The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Allergy Process

According to immunologist Dr. Michael Levi, an allergy is like a "phobia" of the immune system. In the 1950’s Levi won the World Health Association Award for his research demonstrating that viruses were infectious. As a result of his many years of work with the immune system, Levi contends that, when a person develops an allergy, the immune system has in essence formed a kind of phobic reaction to a certain type of substance, and then begins to panic when it gets around it. Symptoms of an allergy are produced by the results of this type of phobic reaction. Levi also asserts that other forms of allergies are like a "tantrum" of the immune system -- that is, the immune system is throwing some sort of fit because it was not being taken care of properly, or was getting so fatigued and tired that it was striking out as a person or a child might have a tantrum.

In the same way that we learn and acquire emotional responses, our bodies learn and acquire immune responses. The fact that such deadly illnesses as small pox and polio have been virtually wiped off the face of the earth is a testament to the fact that our immune systems can learn.

The major issue in dealing with an allergy is reeducating the immune system. Our immune system has two basic ways of dealing with foreign material in our bodies - passive and active. A passive immune response is primarily carried out by macrophages - white cells in the blood stream that simply engulf and digest the foreign material. In fact, the term "macrophage" literally means "big eater." The active immune response is carried out by "killer" T cells - cells that attack and destroy foreign matter.

The purpose of the passive immune response is to remove non-living matter from the body. The purpose of the active immune response is to attack and destroy living cells, like bacteria, that endanger the body. In the case of the virus, this means attacking cells in our bodies. This is because of the way a virus operates. A virus is basically a little bundle of genetic material that cannot reproduce itself because it lacks the rest of the cell structure to support that process. So instead the virus acts as a kind of a parasite that takes over the cells of its host in order to reproduce, depleting the resources of the unwilling host. In order to rid the body of a particular virus, then, the immune system must recognize and destroy the infected cells in our own body. In some cases this is done by actually exploding the infected cell (through a chemical reaction). This is what causes the redness and irritation associated with infections and allergies.

In the case of an allergy the immune system has made a mistake, in that it is responding to a harmless non-living foreign material as if it were a virus. Similar to a phobia, the immune system is panicking and is in such a confused state that it is attacking our own bodies even though there is no danger. In some ways it is a kind of an "I'll show you, I'll just hit myself" reaction.

The goal of treating an allergy involves reeducating the immune system to utilize the passive rather than active protection in response to the foreign substance - a kind of physiological reframing.

Like a phobia an allergy is a conditioned response. In fact, research has shown that allergies can be conditioned in guinea pigs using a procedure similar to that Pavlov used in his experiments with his dogs (Russel, Dark, et al, 1984). The researchers put the smell of peppermint into the guinea pigs' cages and then injected them with a substance that would naturally produce an active immune response. After repeating this five times over a short period of time, the researcher put the peppermint smell in the cage but did not inject the noxious substance. When they checked the blood of the guinea pigs they found that they were producing as full of an immune reaction as they would if they had been injected. Other studies (Ader & Cohen, 1981) demonstrated that rats could be conditioned to suppress immune responses.

The field of psychoneuroimmunology is making many breakthroughs in the understanding of how the brain directs the immune system. Stress and emotional responses change chemical levels in the bloodstream that effect the functioning of the immune system. But immune cells also have been shown to respond directly to the same chemicals our brain and nerve cells use to communicate with each other.

A basic premise of psychoneuroimmunology (which is shared by NLP) is that immune responses, such as allergic reactions, can be influenced by psychological factors. There is a famous example of this, dating back to the turn of the century, documented by a physician named MacKenzie (1886) who was treating a woman with a violent allergic reaction to roses. He had an artificial rose in his office and was surprised to discover that his patient, not realizing that the rose was fake, manifested the full allergic reaction as soon as she saw the rose. The implication is that our autonomic nervous system (even our immune system) may be influenced as much by mental representations and expectations generated from within our central nervous system as by stimuli from the outside world.

Certainly, the immune system is capable of learning very quickly. Allergies are known to appear and disappear almost spontaneously. Patients with multiple personalities will have allergies in one personality and not in another. People often "outgrow" certain allergic reactions. The cells involved in active immune responses are produced in our bone marrow at the rate of about 80 million cells per minute. So once the reeducation process is done it can spread rapidly.

It is already known that allergies can, like a phobia, sometimes be treated through systematic desensitization procedures. However, like the phobia versions of these techniques, the process can be time consuming and often ineffectual. Using the model and techniques of NLP this desensitization process can be accelerated tremendously.

The key questions from the NLP perspective are, "What are the psychological factors that will influence an allergy?" and "Can those factors be brought under control and can a person learn to have more control over his or her own body's responses, especially over the particular immune responses related to allergic reactions?" As a result of exploring these questions, Robert Dilts developed a technique for treating allergies using NLP that has had widespread success.

