Controversy abounds in medicine, especially when it comes to alternative allergy treatments, but there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: feeling calmer and more relaxed is good for your health. There are many ways in which a person’s mental and emotional state can affect their allergies or other sensitivity reactions, and these help to explain the beneficial effects of relaxation and other alternative allergy treatments methods.
There are several different types of approach that can help in the quest for a calmer state of mind and a more relaxed state of body:
• Straightforward relaxation techniques which you learn and then practise for yourself, either on a daily basis, or whenever you need them, or both. Examples include relaxation exercises of various kinds, biofeedback, autogenic training and self-hypnosis.
• Relaxation techniques that are rooted in spiritual practice, such as meditation, yoga, t’ai chi or chi kung (ql gong). Some other martial arts, in addition to t’ai chi, also have a strong element of spiritual practice.
• Treatment techniques such as massage, aromatherapy, reflexology and short courses of hypnotherapy, that are intended to help you feel more relaxed. Acupuncture can also have this effect. Some therapists providing this type of treatment will also teach you simple relaxation exercises to use at home.
• Investigative approaches that look into the fundamental causes of tension, and attempt to deal with deep-seated emotional problems: psychotherapy (in its many different forms), psychoanalysis, long-term hypnotherapy when this has psychotherapeutic aims, and biodynamic massage.
In the long run, approaches that make you dependent on another person (an aromatherapist or reflexologist, for example), in order to feel relaxed, are usually less helpful than those that give you an active role. If you are learning and practising a technique, as with relaxation exercises or yoga, this puts you in charge of your state of mind.
The techniques that are rooted in spiritual practice, especially meditation and yoga, are particularly helpful because they invite you to take a very broad view of the problems that face you, and the situations that cause you stress. Firstly, rather than focusing very narrowly on your own tense muscles and recurring difficulties, they look at the human situation as a whole – at the basic causes of tension and unhappiness in human beings. Secondly, rather than trying to graft a relaxed viewpoint onto a horribly unrelaxed daily existence (which is what most of us now endure) a regular meditation practice can result in a fundamental and long-lasting change in outlook, with a greater sense of wholeness, direction and stability.
This is something that happens naturally within the stillness of meditation practice, and it should be very much an individual process of change, not something imposed from outside. At a purely practical level, a spiritual practice tends to improve relationships with other people, and since a great deal of our stress is caused by the people around us, any improvement in our social interactions can reduce stress enormously.
Some kind of psychotherapeutic approach may be the best choice for those who have tried and failed with other techniques, or achieved only a temporary reduction in stress levels. By tackling the problems at a deeper level, it is often possible
to achieve a more profound and long-lasting solution.
Many people discover that, whenever they try to relax or to meditate, they feel even more agitated and anxious. Others begin to cry, or show other signs of distress. Not surprisingly, people who react in this way quickly give up their attempts to unwind, because their responses are so disturbing.
Underlying these reactions to relaxation exercises there may be deep-seated problems, usually going back to childhood, that can only be held at arm’s length with the help of a tense and always-busy approach to life. Constant mental activity is part of this defensive strategy, which is why relaxing or meditating is such a frightening experience. Although it is tempting to run away from the problem, by plunging back into a life of frenetic activity, mental and physical, this is ultimately no solution. Some form of psychotherapy is usually needed to deal with these long-standing problems.
Whatever you decide to try, make sure that the teacher or therapist seems a calm and relaxed person. You should also look for someone who is sympathetic and supportive about your illness. Avoid like the plague those who attribute all allergies and other physical symptoms to mental or emotional problems. Such people can cause immense psychological damage – if you don’t get 100% better it will, of course, be your fault.
Allergy and Hypnotherapy
Hypnosis has a distinctly shady reputation, because of its use – or misuse – in stage and television performances. If hypnosis were not so valuable medically, it would probably be rejected entirely by conventional medicine, on the strength of this reputation. The fact that hypnotherapy is used by some entirely mainstream doctors, as a legitimate treatment for conditions such as atopic eczema, is a great testament to its effectiveness.
Hypnosis is certainly a mysterious phenomenon, and it is difficult to say exactly what happens when a person is hypnotised. Dr Ruth Lever, a qualified doctor who combines hypnotherapy with conventional medical practice, describes the hypnotic state as ‘not a form of unconsciousness but rather an altered form of consciousness, in which the patient is more open to suggestion than he would normally be, and in which a corridor is opened between the conscious and the subconscious mind’. It is certainly not true that the hypnotised person is under the control of the hypnotist or hypnotherapist. Autonomy is retained, and no one under hypnosis can be forced to do anything that is really against his or her will. While the person may experience a different state of mind, he or she remains aware of what is going on in the room and anything that is said.
