Holding Out for Love

May 4th was Asthma Day and I was reminded of the very high and increasing level of asthma in Ireland.  Presently, over 440,000 individuals suffer from this condition. The condition of bronchial asthma refers to the type of suffocation-spasm typified by wheezing during expiration. It is preceded by a constriction of the small bronchi and bronchioles, which can be caused by a cramping (a prolonged holding) of the smooth musculature, an inflammatory itching of the airways and an allergic swelling and secretion of the mucous membranes. Individuals – children and adults alike – experience asthma as a life-threatening suffocation: sufferers claw for air and breathe in gasps with the out breath especially throttled.

The causes of asthma are not known and the suggestion of a genetic link is too remote to be seriously considered. Certainly, environmental causes have been posited – dust mites, pollution, over-heated homes – but these causes don’t ring true because most people who are exposed to these same physical environmental threats do not develop asthma. The environmental threats that are far more prevalent for children are emotional and social. The home is the most dangerous place for children to be – the threats they may daily encounter are physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual, behavioural and social – the greatest of all being the absence of unconditional love.

Many an adult who experiences asthmatic attacks have told me that they experienced their first attack when they encountered their parents arguing and even being violent towards each other.

The feelings of abandonment, helplessness and fears of the future caused the child to inhale deeply, which is the first instinctual response to others. Shout at any child or, indeed, adult and you see them inhale deeply and freeze their breath. Unfortunately, the consequence is that the airways go into spasm and the breath can only be released as an asthmatic wheeze. Clearly, the frequency, intensity and endurance of the parental conflict or aggression towards the child himself or herself will have telling effect on the severity of the condition. Whatever the cause – purely physical or psycho-social trauma – any treatment needs to minimise the child’s or adult’s extreme physical discomfort. However, long-term use of inhalers – which have numerous side effects – whilst certainly ameliorating the symptoms, do not focus on the possible emotional causes and the creative intentions of the condition. What is often not appreciated is that when the child has an asthmatic attack, the parents stop fighting or being cross with the child or stop pressuring for high performance; academic, sports or otherwise and give comfort to the child, which will be unconsciously remembered at a later date when emotional attention is required. Generally speaking, individuals who are asthmatic are people who are longing for love, fearful of asking for it and fearful of showing it. It is because they want to be loved that they do so much breathing in – as the breath is a substitute for the love they are not receiving and they are reluctant to let the breath go, because they would lose the feeling of fullness that holding the breath provides. This is very similar to the person who is addicted to drugs, alcohol or food – they fill the void of feeling loveless with these substances and are very reluctant to let go of imbibing them because of the dark emptiness they will experience without them. Until there is a possibility of receiving what is missing – the security of unconditional love – they will wisely hold onto their addictions. So it is for those who are asthmatic – the substitute of breath holding, the soothing effects of the inhaler and, most of all, the attention they receive from significant adults will be held onto for dear life until what they are really craving for is present – unconditional love.

The resolution of asthma of an emotional origin that developed in childhood lies in the exploration of the nature of relationships that existed when the first attack took place and to what degree these conflicts have endured.  Consciousness of the unmet emotional needs is critical to resolution, as is the emotional and social safety to dare to express (breathe out) these unmet needs. The adult, whose asthma originated in childhood needs to do a similar exploration; however, the difference is that the adult himself needs to find the safety – probably in a psychotherapeutic relationship – to express his experiences of abandonment and to breathe in love of self from himself, so that he is no longer dependent on others to feel ful-filled. This is the road less travelled and it requires time and patience and a pace that is in keeping with the hidden fears of further abandonment.

Contrary to medical expectation, adults between the ages of 30s to 60s are developing asthma and, as for children, the causes are not at all clear. For those adults it is often the case that the onset of asthma is a result of grief where the person puts on a brave face and masks his feelings of loss rather than expressing them and taking mature actions to resolve the loss.

What helps is a consciousness of the underlying emotional processes that are triggering the asthmatic response. The emotional and social safety needs to be found to face into these areas that make those with asthma afraid and with support to begin to face them fairly and squarely, until they have reached the point of being able to express what has lain hidden – their worthiness of being loved.

Finally, it is paramount to understand that no parent ever wants to threaten a child’s wellbeing, but the reality is that there is no adult who does not carry emotional baggage into their adult roles – parent, teacher, manager, politician. What is required is compassion for such inner conflicts and the determination to seek resolution. Furthermore, whether the asthma is of a purely physical or an emotional origin, parents always do their best and it is important that they seek the relevant help and support – medical or psychological – when they are struggling.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Compassionate Intentions of Illness which is co-authored with Helen Ruddle.