Human beings are inherently ambitious. We want to get better at things. Not just practical things like building houses, earning more money or sending a rocket into space, but also ourselves. We want to get really good at being our best selves.
So we devour books, courses and Ted talks on how to be highly effective, positive thinking, focused, decluttered, vulnerable and more compassionate. To calm our fizzing brains, we colour in, join the dots or go forest bathing. Lots of us go in for mindfulness and meditation and the lucky ones are offered it in workplaces, schools and even prisons.
If all else fails, we're told it helps to just breathe, observe, even clean the house mindfully. And afterwards feel gratitude for the whole kit and caboodle – including the fact that the house looks dirty again.
And you know what? We're right. Turns out a healthy mind really is connected to a healthy body. This has always been accepted among practisers of unconventional medicine. But increasingly, those in the mainstream are recognising the connection and adjusting their practice accordingly. Not that there isn't a "fruity" stigma that they have to be careful to avoid.
Barbara Gabler is definitely in the unconventional camp. She's been called a body whisperer, an intuitive healer, even a witch. However, she rejects these labels and describes herself as a travel agent to yourself.
The story told by the Austrian-born woman currently living in Northland sounds fanciful, though there are many who are in no doubt of her bona fides. Respected German writer and film-maker Kurt Langbein has written about Gablerand interviewed her for his documentary Miracle Healing. A few members of the medical profession refer patients to her, but only when all other avenues have been exhausted.
Others, such as former Telecom CEO Theresa Gattung, have experienced her skills first-hand. The first time Gattung went to Gabler she said she was blown away by her insight. The two became friends and now regularly take holidays together. Gattung reports that when travelling through Europe, her friend was mobbed by people desperate to see her. Indeed she has a steady stream of clients both here and in Europe. An initial appointment and client assessment costs $250 but follow-ups range from $150-$200.
Nevertheless Gabler rejects the notion she is a healer.
"I will never say I can fix you. I don't fix people. I can help them. I trust that we have the ability to heal within ourselves if you get the right energies to flow, to loosen up old thought patterns. It's not mind over the body, it's the mind with the body. If the mind is stressed, these thoughts will manifest in the body – because where else would it manifest?"
A typical session starts with Gabler placing her hands on the patient for up to two hours while she "reads" them, deblocking stuck circuits and providing advice on self-healing aids such as diet, exercise, energy exercises like meridian balancing, homeopathy, detoxing or taking away blockages.
"Sometimes people are too ill, or in a state in which they could not process the 'underlying issue', so I 'take it away' by offering my body as a surrogate, processing it through my own body."
Gabler claims she has observed the disappearance of both serious and minor ailments in her clients.
Her approach might sound wacky but Gabler is careful not to dismiss conventional medicine.
Indeed, she was born 55 years ago into a Viennese medical family, her father a lung surgeon. But from about the age of 3 she says she observed dark spots or blocked energy in people. Her descriptions were so detailed, her father actually hid his medical books – though she could not yet read. She says she continued to have these insights, as well as premonitions of the future, but no one took her seriously. Gabler worried there was something wrong with her until her grandfather told her his Polish aunt, known as the village wise woman, was said to have had similar abilities. Langbein estimates that in German-speaking countries there are 50,000 people who claim to be able to influence people's health through their hands or their thoughts.
Despite her interest in the body, a career in medicine didn't appeal to Gabler. Instead, she studied anthropology at the University of Vienna. "I didn't want to look at the body like a car. I thought there's more to it than that."
Her fascination with releasing blocked energy is similar to the notion of chi in Chinese medicine or prana in the Indian tradition. Later Gabler studied acupressure, homeopathy, diet and detoxification in California. Though it was illegal to practice as an energy healer for financial gain in Austria, word of Gabler's reputation grew and it wasn't long before people began to flock to her.
Senior immunologist at Auckland Hospital Adjunct Professor Brian Broom has never met Gabler but he is sympathetic to the notion there are kinds of knowing that are outside the range accepted in "normal" modern culture. Broom began his career as an immunologist before retraining as a psychotherapist. He began to see links between physical illness and stressful life events such as work or marriage difficulties.
