Pain, Sleep, Seizures: Windows to Healthy, and Imbalanced, Wakefulness 

The beginning of August offered a powerful experience for me when a wide-ranging group of anthroposophic doctors, nurses and therapists gathered for a conference about “Transforming Chronic Pain–a Spiritual Task for Our Time.” The meeting included very inspiring presentations from several doctors in Europe, especially one with deep experience in palliative care and another with very poor and challenged patients in central London. After coming back to practice in Denver, I’ve been struck by the many different variations of pain and how it represents an imbalance, or a kind of distortion, of normal wakeful consciousness and of waking and sleeping processes. This has happened to me before: I go to a meeting and learn about special topic, then I come back and find a whole group of people who are struggling with just that kind of illness or injury and need this knowledge.

In Anthropsophic Medicine, wakeful consciousness is observed and understood to be part of a spectrum of sensing activity. We can all affirm that there are parts of our body that are usually fully awake and fully open to outside impressions (like the eye). There are also parts of the body that can be consciously felt when needed– a kind of “turning on” our sensing when we need to– but which are mostly unconscious (like the skin on your lower leg, or your back, or your scalp). Lastly, there are parts that are busy, actively functioning, but not usually part of our daily consciousness (like the gallbladder, the joints, the brain).  Many anthroposophic medicines and treatments are designed to either wake up what is too asleep, or help put to sleep a process that has become too aware and is overly conscious.  These treatments are not necessarily as powerful as conventional medicines, but they have a few important differences–they are non-addictive and they work, at their core, to balance the body and empower each individual person to find better health.

So, here is a list of some small snippets of thought that came to me this month when working with striking and brave individuals in my practice:

  • Pain is an exaggerated sensing process that has become stuck and is usually localized to a particular part of the body or a particular organ system. We feel something too much.  Even a pleasant sensation (heat, cold, pressure) can become painful when it becomes too strong.
  • Insomnia is an inability to fall asleep reliably and rhythmically. It is a one-sided wakefulness that gets stuck. The physiologic activities that support active consciousness get turned on and the body can no longer remember how to quiet the senses or how to release from outside impressions.
  • Anxiety comes when too much of our physiology shifts so that we become hyper-vigilant. Anxiety has its roots in our body’s healthy capacities for self-protection that come to the fore with crisis or risk, but anxiety means that this vigilance lasts too long, far beyond the time when it has stopped being appropriate and useful (continuing on when we are no longer in danger and there is no immediate crisis).
  • Narcolepsy happens when the releasing process that moves us into sleep loses its rhythm, so that we lose our conscious wakefulness during the day.  We alternate too quickly, and unpredictably, between waking and sleeping.  We need to support and balance both sides of that waking/sleeping rhythm.
  • Night terrors come if we get stuck in a middle, transition place between waking and sleeping.  With a night terror, we are usually aware of inner impressions and respond to them–moving, speaking, yelling, but the waking process hasn’t really finished so we are still not able to take in impressions from the outside environment (like the voice of parent).
  • Seizures occur when there is a blocking or a damming up of wakefulness forces and we lose contact with the outside environment.  We lose consciousness, perhaps only briefly, but without falling asleep. Memory is affected, responsiveness stops. These can be helped by trying to release the blockage.
  • OCD symptoms come if a thought forms that is overly structured, one which remains in consciousness long after it is helpful. It sticks around even after it has been addressed, like washing hands or needing to see if a door is locked. Thoughts need to be softened, dissolved, so that they can be forgotten.
  • Dysautonomia represents an imbalance or a dysregulation of the parts of our body which usually carry on without conscious guidance: processes like digestion, circulation, sleep, sweating.  These things are all hard to influence because they are in a kind of hidden realm.  Our unconscious physiology needs to be reminded of its proper roles.
  • Disturbances of touch: either too sensitive (hyperesthesia, think ticklish to the point of pain) or not enough sensitivity (hypoesthesia, as if you were wearing gloves during all of your activities). We need to balance sensing thresholds.
  • Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure and can be a part of some deep depressions, where all of our inner light disappears.  We need to find our light and sense again the good parts about being in our body and reawaken our inner sensing for joy and meaning.
Thinking about the spectrum of conscious-to-unconscious physiology in the body can provide therapeutic clues for situations that otherwise seem quite mysterious or unsolvable.
This is why I enjoy practicing Anthroposophic Medicine.
Dr. Blanning


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