Is Your Mind Healing Or Harming Your Body?

These days it is well-accepted that our psychological state affects our immune system. Psychological stress can result in increased susceptibility to various infections and latent virus reactivation. It is thought to be a result of interactions between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands (the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or LHPA axis). LHPA axis has been identified as the main path of communication between the immune and the central nervous system, which can be influenced by psychological factors.

The relatively young field of psychoneuroimmunology research emerged after Ader and Cohen (1975) showed that immune system functions can be conditioned. Since then a number of studies have shown how various social and behavioural factors acting on the brain can influence health, illness, and death. Our thoughts, ideas and attitudes create physiological changes in our bodies. For example, anger, aggression and hostility have been shown to negatively affect the activity and number of lymphocyte populations (white blood cell count) that protect us from a wide range of immunological threats. Higher susceptibility to infections and increased prevalence of auto-immune disorders have been demonstrated in people suffering from prolonged stress or bereavement. Although it must be emphasised, that the most susceptible individuals are those who choose to give in to stress, or hold on to their grief. Even looking at a flower creates a physiological response involving millions of nerve cells connecting the retina of the eye to the various parts of the brain, including those responsible for comparing all the associated memories. So our mind can make us sick, but equally it has the power to make us well. And more crucially, we can influence in which direction we want to go. So “yes”, it is entirely our choice. Even though disruptive emotions, if they persist for long enough, can disturb the delicate chemical balance in our bodies producing physiological changes and symptoms, we can counteract their effects with positive beliefs and auto-suggestion. 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century an American psychologist William James said: “No mental modification ever occurs, which is not accompanied or followed by a bodily change”. This was later summarised by Norman Cousins as: “Belief becomes biology”. This simply means that the body’s physical reality can be significantly modified by the more powerful reality of the mind. In other words: what is expected tends to be realised. When we believe and tell ourselves that we are well, we tend to thrive and enjoy vibrant health. On the other hand, any anxiety or fear relating to illness sends the wrong message to our subconscious. If those negative thoughts and emotions are not dealt with, they will result in the very illness we fear.  

Expectation of symptom improvement is what has long been believed to play a critical role in the placebo effect. Placebo trials provide information whether a tested drug has any healing effect beyond that occurring when people take the actual drug.  It is patients’ belief in a “supposed” medicine (chemically inactive) that is thought to activate their body’s healing potential.

There are numerous examples in medical literature of the high effectiveness of placebo compared to standard doses of different drugs, and even surgical procedures. Back in the 1950’s a sham surgery was used for patients with angina pectoris (recurrent pain in the chest and left arm due to decreased blood flow to the heart). Interestingly, the patients who received a sham surgery reported as much relief as the patients who had the actual procedure. Similarly, in case of a back pain sham therapy, an improvement of 40% was demonstrated in the placebo group.

The effectiveness of placebo compared to standard doses of different analgesic drugs under double-blind conditions appears to be 55-60%, irrespective of the potency of the active medications. A similar level of placebo effectiveness is also found in double-blind studies of non-pharmacological insomnia treatment techniques (58% from 14 studies), psychotropic drugs for the treatment of depression, such as tricyclics (59% from 93 studies), and lithium, commonly used for treating Bipolar disorder (62% from 13 studies). Other conditions and areas, in which placebo treatments had a high rate of activity include: diabetes, anxiety, high cholesterol, cough, asthma, sarcoma, dermatitis, headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, radiation sickness, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s. Exploring placebo effectiveness is a growing area of research, with neuroimaging studies continually contributing to our understanding of the mechanisms of the placebo effect in various medical conditions. Interestingly, even people’s expectations about the effects of drinking can be more potent predictors of behaviour than the actual impact of alcohol. Drinking a placebo can produce all the physiological effects associated with drinking alcohol if the expectation is present. The same has been observed when a group of patients were told they were given LSD when in fact they were given a placebo.  They experienced all the physiological effects associated with LSD.

Equally, we must not forget about the power of the nocebo effect, the mirror-phenomenon to the placebo effect. This occurs when the expectation of a negative outcome produces the corresponding symptom or leads to its exacerbation. For example, in one study evaluating the effects of a new form of chemotherapy, 30% of the individuals in the placebo group lost their hair. Another example is obtaining informed consent from patients before administering treatment, which is one of the basic ethical duties in health care. As obtaining informed consent means the disclosure of information regarding potential complications or side effects of the treatment, there is a concern that this may precipitate a nocebo effect. In other words, patients’ awareness of the possible side effects may result in the corresponding symptoms being produced. Health care professionals consider this a real dilemma as the implication is that disclosing information about the treatment may have potentially harmful effects on patients. Another issue that is frequently overlooked is how the way in which patients are given diagnosis impacts on their ability to overcome illness. Unfortunately, some medical professionals still demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of just how much influence they have on their patients’ well-being. Depending on how the information is communicated to a patient, it can either empower them to fight their illness, or take away all their hope and consequently make them take a turn for the worse. 

However, irrespective of what others believe or present us with, it is vitally important that we take responsibility for influencing our own health and well-being in the way that we want to. Sending the right messages to our subconscious mind regarding our state of health and our potential for healing our own bodies is the first and the most important step. Our subconscious mind controls and regulates the involuntary functions of the body, such as breathing, circulation, digestion, antibody production, cell renewal, etc. And therefore depending on how we chose to program it, it can cure us or kill us. 

Good news is that with the right awareness and positive programming we can keep healthy and well. The most powerful resource we all have is our mind so why not use it to our advantage? Particularly, as there are no associated side-effects! There are a number of tools we can use to achieve vibrant health. You may want to try hypnosis, meditation, relaxation, visualisation, or whatever other mind-expanding techniques you think may work for you. Yoga or some other form of physical activity is also a “must-addition” to your vibrant health toolkit. Admittedly, some people may need help dealing with any underlying emotional blockages, or reframing any fixed ideas stuck in their subconscious mind, that have the potential to sabotage their efforts of keeping positive and well. However, once those are dealt with, all the techniques mentioned above can be then used with great success, producing powerful, long-lasting benefits. So if you think you may need some support to re-direct yourself onto the right path, getting help is absolutely the right thing to do and the best thing you can ever do for yourself. One more thing to be aware of is that, as mentioned before, if negative thoughts or emotions persist long enough they can cause an organic change in the body. This means that if pain is present this should be explored first as pain is your body’s way of communicating that something is not quite right. If there is no associated physiological changes that need to be addressed and the pain is diagnosed as psychosomatic, then positive auto-suggestion and programming is the advised approach.

So here it is. Negative thoughts and emotions make us unhappy and sick. Positive thoughts and emotions keep us happy, healthy and full of energy. It is as simple as that and luckily it is our choice which path we chose to follow! 

 

References:

Ader R & Cohen N (1975) Behaviorally conditioned immunosuppression. Psychosom Med; 37: 333-340. 

Granger DA, Booth A & Johnson DR (2000) Human aggression and enumerative measures of immunity. PsychosomMed; 62: 583–590.

Keller SE et al. (2000) Stress, Depression, Immunity, and Health. In Goodkin K & Visser AP (eds): Psychoneuroimmunology: Stress Mental Disorders and Health, 1-26. American Psychiatric Press.

Radin D (2009) The Noetic Universe. The Scientific Evidence for Psychic Phenomena. Transworld Publishers, London.

Rossi, EL (1994) The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing. New Concepts of Therapeutic Hypnosis. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Tebbetts, C (1987) Self-hypnosis and Other Mind-expanding Techniques. Westwood Publishing Company, Inc. Glendale, CA.

 

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