"It is ridiculous to regard body and mind as separate compartments. They co-develop from infancy to adulthood, so why treat disease as purely physical? And conversely it certainly doesn't make sense to people or help if you tell them their physical symptoms are all in their head, or that it's their fault."
Combining immunology and psychotherapy practice, he recognised that many illnesses have a symbolic component. "As I listened to people, I saw that often their illnesses matched their stories almost exactly. For instance, a woman came to me with a terrible rash on her face which she'd had for five years. The doctors wondered whether it might be an allergy. I asked her what happened around the time it started and she said her husband had become severely depressed. She said she coped with this by putting a 'brave face' on it. I suggested there might be a correlation between the two. We spent an hour talking about her feelings about this predicament and a little over a week later her rash had disappeared. It's a simple story but I have hundreds of such stories, some simple and some complex involving all kinds of physical disorders.
"So I started asking how could a mental experience lead to a symbolically accurate representation in the body? I didn't have an adequate explanation based on the dualism operating in conventional medicine."
Broom calls these correlations somatic metaphors, but he doesn't see every physical illness as symbolic.
In fact, he doesn't believe there is a single factor in any diagnosis. He sounds a word of caution about healers who automatically conclude that all illness can be reduced to emotion.
"We have bits of the truth but no one has the whole of it. Once we start to respond to the whole person, we not only draw attention to the connections between illness and life experience, we also begin to mobilise a new relational framework between ourselves and the patients. People develop trust in the clinician who is interested in the whole person, enabling them to begin a process of resolving important and painful things inside them that are being expressed in the body."
Associate professor in medical science at Auckland University Roger Booth is also convinced thoughts and feelings can influence our body. In some cases they can even alter our physiology and switch our genes on or off.
"Evolutionarily, we have developed systems to respond to potentially threatening situations. Our fight or flight mechanism activates the sympathetic autonomous systems with endocrine, blood pressure, digestive, breathing, pulse rate changes to deal with potential threats. Once the threat has passed things return to normal rapidly. But when we activate that system in a more chronic way we potentially cause damage to our bodies."
Like Broom and Gabler, he sees no separation between the mind and body. His term for it is the embedded mind or even the embodied mind. "As humans, what makes us human is not our bodies. Our body is a vehicle for a story. We each tell a story of who we are. Recognising where that story might not be helping may gives us potential to alter our health."
In fact, mind-body therapy often requires patients to write out the story of their lives, detailing major life events particularly around the time the illness manifested, exploring how people felt then and looking for recurring themes.
It's a similar process employed by the late Dr John Sarno for patients with back pain. Sarno was formerly Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University School of Medicine. His programme involves attending a lecture repudiating the structural explanation for back pain, instead looking at its emotional causes. He and other physicians report that this lecture, followed by a study programme – again requiring the writing out of life events and emotions – as well as group meetings has worked for thousands of patients whose back pain eventually vanished.
Booth says recent research showing the placebo effect works even if the person knows they are taking a placebo is evidence of what has been called "the meaning effect". Thanks to the meaning we ascribe to the interactions with the treatment or therapist, the medication can still be effective.
"I had an experience of that short while ago. I had an intractable cough that kept me awake. The doctor gave me codeine phosphate tablets to reduce the urge to cough. I took two and slept right through the next night. Six months later, I had the cough again and took the remaining tablets. Within seconds I stopped coughing. Physiologically, this is not enough time to affect me but I was happy with that. The belief that codeine will work was enough. It's possible that my neurophysics mimicked what the codeine did and had an immediate effect."
Professor Brian Broom is so convinced of what he now calls whole person-centred treatment, he started a whole person therapeutic service (The Arahura Centre) in Christchurch in 1987, set up and led post-graduate MindBody Healthcare courses for health professionals at AUT in 2006, and is behind the charitable self-help website wholeperson.healthcare.
He combines his specialist medical training and psychotherapy skills in his clinical practice at Auckland Hospital, though this requires delicacy because patients referred to immunology are not always aware they might be offered a whole person approach.
