In the last post, What is different about Mickel Therapy? Part 1, I talked of the misconception of the separation between mind and body.
If we think instead of the conscious mind as being just one aspect of a wider whole that goes into making up who we are – which includes physical needs, instincts, primal emotions and subconscious desires – then it helps us to avoid many of the problems thrown up by the simplistic mind/body separation model.
Whatever the initial trigger for the ME/CFS might have been, according to MT (Mickel Therapy) and other mid-brain based theories, those with this and related conditions are now dealing with the result of a part of the brain no longer properly regulating certain hormone and chemical signals to the rest of the body.
The question plaguing the ME/CFS and medical communities has been what to do about it. The 2 leading recommended treatments are GET (Graded Exercise Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
GET works on the idea that you establish an energy baseline – understand what you can do physically in any one day – then slowly but steadily increase your activity levels and train yourself to get fitter. Some claim this has helped, but for many it doesn’t, and for some it can actually make them worse, as the body is already exhausted so making it work even harder just increases the fatigue and damage.
CBT looks at the impact negative thoughts can have on your mood. In brief, you learn strategies to catch your negative thinking patterns and change them. The idea is over time you should you learn to develop a more positive outlook and feel better about yourself and the world. The medical profession admit this is not a cure for ME/CFS, but do recommend it as a useful coping mechanism for dealing with a long term, chronic condition.
Mickel Therapy, on the other hand, comes at the problem pretty much from the opposite end to CBT: rather than try and use the conscious mind to change the emotions, MT is about learning to listen to the body and emotions and then change your actions.
With regard to ME/CFS and related conditions, the MT view of symptoms – muscle & joint pains, anxiety, depression, brain fog, IBS, fatigue etc – is that the body is trying to communicate with the conscious mind, but is not being listened to.
The older, more primal areas of the mind and body do not communicate in language – that is the preserve of the conscious mind only. So when we hear a loud bang, we jump and our heart starts racing; when a loved one leaves, we feel a sense of loss; when we sit on a pin, we feel a stab of pain. These are all instructions from the body and other parts of the brain to take some kind of survival action – in these cases, run away from danger, connect with others so we are not alone (and thus vulnerable to predators), or pull the pin out of our arse to avoid blood loss and/or infection.
But what would happen if we ignored these signals? What if, instead of standing up and removing the pin, we decided to distract ourselves from the pain by watching a DVD, or try and dull it down with painkillers? The body can’t literally say, “Excuse me mate, but this situation really isn’t very good for us, you know, so will you please remove that bloody pin!” All it can do is make the pain worse and through feelings of discomfort try and let us know we should do something about it.
Symptoms, then, are signposts to something being wrong. If we respond to them appropriately, they will ease off, because they are no longer necessary.
But in our culture, we are taught to override and suppress uncomfortable symptoms or “bad” emotions – ignore them, pretend they don’t exist, cover them up with food/alcohol/sex/shopping/gambling/anti-depressants/insert medication of choice. And part of this comes down to the delusion that the conscious mind is the authority in charge that should be giving the instructions to the body and primal emotions.
So instead of listening, and working with the brain and body to constructively deal with the symptoms, our conscious minds set about overriding them.
Our culture is also selling us distractions in the name of solutions – the consumer society makes us feel inadequate so we will buy more, bigger and newer, in order to make ourselves feel better. And we are surrounded by newspapers, TV and Facebook alerts, triggering feelings of fear, outrage, panic and righteous indignation, dozens of times every day. Generating these responses in us sells papers, keep us tuned in and makes sure we “share” with all our online friends.
This, then, is a problem for most people, but if your brain has now got the fight-or-flight gateway firmly wedged open, then it’s disastrous. Not only is the system already primed, it is being bombarded with further triggers, which are then being assisted by the conscious mind - thinking it is in charge and leading the fight in completely the wrong direction. Rather than tackling the symptoms, we are now reinforcing them.
So in contrast with drug or psychotherapies, the approach of MT is to start monitoring the symptoms – and instead of trying to cover them up or instruct them to be otherwise, we need to be looking for the clues they are trying to offer.
What were we doing when they appeared or got worse? How did we respond to them? And how might we change our response in a way that satisfied our body rather than overruled it?
And it doesn’t just have to be the obvious big stuff that impacts on us. Many of the triggers can be small and seemingly insignificant, so we brush them aside rather than deal with them.
At this point, an example would probably be a good idea. So let’s pick a trivial one like being the only one in the house who doesn’t squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle.
Every time everyone else cleans their teeth, they squeeze from the middle or the top of the tube, so every time I go to clean my teeth, I have to push the toothpaste up from the bottom as there’s not enough left at the top for me to get any toothpaste out. Is it a big deal in the larger scale of life, with wars, famines, global financial meltdowns? Well, of course not. It’s what you might call a 1/10 issue. But, my response could be a 5/10 or on a really bad day, 8/10 – I HAVE TOLD EVERYONE ABOUT THIS A MILLION BLOODY TIMES! I AM FED UP WITH NOT BEING TAKEN SERIOUSLY!!! – it is not the problem itself, but the injustice or unfairness it represents.
But to make such a huge fuss about a toothpaste tube would seem so stupid, so I won’t react, I won’t do anything, because I don’t want to appear petty and trivial.
So every time I go to clean my teeth, I get the emotional kick in the gut, but do nothing about it. And the pathways in the brain get reinforced.
There’s a definition of madness, which is continually doing the same thing, yet somehow expecting different results. Or as another old saying puts it, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.”
With the example of the toothpaste tube, I keep expecting that either other people will finally see the wisdom in squeezing from the bottom, or I’ll stop being bothered about it. But as my behaviour never changes, neither does the situation, nor my reactions. Each time I clean my teeth, the pathways become more deeply embedded.
The solution, then, it to look for other ways to respond. Perhaps I’ll write instructions on where to squeeze the tube, on the mirror, in toothpaste – it might get everyone’s attention. Or maybe I just buy my own toothpaste tube and keep it on a shelf out of reach of everyone else. It might require a bit of trial and error, but if I keep looking for alternatives until I find one, then sooner or later I will come across a solution whereby I no longer get the feeling of injustice and unfairness.
Now I’m not saying that toothpastes tubes caused, or kept me in my Fatigue. I’m using it as an example of how there can be hundreds of minor things throughout the day where our immediate reaction is disproportionate to the event. And when you have a brain primed for fight-or-flight responses – where the gateway is jammed open and stress will exaggerate all your symptoms – then the accumulative effect, day in day out, will make either make the condition worse, or at the very least, impede recovery.
So the approach of Mickel Therapy is to start observing your symptoms and your reactions – your thoughts and emotions. The idea is to look for your underlying feelings – what is the core emotion you are feeling when the symptoms increase their intensity?
If you can identify the core emotions behind the symptoms and find a way to acknowledge and deal with them in a positive manner, then what begins to happen is the symptoms start to ease off. So by learning how to listen and respond to what’s going on at deeper levels, and stop your conscious mind leaping in and scuppering everything, you can effectively start to rewire your brain’s stress response mechanisms.
This approach, then, is not as simple as taking a pill or sitting and telling a sympathetic soul all your problems. It requires making a fundamental shift in your understanding of who you are and how you are interacting with yourself and the world. And then it requires learning, and applying, new skills, new ways of being.
As I said at the end of the TV programme, it's not a cure, as a cure implies returning to our previous self. This is about constructing a new version of who we are - one who understands the conscious mind is a useful part of the whole, but is certainly not the one in charge.
These posts have turned out to be much longer than I anticipated, so I’ll stop here, and Part 3 will be about how I have applied these principles to my own condition and found myself much improved.