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   . theory .

Chronic Illness Represents a Disruption in Patterns of Regulation and Perception

Summary
Based on a review of multidisciplinary research.
Perspectives by Veronique Mead
(see article with references below)

The Role of the Brain in Chronic Illness
  • The nervous system interacts with and regulates all other organ systems, influencing heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, etc...

  • The nervous system promotes balance (homeostasis) through the two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous system.

The Role of the Environment in Chronic Illness
  • The nervous system learns how to perceive its environment through experience, particularly in early life and through trauma.

  • Perception affects how the nervous system regulates thoughts, emotions, and physiology.

  • When the nervous system perceives its environment as threatening, it responds with survival strategies of fight/flight (sympathetic nervous system) , and faint or freeze (parasympathetic nervous system) at the expense of states that facilitate growth, learning, and rest.

  • The repeated perception of threat influences risk for chronic illness and emotional as well as physical symptoms.

  • Chronic illness and symptoms represent a change in nervous system patterns, such as when one branch of the autonomic nervous system dominates over another or exaggerated cycling between states of sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal occurs.

  • The more accurately an organism perceives its environment, the more likely it will regulate effectively through rapid returns from survival states to states that promote growth and creativity. These latter states support the experience of balance, homeostasis, and health.

Origins of Chronic Illness: Putting it all Together
  • Most chronic diseases are known to be influenced by gene-environment interactions.

  • Environmental factors play an important role in contibuting to the origins of chronic illness and are difficult to understand from medical perspectives. From the lens of somatic psychology, environmental factors affect risk for disease because they influence perception and regulation of the nervous system. This lens identifies and explains a pattern linking risk factors that precede many chronic illnesses. The phases include:

    1. Stressor(s) in early life (during the prenatal period, labor and delivery, and/or in childhood) initiates a conditioned response in which the nervous system perceives its environment as threatening and responds with a survival state such as fight, flight or freeze.

    2. A Latency period lasting days, months or years, during which time symptoms are absent but changes begin in the body, kindles and brews below the surface. In type 1 diabetes, for example, the immune system selectively destroys only insulin-producing cells and this process can occur over a period of 10 years prior to diagnosis.

    3. A Significant Stressor (loss of a loved one, a move to another school, an infection, a wedding or job promotion,...) occurs in the 2-3 years prior to the onset of symptoms or disease and unmasks the conditioned response of altered nervous system functioning.

    4. Symptom onset is gradual (chronic fatigue, MS) or rapid (type 1 diabetes) in the 2-3 years following a signficiant life stressor.

    Development of symptoms is not inevitable and only a small number of those at risk ever develop disease or chronic symptoms. For example, antibodies to insulin-producing cells do not always result in type 1 diabetes, and these antibodies frequently disappear spontaneously.

    The 4 phases described above appear to provide new perspectives for understanding origins of chronic illnesses such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and asthma, among others.


    References
    View or Download PDF (200k) of a published article (160 references, Medical Hypotheses 2004, vol 63(6), pp 1035-1046) for more information on these perspectives, which draw from scientific research demonstrating the role of environmental factors in nervous system development and regulation, and in origins of disease. Illustrated with a case study of type 1 diabetes.


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