Plastic Rose Syndrome - psychological aspects of allergy

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A man walks into an allergy clinic complaining of an allergy to roses. The doctor puts a plastic rose under his nose. The man sneezes. Is this a psychological or physical reaction? It is both. The new buzz word to explain this is "psycho-neuro-immunology" (of the mind, the physical brain and the immune system).

If you take a rat and scratch his skin, then rub in bacteria, he will develop inflammation. If you repeat this daily, he will develop inflammation every day. After several weeks of this, you just scratch the skin, but don't rub in bacteria. The rat will develop inflammation just as if bacteria had been rubbed in. The immune system has learned to expect bacteria and reacts appropriately.

Immune system - "mobile brain cells"

The cells of the immune system are very similar to brain cells. They use similar neurotransmitters and are responsive to hormones. They can plug in to the nervous system at numerous sites in the body. They are "intelligent", can recognise foreign substances and make decisions about whether or not to attack such foreign substances, and/or call in help from other cells. Indeed, they can be thought of as brain cells which are not confined to the brain, but wander all over the body.

The two examples above show us how these 'mobile brain cells' can be taught (or 'programmed') in exactly the same way as 'fixed brain cells'. Clearly, there must be channels of communication between our fixed brain cells and our mobile brain cells (i.e. the immune system). The question is, how can we communicate with our own immune cells when they start to go wrong? This is very important for CFS sufferers in particular, because it seems likely that CFS is, at least partly, a disorder of the immune system. Please see Reprogramming the Immune System – where conventional and complementary medicine can come together for more detail, and other ideas, on how to do this 'communicating' with our immune system.

Communicating with the immune system

Unfortunately, our immune cells don't appear to understand English! (Or any other human language!) However, we can communicate with our subconscious using "the mind's eye". To make changes we have to positively visualise, imagine and believe that changes can be made, and the brain will sort out for itself how to go about trying to effect these changes, as best it can.

One example of how the brain works is illustrated by a group of students who, in 1953, were asked to write down their 'goals and ambitions' in life. Only 3% had positive goals they wanted to achieve. When followed up 20 years later, that 3% were earning more money than all the rest put together. That 3% had a clear idea in their mind's eye what they wanted to do and where they were going, believed they could do it (with the confidence of youth), and achieved their goals. Of course, illness, and other unforeseen events, can 'get in the way' of these goals but the general point is clear.

The will to improve

Getting people better from CFS is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. All the right pieces have to be in the right place at the same time. I talk at length about all the 'physiological pieces' (mitochondrial function, diet, supplements etc) elsewhere on my website. It may well be that we don't know all the right pieces. However, the 'will' to improve is a crucial part. I firmly believe that we all have an ability within us to help ourselves get better - we have to 'tap in' to this resource.

Not only must one have the will (And a feature of CFS seems to be plenty of will!. My CFS patients WANT to get well!), but this desire must be:

  • Clearly communicated at the subconscious level (talking to your subconscious).
  • There must be no blocks to this message getting through (identifying the blocks). Please see Reprogramming the brain in CFS/ME also for other more physiologically based methods of removing such blocks.

Talking to your subconscious

One effective way seems to be positive visualisation. In this technique, you have to imagine how you want yourself to be using small, realistic steps one at a time. For example, initially you have to imagine yourself waking up and feeling good, enjoying the feeling of walking and moving, reading or writing without fatigue, noticing the little things which are happening and interpreting them as signs of improvement. The subconscious does not seem to respond to negative images, i.e. it is no good thinking "I don't want to be ill". You have to have a positive idea in your mind as to how you wish to be. If you can think this sufficiently strongly, the message will eventually get through to the subconscious and the immune system. The more clear the message and the longer it lasts, the more effective it will be. Everybody has to work out their own particular message. This may change with time as you have new ideas and improve and need another image of yourself. Keep telling yourself how good you are. I must stress that this does not negate the very real physiological basis of CFS - it is simply a matter of doing whatever one can to improve one's health.

Identifying the blocks

The vast majority of people clearly want to get better, but there is sometimes a deep seated reason, some unresolved psychological "pain", which is blocking possible improvement. Very often these patients don't know themselves that they have a block about getting better and it may take a great deal of thought and honesty with themselves to identify 'blocking factors'. For example, once patients become ill and unable to care for themselves, they lose a certain amount of responsibility for their own lives. The thought of having to take responsibility again and the worry of not being 'reliably well' may provide a subconscious block to improvement. Psychologically they 'cannot afford to get better', lest they overdo it and relapse. This is a very real and justified thought to have - it is often based on very painful experiences of pushing too far and too soon. However, sometimes, this can be a block to some improvements that are there to be 'had'. These people can be thought of as having a 'psychological disability' which is just as disabling and difficult to deal with as any physical disability. This requires very careful thought and implementation - one doesn't want to 'push through' very real physical blocks, as this will result in possible relapse, but rather one wants to identify psychological blocks that can be dealt with

A common psychological pain is for a person not to feel loved. Until the reason for that lack of love can be worked through psychologically through understanding how the situation arose in the first place, he/she will never be able to change to a "from now on I will feel loved" position.