Following Dr. Levi’s suggestion that an allergy was a type of "phobia" of the immune system, Dilts reviewed the celebrated NLP ‘ten-minute’ phobia pattern, developed by NLP founders Bandler and Grinder. This technique has been shown to make significant impact on people's phobic responses within a very short period of time. Dilts wondered if a similar sort of process could be developed to treat the "phobia" of the immune system that was responsible for allergic reactions.

In conjunction with his work on the NeuroLink, a new method of biofeedback, Dilts created a technique for treating allergies. The technique is in some ways similar to the NLP Phobia Technique. It also differs in some important respects. Similar to the Phobia Technique, for instance, the Allergy Process involves establishing a disassociated state. This greatly facilitates the desensitization process.

Both phobias and allergies also appear to be the result of what is called "response expectancy," a process which has strong mind-body implications. Response expectancy is the same process which is at the root of the placebo effect. People can very often bring on allergic response symptoms by the strength of their imagination, as MacKenzie’s patient with the allergy to roses demonstrated. From this perspective, allergic symptoms may be the result of a type of negative placebo effect.

From the point of view of NLP, response expectancy is a result of the richness with which an individual mentally represents an anticipated response. This richness is a product of the submodality qualities of the inner map that the person creates of the response. Dilts asked people with allergies to explore effects that their mental representations of the allergen had on their symptoms. Dilts found that certain qualities of visualization of the stimuli associated with the allergic reaction could begin to bring on physical responses associated with the allergy. He had people experiment with how different cognitive qualities of thinking about this allergic stimulus or trigger for their allergies affected their autonomic reactions, which he measured and recorded with the NeuroLink biofeedback device.

If a person had an allergy to smoke, for instance, that person would be asked to visualize the smoke and notice what kind of reaction it produced in his or her body. Then, the person would be instructed to imagine the smoke coming closer and becoming surrounded by it, and notice what happens to his or her physical reactions. They were then asked to move the representation of the allergen (the substance creating the allergy) far away and notice how the representation of the distance of the substance changed their physiological reactions. Other dimensions such as size, color and shape were also explored until people had the sense that they were able to influence their physiological reaction to some degree.

The core of the Allergy Process, however, came as a result of finding an appropriate "counterexample," and checking for any secondary gains associated with the allergic response. A counterexample relates to a context or situation in which a person could or should have had the allergic response, but does not. One of the most common kinds of counterexamples is to find a substance that is very similar to the substance that produces the allergic response, but to which the individual does not have the allergic reaction.

Dilts chose to focus on the counterexample as a means to "reprogram" the immune system based on his research in the field of immunology. It appears that counterexample is one of the processes by which the immune system naturally functions. Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823), for instance, employed the process of counterexample to develop the first practical vaccination against smallpox. As a general practitioner in rural England, Jenner noticed that dairy maids who had contracted the relatively mild disease cowpox did not later contract smallpox. Jenner postulated that the carrier of smallpox must have some structural similarities to the cowpox carrier, so that the immune system learned how to detect them both if the person got cowpox. In 1796 he inoculated an 8-year-old boy with material taken from cowpox pustules, and the boy developed cowpox. Several weeks later Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox, but the disease failed to develop. Jenner went on to promote smallpox vaccinations, the practice of which spread throughout the world, apparently eliminating this disease by the late 1970s.

The implication of Jenner’s success is that the immune system is able to learn and generalize by recognizing and differentiating key features of substances in the body. Dilts reasoned that if the immune system could generalize an appropriate reaction to a virus that was a deadly killer, it could be directed to generalize for a lesser problem, such as an allergy, using a similar process.

Dilts initially experimented with people who had successfully firewalked - i.e., walked across hot coals without injury (an experience popularized by Anthony Robbins in the late 1980’s). Dilts hypothesized that the fact that people did not form blisters was a result of entering a special state of response expectancy in which they were able to selectively suppress certain immune system reactions.

Following the lead of Russel, Dark, Ader and Cohen, Dilts used the NLP conditioning technique of anchoring to create a strong association between the ‘firewalk’ state and an external cue. This cue could then be paired with the allergen to accelerate the desensitization process. Dilts found that this state could be used to help people to easily shift allergic reactions, when anchored under the proper conditions.

Relatively few people, however, had access to such an experience. Dilts found that other types of counter examples could be substituted for this experience to create the appropriate shift in response expectancy. For instance, it is possible for people to identify some substance that is potentially even more "toxic" than the substance which causes the allergy, but to which the person’s body has learned a more appropriate type of immune response. Someone may have an allergy to perfume, but not to gasoline, for example. Other may have allergic responses to some type of food, but be immune to harmful viral infections. Identifying these types of examples demonstrates that the immune system can keep the body safe without allergic symptoms.

