By Bette Lamont
Jan was having a hard time in this, her 48th year. Life had become more stressful as her job responsibilities had increased, and she felt less able to cope with the stress. It was spilling over into her social life, which had become nearly nonexistent, as Jan now stayed home to avoid the confusion and over-stimulation of parties and evenings with friends. Tasks were beginning to seem overwhelming, from going to the grocery store, to cleaning her desk. It didn’t help that she had become more and more insomniac, which, she had heard from several friends, “just happens” as you grow older. Jan’s mother had died nearly five years before, and that had been a very hard year, but she didn’t think she should still be this stressed about the death.
Jan felt she needed counseling and found an excellent therapist who was both nurturing and clear in helping Jan reach her goals. Over several months Jan began to look at some of her unrealistic expectations about her performance at work. She began to understand her tendency to perfectionism in her social life, and she learned new coping mechanisms for stress. Still she felt life was a delicate balancing act. The “too-muchness” of everyday existence threatened to overwhelm her and, despite her changing attitudes, her insomnia persisted. In addition, the extra 25 pounds she had gained in her 30’s would not yield to any diet. She was almost always cold, except for the hottest days of mid-summer. She hated how “scatterbrained” she had become, locking her keys in the car, forgetting to sign checks she had written to pay bills, and overlooking appointments in her date book.
Jan is not a real person, but a composite of people with whom we have worked with at Developmental Movement Consultants. Her situation is typical of an individual who is dealing with symptoms that have their roots in a neurological dysfunction, but that appear to be psychological problems.
Neurology and psychology intertwine in each of us to determine how we experience the world, how we process our experiences, and how we, in turn, act upon the world. When life is going smoothly, it is probably true that we perceive the world clearly, interpret what we perceive easily and accurately, and respond appropriately.
When life becomes confusing, when our responses no longer seem appropriate, when we feel anxious, stressed out, and unable to cope, many of us make the wise choice to seek psychotherapy to help us get back on track again.
However, when despite the best efforts of both client and therapist some problems just won’t go away, don’t seem to change fast enough, or don’t respond to the approaches of the therapist, it is important to look at possible neurological reasons for our dysfunctions.
Our neurological organization, when disrupted by injury, birth trauma, and illness, can cause a wide variety of problems that may initially look like psychological issues. However, these problems do not respond easily to psychotherapy.
The ‘Jan’, of our story, was sent to Developmental Movement Consultants by her therapist, and a team approach to her situation was developed. This program included continuing weekly therapy and a daily program of neuro-physical exercises. Her history revealed that at the age of 38 Jan was a passenger in a car that was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light. Jan was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown into the windshield, which she cracked with her head. While she did not lose consciousness, she was taken to the hospital for evaluation and released with a clean bill of health. For two months a chiropractor worked with her on a subluxation in her cervical spine, a result of the accident that was causing her pain and stiffness. When these problems were gone, Jan considered the matter finished.
In the three months following the accident, Jan’s weight shot up from a lifetime set point of 132 pounds to 157 pounds. Over a ten-year period she had gone on several diets, losing and gaining 10 or so pounds, and finally giving up and attributing her gain to “middle age spread.” Jan was a healthy and competent person both before the accident and following it. However, a group of disabilities had developed during the decade since her accident, causing her to need to use an enormous amount of effort to accomplish tasks that should have taken care of themselves (remembering, perceiving accurately, regulating body temperature, and screening stimuli). Her disabilities were consistent with the findings of our Functional Neurological Profile and Jan was put on a program of neuro-physical exercises.
The tools we use at Developmental Movement Consultants were developed nearly 40 years ago, initially for the treatment of children with learning disabilities or those with brain injuries or non-progressive central nervous system disorders including cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
In the past dozen years a number of therapists have become interested in the implications of neurological dysfunction for mental health and emotional growth. The nervous system impairments arising from such things as toxic chemicals (drugs and alcohol), high fevers, and minor strokes have left victims with a wide variety of dysfunctions requiring new approaches to healing.
