very essence of the brain’s aliveness: Consciousness.
“Getting better”–What does it mean?
“Getting better” implies a forward shift in the state of awareness, in a spectrum of higher to highest personal satisfaction. Words like “Well-being,” and “Happiness,” are often invoked. But what do they really represent in the world of experiencing?
Happiness is fundamentally a global feeling state that expresses life’s full vibrancy. It is a direct expression of vital energies that, of themselves, are always positive. Positive states of mind connect to primal life forces. Negative states of mind, on the other hand, come from the mind’s reaction to cumulative life experiences, and usually have fear, hurt, anger, sadness, guilt and shame as salient common denominators.
Boosting the tone of positive mental states takes from several contributors. The body needs to generate adequate biological energy and convey organ entente. Emotions need to be harmoniously related and devoid of elements belonging to the anxiety/fear, the hurt/resentment/anger, and the shame/guilt spectrums. Thoughts need to be at peace, preferably in a background of optimism and philosophical openness. But beyond all that are still other dimensions that fulfill happiness: Creativity drives need to be satisfied, and one’s quest for meaning needs nurturance.
While plants and animals can achieve happy balances, humans evidently seem to have many more requirements.
Apportioning directions to self–growth.
Getting better faster thus requires the participation of several dimensions of body/mind. Not sequentially, but concomitantly. Contributors to health and wellness need to be addressed simultaneously because they all interact, all synergize, each encouraging others to consolidate and develop in real time. A mental enhancement will, for example, become greater if it is fused into its connected bodily networks. A physical skill will be pole-vaulted if it is learned while its adjoined brain connections are kindled.
Like all living things, we are energy-transferring organisms. Our metabolism extracts energies from high capacity nutrient molecules, in cascades of biochemical handoffs. Oxygen, a vital part of life’s elixir is needed to remove excess electrons generated by this process. Application of the science of breath, mixing oxygen and awareness, stimulates our well-being. Properly apportioning oxygen to the body’s metabolic mix is like tweaking air and gasoline ratios for an engine’s best function.
Recently there has been enlightenment on the capabilities of nutritional science, with an accrued appreciation of how proper nutrients can best serve the deepest workings of our metabolism. Getting better faster owes greatly to nutritional wisdom, boosting biological energy production, adding years to life span. (Hunger Connections: What roles for hypnosis and meditation? www.triroc.com/sunnen).
The close integration of thoughts, emotions and memory is necessary for heightened well-being. Self-reflection and the quest for a working personal philosophy can make this happen. While this is a life-long journey for everyone, focusing on these questions via the science and art of psychotherapy can accelerate the process. Insightful self-understanding with a view to heighten personal development is the province of all manner of psychotherapies, from psychoanalysis to cognitive-behavioral approaches.
Hypnotherapy is the art of accessing knowledge usually obscured to daily consciousness and reaching mental capacities usually surpassing usual functions. Medical hypnosis, which has solid benefits for the control of apprehension, pain and discomfort, can be integrated into the treatment of any physical condition that embodies a psychological component (and that’s most of them); and through hypnosis’ ability to access and energize internal systems, physical recuperation is stimulated. (“Medical hypnosis in the hospital,” and “Hypnosis and self-hypnosis in mastering medical procedures and operations,” www.triroc.com/sunnen).
Hypnotherapy also finds application in unfolding talents applied to the creative arts: acting, painting, music, creative writing, public speaking, etc. Hypnosis has the capacity to extricate brain circuits from their usual trajectories, opening consciousness gateways to new avenues of inspiration (“Hypnosis and meditation as states of heightened brain plasticity,” and “Spiritual epiphanies during hypnosis,” www.triroc.com/sunnen).
Modern hypnosis often incorporates meditative techniques. This merger can be called Hypno-meditation. A spectrum of beneficial derivations flows from this fusion of two centuries of Western hypnosis science with thousands of years of Eastern meditation discoveries (“ Speed hypnosis versus meditative hypnosis in clinical care,” www.triroc.com/sunnen).
Inviting all life’s networks for transcending self.
The following practices possess the capacity to involve varied dimensions of ourselves in the augmentation of wellness and personal actualization. A central component of these techniques calls on a star ingredient, the one whose essence still humbly defies all scientific explanation: Awareness (“The neurology of Awareness:” www.triroc.com/sunnen).
The practices below can be approached with or without accompanying sentience. Developing one’s muscular competence without the infusion of awareness, for example, still yield benefits, as it limbers the body, increases stamina and encourages organ system harmony. But it is the addition of awareness that makes possible reaching the highest levels of body-mind entente and performance.
- Exercise, awareness-infused. Any physical engagement or activity can be performed robotically. Or, it may be imbued with various degrees of “being in the moment,” in dedicated awareness. Instead of walking at a usual brisk pace try walking in extreme slowdown mode, in a safe place, eyes closed. Or, do the same with a mundane movement, performed daily and taken for granted, like picking up a utensil. Or, apply the exercise to a stationary bicycle, with incremental step-up of the pace. As the gesture is made in sightless ultra-slow motion, awareness illuminates all manner of muscle and joint movements, mostly unknown to the wakeful mind in busy daily life. The internal workings of the body suddenly come into better view. The feeling of inner space expands. The conscious discovery of one’s body mechanics can be an endless source of wonderment and self-knowledge. But more than that: It adds a dimension of self-perception and sensitivity that gradually comes to merge into a newly appreciated body schema, where motions are endowed with the fluidity derived from new awareness.