Another key area of focus in Dilts’ research related to identifying positive or secondary gains associated with allergic reactions that needed to be incorporated or preserved once the allergic response changed. Sometimes having an allergic response serves as a good excuse for not having to do certain activities, or for avoiding certain situations or confrontations. In other instaces, people are afraid that without an allergic response, they will be exposed to certain kinds of substances or certain kinds of situations that might actually be more detrimental to their health than the allergy. People with allergies to smoke can even believe that if they did not have the allergy they might start smoking cigarettes.

Sometimes an allergy is the only excuse people allow themselves to take a rest, or to pay attention to their own health. It becomes a reminder for them to take care of themsleves. Often, an allergy is a communication that a person is under a fair amount of emotional or physical stress. There are even some people who are afraid of accepting the responsibility that would come with realizing that they had that much influence on their own health.

In special cases, if a person’s father, mother, or some other significant person in his or her life has had allergies, an individual may unconsciously feel that having a similar allergy is way to stay connected with those significant others.

The purpose of identifying such positive intentions and secondary gains is to help the person add more choices. An underlying principal of NLP is that ecological change comes by adding new choices, not by taking away existing choices. Before a person is ready to shift an allergic reaction, he or she may need to find other ways of addressing certain life situations.

Finding these new choices is analogous to the change the immune system needs to make. Keep in mind that an allergy is often the result of the brain and the immune system together making a mistake. The body thinks that it's being invaded by something that is not, in fact, actually dangerous. The immune system becomes conditioned to try to defend itself against something that isn't really harmful. The smoke, cat dander, pollen and foods to which people develop allergies don't invade our cells like a virus. What happens is that the immune system thinks that it is being invaded, and so it strikes out at the body’s own cells. The symptoms of an allergy are the result of the immune system destroying healthy cells in the body in an attempt to protect itself from an invader that isn't really there.

Dilts noticed that many allergies were developed at a time in a person’s life, or under conditions which have psychological similarities to this confusion of the immune system. The immune system is the body’s equivalent of a psychological self-concept. Many people develop allergies at a time when they are at a transition point with respect to their own sense of identity. At these times a person can feel their sense of ‘self’ being challenged or threatened by something from the outside. In this case the allergy may develop as a reflection of the psychological threat, and the resulting stress it produces. Allergies associated with asthma, for instance, are often related to traumatic experiences.

To address such situations, people may need to detach themselves from those early or traumatic experiences. Using NLP techniques such as Change Personal History, Reframing or Reimprinting, people can be helped to recognize that their identity has evolved and is different now than it was under those early circumstances. They can discover new ways of handling their life situations and their responses to crisis or danger, in the same way that the body can learn to have a different response to old triggers and stimuli. They can imagine how they would react differently if they took their current learnings, resources and abilities back into those early situations associated with the allergic response.

By combining the disassociated state, the positive response expectancy, the counterexample reference experiences and the new choices for preserving positive intentions and secondary gains into a simple technique, Dilts found that he could effectively help people to shift almost any allergic response to some degree. In a large number of cases people reported complete freedom from their symptoms. Dilts began his explorations in 1985, creating specific interventions for people who had different types of allergies. By 1987 the first general allergy processes were in use, employing a combination of anchors. Since that time a number of variations of the technique have come into use, including the Foreground/Background Process. Other notable variations and refinements have been contributed by Tim Hallbom and Suzi Smith, co-authors with Dilts of Beliefs: Pathways to Health and Well-Being (1990). The technique normally takes about 20 minutes to a half an hour but can be done in as short a time as 10 minutes.

Background Reference(s)

Learned Histamine Release; Russell, M., Dark, K. et al; Science Vol. 225, August 17, 1984, pp. 733-734.

Psychoneuroimmunology, Ader, R. and Cohen, N.,Academic Press, New York, NY, 1981.

Pavlovian Conditioning of Rat Mucosal Mast Cell to Secrete Rat Mast Cell Protease II; MacQueen, G. et al; Science Vol. 243, January 6, 1989, pp. 83-85.

The Production of the So-Called ‘Rose Cold’ by Means of an Artificial Rose; MacKenzie, J., American Journal of Medical Science, 9, 1886: 45-57.

Psychoneuroimmunology: The Birth of a New Field, Investigations, Institute of Noetic Sciences, Sausalito, CA, 1983.

NLP Related References [for NLP phobia techniques]

They Lived Happily Ever After, L. Cameron-Bandler, 1978.

Frogs Into Princes, Bandler & Grinder, 1979.

Specific References

Beliefs: Pathways to Health and Well-Being, Dilts, et al, 1990.

Overcoming Allergies, Anchor Point, October, 1987.

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