The exact change in mental state during hypnosis varies greatly from one person to another. Some people respond far more readily than others, and go into a deeper hypnotic state. (These same people are more susceptible to placebo effect, a psychological response to drugs or other forms of treatment. At one time, it was thought that only adults could be hypnotised. Children seemed to be immune to hypnosis, but in fact they are just immune to the particular hypnotic techniques used for adults. With the right techniques, children can also be hypnotised.
Hypnotherapy treatment can be quite brief, taking only a few sessions.
This approach relies on suggestions from the therapist to achieve relaxation, a change in perceptions (e.g. that the skin feels cool and smooth, for someone with atopic eczema) and a change in habits (e.g. stopping scratching).
Another approach is to use hypnosis as a means towards achieving personal insight into emotional problems by accessing suppressed memories. This is a long-term treatment, which has much in common with psychotherapy. It should only be practised by those who have full psychotherapy training.
Scientific studies show that hypnotherapy can be of benefit in both asthma and atopic eczema. Make sure you get a really well-qualified hypnotherapist –preferably someone who also has conventional medical training, or psychotherapy training, and plenty of experience.
You may be given exercises in self-hypnosis to do at home, or tapes, possibly music tapes to be played at bedtime for children with eczema.
These can be very useful in reinforcing the messages from the hypnotherapy sessions about sleeping deeply and not scratching,Relaxation exercises Acquiring the knack of relaxing is a very personal thing – what works for one person will be useless for another. You may have to try several different techniques before you find one that is right for you.
Guided imagery is often an effective method, and increasingly popular with the widespread availability of relaxation tapes. The tape will ask you to sit in an armchair, or lie down, and picture the scenes described (’waves are lapping gently on the golden sand…’ etc.). If you are able to visualise the scene, this should induce a more relaxed state of mind – rather like the relaxation you get from watching a good film.
There are also tapes of special music, or music combined with natural sounds (waves, seagulls etc.) that are intended to produce a relaxed state of mind. Much of this music is incredibly banal, and it may irritate you more than relax you! However, there are also some excellent tapes available, so shop around.
One time-honoured method of relaxing is to sequentially contract, and then release, muscles in each part of the body, beginning with the hands or feet. This is known as Jacobsonian systematic relaxation training or progressive muscle relaxation. A study of children suffering from asthma found that this
training increased the peak flow by an impressive 32% for some children, although others did not do quite so well.
Allergy and Autogenic training
Based loosely on self-hypnosis, autogenic training is a very down-to-earth approach to relaxation which may be useful for anyone who is wary of things esoteric. You are taught to concentrate on different parts of your body in turn and imagine them growing warm and heavy. Beginning with ‘my right arm is heavy and warm…’ (repeated three times, either out loud or in your head) you work your way through the rest of the body: ‘my left arm…’ , ‘both my arms…’ , ‘my right leg…’ etc. You could, in theory, teach autogenic training to yourself, using a book, but it is helpful to have to go to a class. The teacher can encourage you to persist when you feel discouraged by your slow progress, and can help with any problems that arise.
Teachers of autogenic training often add more specific lines at the end of the exercise, such as ‘my breathing is calm and regular’ for asthmatics, or ‘my skin is soft and cool for someone with eczema. A study of asthmatics found that they performed better in basic lung-function tests after eight months of regular autogenic training.
Autogenic training can sometimes evoke strong reactions if there are long-standing problems or suppressed feelings and memories. In these situations, the training sessions may need to incorporate some elements of psychotherapy. Teachers vary in the extent to which they can offer this.
Allergy and Yoga
Yoga, in its original form, provides a complex religious philosophy of life. If followed with dedication, it affects the whole person –physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Those who have practised yoga seriously for many years achieve a great deal of mental focus and calmness, plus a surprising level of control over bodily functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. These profound changes are achieved through a combination of breathing exercises (pranayama), yoga postures (asanas), meditation, cleansing practices and careful attention to diet and way of life.
Yoga has now been practised in the West for over a century, and during that time it has been watered down and very thoroughly Westernised.
There are now forms of ‘yoga’ that consist of little more than stretching and relaxation. For the greatest benefits from yoga, look for classes with a more rigorous approach. If the particular kind of yoga is specified, e.g.
Hatha yoga or Kundallni yoga, the chances are that you’ll be getting something more authentic, lyengar yoga is the most common form taught in the West, but it is rather narrow, concentrating almost entirely on postures. A form of yoga that includes breathing exercises i probably more useful, especially if you have asthma. Before you sign up for a class, talk to the teacher and find out what it includes. If you are asthmatic, make sure the teacher is really experienced in working with asthmatics.