- Breathing, in full sentience. Ever since the beginnings of meditation’s evolution thousands of years ago, the breathing process has held high esteem for its unique properties. Indeed, breathing is a gateway to the body’s nervous system because it embodies the very interface between willful voluntary pathways on one hand, and automatic reflex pathways on the other. Hyper or hypoventilation can both be fully willful. Alternatively, one can allow the breathing process to run by itself, robotically, without paying it much mind.
Consistently applied to ongoing breathing cycles, awareness encourages the sensory illumination of the respiratory tree and the exploration of neuronal pathways activating the muscles of the chest wall, the abdomen and the diaphragm.
The ongoing mindful experiencing of air’s ebb and flow invites a deeper rhythm that makes possible reaching beyond breathing, into networks that, through their finest tendrils, touch the functions of the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, genito-urinary organs, and the immune system (“Meditative treatment of erectile dysfunction,” www.triroc.com/sunnen).
- Autogenic Training (AT). AT is a century-old European method of bodily exploration that can be called Western yoga. Designed to induce the experiences commonly reported in hypnosis, AT first dispatches awareness to the creation of sensations that replicate the nervous system’s schema for deep relaxation.
Try assuming a balanced bodily position where the urge to move is close to nil, close your eyes, then send your feelings into the substance of one of your arms. Start with a hand, imbuing it with sensations of heaviness and pleasant warmth. Progressively extend these sensations to its arm, then your other arm, legs, back, and entire body. Feeling of lightness may then merge, as may sensations of body volume expansion. Autogenic Training progresses from here to reach more transcendent levels (“Tummo Meditation Versus Autogenic Training,” www.triroc.com/sunnen).
- Self-hypnosis. Those with aptitudes for imaginative thinking and projection into emotional states best master self-hypnosis. Learning to experience self-hypnosis can be a valuable tool for life. Relaxation offers all manner of health benefits from sheer stress reduction. Self-hypnosis allows for the development of positive mind states that favor successful life outcomes. Similarly, inhibitory feelings such as anxiety and anger and ubiquitous emotions such as hurt, shame, guilt, sadness and low self-esteem can progressively loosen their painful grip.
- Meditative practices, numerous and varied in style and teachings, aim to bestow the practitioner with prizes of higher well-being. The first task is finding a meditative routine resonating with one’s constitution and uniqueness. Meditation should not be arduous or tedious, but rather enjoyable and anticipated with pleasure.
There is a unifying principle in meditation: It is mindful, meaning that awareness is involved in all aspects of its practice. Differences among meditative practices have to do with how and where awareness is directed, with the knowledge that it can involve centering on a bodily function like breathing, on a motion or movement; a posture; a sound or chant; a visual image; a spiritual concept; on itself; or on higher emotional states.
Awareness is difficult to sustain in a continuous unwavering trajectory. Keeping its thrust in focus is challenging for most. Always ready to distract, but still capable of learning to behave, are the “monkeys’ antics,” a metaphor for the jumping thoughts that consistently attempt to derail focus on awareness.
- Yoga. Several variations in Yoga are practiced. Finding a Yoga style best suited to one’s constitution is a first task. Yoga implies a melding of dimensions of mind and body, into an experience of inner flow. Yoga teaches that awareness, the mind’s ultimate distillate, can cross mind-body boundaries, implicating itself in the most subtle bodily processes.
Classical Yoga makes use of postures called asanas that guide the body to assume special configurations, each assigned to bring focus to selected internal networks. While many seek to attain perfection of form in their expression of asanas, it is the awareness infusing them that powers their transformative capacity.
Tai Chi, Aikido, and related arts.
These meditative arts highlight the potential of awareness as it is expressed through movement. They are most useful for individuals who have tendencies to be kinetic. Tai Chi, for example, invites sequences of slow movements in full sentience. In fact, the slower and more mindfully these bodily motions can be performed, the more body/mind integration they will bring.
Talk therapies make use of brain circuitries that involve language networks, memory centers, limbic emotional systems and forebrain higher order cognitive functions. They do not, however, directly involve many other mind-body networks that are necessary for a more comprehensive attainment of wellness.
This paper makes a case for pairing any one selected talk therapy with at least one non-verbal therapy for maximal nervous system engagement. Cited are awareness-enhanced physical exercise; mindful breathing; meditative therapies; self- hypnosis; Autogenic Training; Yoga; Tai Chi; Aikido and related arts; and the creative arts. There are many others. The choice of choosing the most synergistic pairing is an art in itself. The key component to making all this work at its best is the active engagement of life’s signature gift: Awareness. Given its fluidity and capacity for expansion in the entire nervous system, awareness, via techniques cited, can provide vivid colors to interior landscapes.
References and suggested readings.
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Gérard V. Sunnen M.D.
200 East 33rd St.
New York, NY 10016
Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology.
(Ret.) Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Bellevue-NYU Medical Center, New York
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