The right brain has a special relationship not only to imagery but to emotions. This is another of the major strengths it brings to the healing adventure. Many studies have shown that the right brain is specialized to recognize emotion in facial expressions, body language, speech, and even music. This is critical to healing because emotions are not only psychological but physical states that are at the root of a great deal of illness and disease. Rudolph Virchow, a nineteenth
century physician and founding father of the science of pathology, remarked that "Much illness is unhappiness sailing under a physiologic flag." Studies in England and the United States have found that from 50 to 75 percent of all problems presenting to a primary care clinic are emotional, social, or familial in origin, though they are being expressed by pain or illness.2
Emotions themselves are, of course, not unhealthy. On the contrary, they are a normal response to certain life events. Failure to acknowledge and express important emotions, however, is an important factor in illness, and one that is widespread in our society. In many ways we are emotional illiterates, lacking clear guidelines and traditions for expressing emotions in healthy
ways. It is difficult to know what to do with distressing emotions such as grief, fear, and anger, so we cope as best we can. We may unconsciously build layer upon layer of inner defenses to protect us from feeling unpleasant feelings. But strong emotion has a way of finding routes of expression. If not recognized and dealt with for what it is, it may manifest as pain or illness.
Social and family relationships to some extent depend on our ability to process emotions internally. We don't need to express every emotion we feel. But strong, persistent emotions need to be expressed or resolved, as their chronic denial may lead to physiologic imbalance and disease. The story of Alice is one example of how holding back feelings can manifest as pain, and how expressing them appropriately can lead to relief.
Alice was a woman in her forties who had recently undergone surgery and radiation to treat a breast cancer discovered several months earlier. She was an intelligent, composed woman who felt that imagery and visualization had already been enormously beneficial to her in tolerating her treatment and recovering from her cancer. She continued, however, to be bothered by a persistent pain between her shoulder blades. Repeated examinations and X-rays by her cancer specialists had failed to identify any physical cause of her pain. She wanted to understand why it was there, and what she needed to do for it to go away.
We decided to use an imagery technique you will learn later in this book: a talk with an imaginary wisdom figure called an inner advisor. Alice relaxed and imagined herself on a beautiful beach at the base of a high dim She asked for an image of her inner advisor and saw a man who looked like Merlin the Magician, tending a fire. After greeting him, she asked him about her back pain.
After a few seconds of silence, she broke into tears. She told me her advisor said she needed to ask for help, and that's what brought on the tears. She had been strong and courageous throughout the entire cancer ordeal, calming and reassuring to her husband and family. She always went for checkups and treatments alone, though it frightened her, because she felt her husband and kids would be frightened if she asked them for help or company. Though she was often aware of her own doubts, fears, and concerns about her illness and its treatment, she had never allowed herself to express them in an attempt to spare her loved ones from the anxiety it might produce.