by Richard Schaub, PhD, and Bonney Gulino Schaub, RN, MS, PMHCNS-BC, NC-BC

book-759873_1920Each of us without exception is vulnerable to change and loss. This normal state of vulnerability is aggravated when we become ill. The 1994 inclusion of physical illness as a potential traumatic stressor in the fourth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has led to studies of PTSD in medical patients.

Loizzo, Charlson and Peterson point out, however, that the viewpoint which classifies the traumatic reaction to illness as a disorder demonstrates a bias: “…the bias cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies share with our medical system as a whole. That is, the failure to acknowledge illness, aging and death as existential features of the human condition, rather than…intrusions to be eliminated, avoided, or denied”. To address the existential anxiety aspect of illness, Loizzo et al offer a contemplative program based on “Indo-Tibetan” practices to help cancer patients to feel “…empowered to face the enormity of the challenge”.

Loizzo, Charlson and Peterson’s work extends earlier blends of Eastern spiritual practices with Western healthcare. Examples include: the neurologist and psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli’s integration (psychosynthesis) of Buddhist insight meditation and visualization meditation with psychotherapy; the cardiologist Herbert Benson’s distillation of Indian mantra meditation (Transcendental Meditation) to evoke the parasympathetic “relaxation response”; the microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn’s focusing of Buddhist mindfulness meditation on pain management and stress reduction, now referred to as MBSR – mindfulness-based stress reduction. These pioneers have been instrumental in encouraging further uses of Eastern spiritual practices in Western healthcare.

This article builds on these medical-spiritual integrations. It covers four areas for the health professional’s consideration:

  1. Greater awareness of the existential anxiety present in each patient’s experience – which we term vulnerability
  2. The use of specific transpersonal practices derived from Assagioli’s psychosynthesis for alleviating the degree of a patient’s vulnerability-anxiety as he or she goes through treatment and recovery
  3. Case studies that illustrate the effects of these practices
  4. The need for a psychosynthesis-trained specialist on every treatment team