But if some patients are resistant, the medical profession is even more so. Broom laments that despite extensive writing (three books including his award winning Meaning-Full Disease), lecturing, giving seminars, running workshops here and overseas, plus the vast literature establishing a link between the immune system and emotional life, the medical profession remains stuck in a largely body-only mode. He warns me to expect pushback from this story.
The NZ Medical Association doesn't have a position on mind-body medicine, but chair Kate Baddock says as a doctor she is aware that the bio-feedback mechanism – where stress can impact the body – is a well-recognised phenomenon. The influence of stress-mediated pathways on the body can lead to inflammation which can lead to cancer, heart disease, stroke and elevated blood pressure, says Baddock. "If you can manage your stress levels – which is to do with how we think about ourselves and others, how we interpret events – then we can manage the consequences of stress. It's an area we don't explore as well as we might."
The NZMA's policy on alternative treatments states they must be subject to the same evidence-based scientific testing as conventional medicine. Without it, those promoting alternative treatments shouldn't make claims about their efficacy. Unless people have all the relevant information about a product or treatment, they are not in a position to make an informed choice.
Nevertheless a doctor currently referring patients to Gabler requested anonymity, for fear of the stigma that might attach if she went public. This GP first became aware of the mind-body connection when a patient with long-standing intractable severe back pain mysteriously improved. After questioning over several visits, the GP learned the pain disappeared around the time of her mother's death. The patient had previously supported the mother during a lengthy terminal illness. This connection piqued the GP's curiosity and inspired her to research integrative medicine and eventually to include a psycho-social diagnosis into her practice.
She met Gabler through another GP who referred patients to her and later, she herself recommended a patient with advanced bowel cancer work with Gabler. The patient had the usual chemo treatment as well as consultations with Gabler. Initially resistant, she eventually adopted Gabler's suggestions (diet, exercise, meditation, visualisations) and sailed through the chemo. Her cancer has since significantly reduced and her quality of life improved. The GP says Gabler is careful not to interfere with mainstream medicine but suggests measures to minimise the side effects of the treatment or the disease itself. She has been impressed by the accuracy of her diagnoses and her medical knowledge. She now refers patients to her but only when they have exhausted all other conventional options and have open mind. "If people are hostile, they won't engage and won't take her advice."
As for Gabler's use of homeopathy, for which there is no scientific evidence, the GP says:
"I don't prescribe it but Barbara is very comfortable with it. I don't have an issue with a patient using homeopathy. It may be the placebo effect but, even if it is, why not use it?"
Not everyone is so shy about acknowledging their connection with Barbara Gabler. Lindy Nelson, former nurse, chair of the Agri-Women's Development Trust, NZOM for services to agriculture and women, says she and her three children regularly consult the woman she calls a "wise counsellor".
"Of course we'd seek medical assistance in an emergency but most of us have underlying things like, say, our gut isn't working properly and it makes us feel out of sorts – and for things like that Barbara has supported us all. She integrates our thinking, our emotions and our body. The ideology behind modern medicine is less than 100 years old. She makes connections with stuff we used to know and have forgotten or lost connection with. Like if our bodies could talk, here's what they would say."
And if you think the views expressed by Gabler, Broom and the anonymous GP are "fruity", they're remarkably moderate compared to the conclusions of some other medical scientists. People such as Rupert Sheldrake, formerly a cell biologist at Cambridge University, who claims the mind is an energetic thought field outside our body and suggests the brain's memory may reside in this field. Or American developmental biologist Dr Bruce Lipton, who encourages people to think of themselves as their own self-biologist, able to control the chemistry of their own culture medium through their thoughts. No longer slaves to neurochemicals and hormones, we can now, he says, be the creator of our own lives.
Though Sheldrake and Lipton currently reside on the fringes of science, Professor Roger Booth has heard both men speak. He is impressed by their eloquence and finds their ideas intriguing. That doesn't mean he accepts their conclusions but he says it's important to be open to new ideas.
"Scientists often require a mind shift to move into a new area. What was once bizarre is later acceptable."
- Sunday Magazine (originally published on Stuff)