Important Point

These are all difficult issues and in no way negate the physiological basis of that person's illness. As I said, it is a matter of doing what one can to improve one's health. Put another way, if a cancer sufferer refused to accept any form of psychological 'help' simply because their cancer was (obviously) physical in basis, then one might, justifiably, comment that this is perhaps a narrow view to take.

Making changes

Our personal identity is very important to us. We have certain traits and personalities which are resistant to changing. For example, a naturally jolly person is expected to be jolly by other people and is a cause for comment if he is grumpy. It is difficult for him to change to a grumpy person. Similarly, the reverse is true. Mr Scrooge made the change and it is cause for comment every Christmas! But it must have been very hard for him - much easier to remain grumpy.


Unless you believe deep down you can make the change, it is unlikely that you ever will. The best form of encouragement is positive feedback. If you see yourself changing, then you will be encouraged to think more positively and change further. Then every little change can then be seen as a sign of improvement.

How to find help

One of the big problems for CFS sufferers is money - often they simply do not have the financial resources to pay for help. However, professional psychological help could prove a good investment. Even an occasional consultation may put you on the right lines to help yourself further. Choose your therapist carefully - for example, it is no good having somebody who does not believe in the physiological basis of CFS! Psychotherapy is partly about communicating with the subconscious. Hypnotherapy seems to bypass the conscious mind, with all its blocks and inhibitions, and 'plug in' directly to the subconscious mind.

Neurolinguistic programming, book recommendations and finding a therapist

I have been reading about NLP (neurolinguistic programming) and I believe this could be used as a quick 'do it yourself' at home technique. There are several books which could be used, but I am familiar with "Core Transformation" by Connirae Andreas, available here. This gives actual examples of how NLP can be used to treat a wide range of problems, on your own at home, or with the help of another person, perhaps an NLP trained Master.

However, a psychotherapist friend, RG, pointed out to me that patients are unlikely to find all the answers in one book. He suggests the following are useful (all available from, as linked:

  • Love, Medicine and Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel ---- Amazon link
  • You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay ---- Amazon link - for some people this book can seem 'too positive' !
  • Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine by Deepak Chopra ---- Amazon link
  • Climbing Out of the Pit of Life by Dr Darrel Ho-Yen. Dr Ho-Yen has great clinical experience of treating CFS patients and describes how to help people recover from the "pit of life" - death of a loved one, severe illness, financial ruin, public humiliation etc. He describes the LADDER (lifeless, anger, denial, disgrace, endeavour, renewal) of recovery. The book offers clear practical solutions to each problem designed to be read by individuals with short concentration spans and reduced memory. ---- Amazon link

RG goes on to say "Finally this talking to the subconscious/unconscious can be taken to extreme. We could become desperate searching for the right technique to get the message across to our dammed, stupid, stubborn subconscious/unconscious! Whilst I feel it can be productive telling our subconscious/unconscious what to do, I think we should also be listening to it. If we listen more, perhaps we will learn what is wrong with our bodies or our lifestyle."

"I believe we have enormous inner wisdom that we need to contact if we are to be truly happy and healthy. Using various techniques, we need to dig deeper and deeper, to connect with the subconscious/unconscious, to connect with that inner wisdom. Sometimes that inner wisdom reveals what is wrong inside our bodies. Where our inner wisdom is far more useful in my view is in revealing what is wrong in our minds, in our hearts or spirits, what is wrong with the way we live and love."

He also gives the following recommendations about finding a therapist.

  • Find someone who has been personally recommended by someone whose opinion you value. OR ask a 'professional carer' such as a GP, community psychiatric nurse (NHS CPNs can be contacted through your local Special Needs Services) or even your local vicar for a recommendation.
  • Whoever you see, try to have an initial consultation with your therapist to see if you are both "compatible", i.e. you get on well, you are clear what therapy entails, how long sessions last, how long is a course of treatment, cost, etc.
  • Discuss with the therapist if you are not happy about therapy at any stage and, if necessary, go elsewhere.

Back to me! I know I am not good at treating the psychological aspects of CFS. However, I do know they are very important. Hypnotherapy can be useful: I recommend Dr Maurice Loveday, 33 Park Street, Worksop (tel 01909 487509). See Contact Details for Dr Maurice Loveday

In three words!

Heather Sharpe's summation: Accept, Adjust, Achieve.

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