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A Classic Illustration of How the Mind can Affect the Body


Ken Alexander, MSP, MNCP, MNCH(Acc.), FRC


The following case history originally appeared in Appendix Three to my report, Analysis of Psychotherapy, Hypnotherapy and Orthomolecular Therapy treatments carried out between 1974 and 1982 in England, Canada and the United States, submitted to the British Medical Association in September 1983. It is a classic illustration of how the mind can affect the bodily functions. It also serves to demonstrate the effectiveness of Freud’s Free Association, a technique used in psychotherapy.


Mr. D., aged 49, married with 2 sons and 2 daughters; youngest daughter aged 9 still living at home but all the older children married. Mr. D’s occupation is a factory worker.


Presenting symptoms:


Very painful left shoulder causing an inability to raise his left arm above shoulder height with consequent difficulty in dressing himself and in performing some of his duties at the factory where he is employed. Onset was one year prior to his seeking psychotherapy, following a fall at the factory whilst hosing down the floor. He had sought treatment to alleviate the condition from both orthodox and complementary practitioners but with little or no improvement. This had included physiotherapy in which he had himself worked and was consequently well versed in the techniques of relaxation although the painful shoulder had failed to respond to “everything tried”.


Freud’s Free Association technique was used, following the initial consultation during which I worked through the completion of a word association test with him. I noticed from this test that although he was able to relax throughout, there had been a very perceptible movement (a convulsive jerky movement forward) which gave pointers to the possible area where his problem might have arisen and made me decide to proceed with the Free Association technique. During the first session he was asked to describe in detail the incident where he fell on the factory floor. His recollection of this incident was extremely good and he was able to describe in detail the whole episode from the time he tripped against the base of a heavy piece of machinery, lost his balance and fell heavily on his left side, injuring his knee and left shoulder. He described the machine as being “a smoke-grey sort of gun-metal colour”. He also described how he had massaged his swollen knee and brought the swelling down very rapidly by working on an acupressure point (he had studied and practised acupuncture with his family and friends) and had proceeded to work with his right hand massaging his left shoulder as best he could and applying pressure to the acupressure point. However, the shoulder had failed to respond and he had been troubled with it ever since. He was encouraged to free float to other disturbing incidents in his life but these appeared to have no relation to his present problem. He made a further appointment with me for the following week.


He arrived punctually for his appointment the following week. The incident on the factory floor was gone through again and following this he was asked to recall the first time he had suffered a really painful shoulder. He was silent for a few moments and then began to describe an incident when he was serving as a Despatch Rider in Germany in 1945. It was obvious that he was really “into” this incident and was encouraged to describe it fully as he relived it. He proceeded to describe an accident where he was involved in a collision with a German lorry that appeared suddenly in front of him, shooting out of a side road onto the main highway. He described the road as being wet (as it was raining slightly at the time) and he had apparently no time to apply the brakes of his motorcycle and drove straight into the lorry. He recalled that he was travelling about 40 mph. and that on impact he felt a sudden jarring throughout his body, a feeling as if his body was coming apart. He blacked out and remembered coming to and seeing a lot of faces “upside down but above” him which made him feel bewildered at first. However, as he became more aware he was able to recall the impact and that he was able to confirm by a large dent that he noticed in his helmet and which he assumed had been caused by his being precipitated forward on impact. No bones had been broken and he was able to resume duty the following day after being examined by the Medical Officer although he was still feeling rather shaken up and aching.


During his recall of the incident he described the German lorry as being of a smoke-grey, gun metal colour and that the morning after the accident he had awoken with a very stiff and painful shoulder. It did not take long for him to find other connecting similarities with the later factory fall which had obviously re-stimulated this in his memory - the lorry and the machine were of identical colour; both were unyielding on impact; the sensation of being precipitated forward; inability to control his body; the road and factory floor both being wet; the smell of oil.


Following the reliving of these two incidents he was able to lift his left arm way above his head when asked to do so. He subsequently was delighted to demonstrate that he could remove and replace his jacket without pain.


The two incidents were thirty years apart!


(Ken Alexander is a long-term member of the NCP. Now retired, he is the Editing Publisher of a quarterly magazine ‘The Seeker’. This article was taken from Vol.1 No2 of the Seeker with Ken’s kind permission.  A review of ‘The Seeker’ appears in the Book Review section of this issue of Fidelity)



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