It is all too easy to get the yoga breathing exercises wrong, making the breaths too deep. This can turn into a form of hyperventilation.
Approaching the breathing exercises with a ‘got to get this right’ attitude is another pitfall for Westerners doing yoga. Most of us have the unfortunate habit – acquired in early childhood – of tensing up and ‘really trying’ when we are taught anything. This is a major obstacle to doing yoga breathing correctly.
Eastern attitudes are much more easy-going and this helps asthmatics much more, because relaxing as you breathe is the key to it all.
Allergy and Meditation
Basic meditation involves stilling the mind – either emptying it of all thoughts, or focusing it on one very simple object. This is fantastically difficult for most people at first, but with time, and regular daily meditation, it gradually becomes easier.
Many different forms of meditation exist. Most are part of a spiritual tradition such as Hinduism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, or Taoism (Daoism).
Meditation also forms part of yoga, and it is a cornerstone of most martial arts, though this tends to be played down when these are taught in the West. In each case, meditation takes a slightly different form and has different psychological effects.
A practice known as transcendental meditation (TM), is one of the most widely available – the teaching is arranged by a large international organisation, and can prove expensive. It is cheaper, and probably better in the long run, to go to classes in a local Buddhist centre or consult one of the many books and tapes on this subject. ect.
Allergy and Biofeedback
This is the most thoroughly scientific, rational and high-tech of alternative treatments. Biofeedback uses technology to measure the state of some part of your body – a part that is usually under automatic control, such as the electrical activity in your brain –and relays this information back to you (hence bio-feedback).
The feedback is shown by means of swinging needles on dials, flashing lights or bleeping sounds. The idea is that you gradually learn to influence the signal, by noticing that it has changed very slightly in the desired direction, and then re-running (in your head) the thoughts or feelings which apparently led to that change.
In quite a short space of time, you can, with this method, alter bodily states that are beyond voluntary control in most people.
Scientific studies show that biofeedback can teach people to regulate their heartbeat, for example, or reduce the amount of acid produced by the stomach. Although yoga practitioners have long claimed to be able to influence such bodily functions. it was only with the invention of biofeedback that scientists accepted this was possible. Biofeedback can also teach asthmatics to relax tight airway muscles, something that has been demonstrated convincingly in scientific trials. Unfortunately, the specialised equipment needed for this particular form of training is not generally available.
If you sign up for biofeedback, you will probably be trained with equipment that measures the electrical resistance of the skin (this varies with how tense you are) or the electrical activity of the brain. This kind of equipment can help you learn to relax at will.
Allergy and Massage and aromatherapy
There are many different varieties of massage, and most are relaxing to some extent. Regular massage treatments may improve your general sense of calmness and your ability to cope with life’s stresses and problems. In the case of long-standing asthma, massage may also help with tension in the muscles of the chest, back and neck, which frequently develop during asthma attacks.
Aromatherapy is really a form of massage, with the use of scented oils.
Bear in mind that the strong smell of some oils can provoke asthma attacks, while other oils can irritate the skin of people with atopic eczema or contact dermatitis.
Biodynamic massage involves a much more subtle touch than other forms of massage and it has different aims. The central objective is to identify bodily tensions that are a result of repressed memories or blocked impulses, and to rebalance the energies of the body. Think of this more as psychotherapy than as massage. It can be very helpful.
Reflexology and zero balancing Reflexology is based on the belief that specific zones on the soles of the feet correspond to particular parts of the body, and that stimulating those zones on the feet (by gentle pressure) can induce a healing process at distant points in the body. It may or may not be true – certainly, having your feet massaged is immensely pleasurable and can induce a profound relaxation.
Zero balancing is a sequence of static touch, gentle holding and light pressure, applied to specific parts of the body. It can induce a state of great well-being and calmness.
Allergy and Psychotherapy
The basic tenet of psychotherapy is that it is much more painful and exhausting to keep on repressing bad memories than it is to bring them out into the open, in a safe therapeutic situation, which allows you to process them and move on. Dealing with deep-seated problems lets you relax and live life more fully. In some cases it may help with physical symptoms, such as allergies.
There is a bewildering choice here, with so many different varieties of therapy on offer. Fortunately, according to recent research, they work to about the same extent, as long as you have a good rapport with the therapist. But if you don’t click, the therapy usually doesn’t work, however expert the therapist might be. So make sure you have an introductory meeting before committing yourself to a course of therapy, and don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ and try someone else, if you don’t feel quite right with the therapist. Counselling can also be valuable, and again you will do much better with someone you feel at home with, but who is not afraid to challenge you when necessary.