A Salem, Oregon psychotherapist, Pamela Lyons-Nelson has taken a serious look at the patterns of neurological dysfunction among her clients. Whenever a neurological impairment of any degree is suspected, clients are sent for a Functional Neurological Evaluation and are assigned a program of neuro-physical exercises to do while they continue in therapy.
Ms. Nelson writes, “In my work with average middle class adults and their families, I see certain correlations between personality/character and central nervous system disorganization as determined by the Functional Neurological Evaluation.” (The diagnostic tool used at the Developmental Movement Center.)
Ms. Nelson goes on to list dysfunctions in relation to functional levels of the pons, midbrain, and cortex. She begins with the lowest of the three levels, the pons, a brain stem structure.
Patients whose Functional Neurological Evaluation shows disorganization at the level of the pons seem to be working with survival level issues including:
Inappropriate response to situation: (a) patient survival is perceived as threatened when the stimulus is not intense enough to threaten life, and (b) patient will freeze or rage inappropriately in response to negatively perceived stimuli.
Schizoid issues — whether or not patient has a right to exist. The universe is basically hostile (unresponsive/indifferent) toward the patient.
Feeling overwhelmed by hostile forces.
Patients who have done a neurodevelopmental program to integrate this level have a better ability to know: (a) they belong, (b) they can survive, and (c) they have a place in the universe.
Patients whose evaluation shows disorganization at the level of the midbrain display a very different set of problems that are oriented toward quality of life issues:
Disturbances in hypothalamic functions: appetite, temperature, rest/activity cycles, hormone balance (the issues that result in weight problems, usually weight gain), feeling cold, depression, insomnia, anxiety, inability to make decisions, allergies, hypochondria — the annoying stuff that diminishes the quality of life.
Typically disorganized (or overcompensatingly organized) or depressed (or overcompensatingly optimistic).
Express trouble “coping” (while in very little danger of actually “falling apart”), stressed out.
Overreaction to events (emotionally fairly labile) and feeling unable to choose or perceive the “right” course of action.
Problems with balance in all of its aspects: mental, physical, and emotional.
Patients who have done a neurodevelopmental program to integrate this level find themselves experiencing: (a) a more “balanced” lifestyle, (b) a sense of their own limits as being okay, (c) release from stress, and (d) the ability to see more clearly.
Patients whose evaluation shows disorganization at the level of the cortex are often working on issues of creativity and clear thinking. These issues seem to be less of a problem after lower levels are taken care of. What is usually left are lateralization problems that affect storage and retrieval of information, etc.
Patients who have done a neurodevelopmental program to fix this level report experiencing improvement in: (a) clear thinking – seeing the whole pattern of things, (b) creativity, (c) coordination (physical), (d) good organizational skills in life, and (e) increased ability to read or do mathematics, whichever area was weak.
Psychotherapists have begun to use these concepts and the methods of Developmental Movement in treatment as a sorting device. It helps both the therapist and the patient become clear about which issues are neurological and which are psychological.
When this happens, the therapeutic process is greatly enhanced and accelerated. One client remarked that in the past, her therapy had progressed forward in a step-by step manner. When she began doing a program of neuro-physical exercises, her growth rate expanded geometrically and she felt herself progressing more rapidly than at any previous time.
In the case of a patient like Jan, a personalized neurodevelopmental program would be assigned. We would expect to address, through our neurological organization work, her hypothalamic complaints (weight, insomnia, and temperature regulation). We would anticipate being able to impact her filtering/screening problems, which would aid her in dealing with stress and the “too muchness” of life. We also have seen short-term memory and organization problems improve in clients doing this work.
Developmental programs can be added to the “growth plan” for clients in psychotherapy providing a team approach to personal growth in cases where neurological disorganization or impairment is suspected due to known or unknown causes.
Understanding how neurological impairments impinge on psychological health is, we believe, essential for clients serious about overcoming limiting behaviors, perceptions, and attitudes. This information gives therapists an important new way to view dysfunctions in some of their clients.