News & Perspectives

Tuning In to the Mind's Healing Power

Since time immemorial, healers have respected the link between mind and body--namely, how emotions can both create disease as well as heal it. Indeed, anthropologists who have explored the history of healing have long been aware of the pivotal role that the mind-body connection has played in different cultures, throughout the ages.

Modern scientists, however, have been reluctant to acknowledge the existence of the ephemeral mind-body connection, primarily because the power of the mind to induce healing could not be proven by clinical research. For this reason, the treatment of mind and body has been kept strictly separate. Medical schools, for instance, have traditionally given more credence to medical or surgical solutions rather than psychiatric ones.

But things are now changing. Over the last decade, well-designed research studies have been conducted, and there's currently an accumulating mass of scientific data showing just how intimately connected mind and body truly are.

From Skepticism to Acceptance
Among those keeping track of these developments is NIH scientist Dr. Esther M. Sternberg, director of the Molecular, Cellular, and Behavioral Integrative Neuroscience Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, and author of an excellent overview of the subject, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.

According to Dr. Sternberg, enormous resistance and disdain for mind-body research prevailed until the late 1980s. And it's taken another decade for enough scientific evidence to accumulate to convince scientists and doctors of the validity of a mind-body connection. "The dam has now burst," she reports. "Even the greatest skeptic must admit that a wealth of evidence currently exists to prove, in the most stringent scientific terms, that the functions of the mind influence the health of the body."

Today, scientific activities have proliferated, in Sternberg's words, "like mushrooms after a rain." There are hundreds of mind-body studies being conducted throughout the world. Research spans many disciplines, from psychology and social science to neuroscience, physiology, and medicine.

For example, clinical trials (research studies in people) sponsored by the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) are slated to examine the ultimate mind-body issue, the all-important "placebo effect." This apparent leap from belief to healing has long mystified scientists who couldn't explain why it is often so effective, even for serious illnesses like asthma and chronic pain. Other intriguing areas for NCCAM study include enhancing healing with art therapy and meditation.

Several other NIH institutes are also primed to study the mind-body link. The National Institute on Aging, for instance, hopes to examine the cumulative effects of stress on health over a lifetime, as well as the impact of optimism and happiness on well-being.

Seeing Is Believing
Scientists have long suspected that exceedingly complex interactions take place between body, thoughts, and the outside world. But never before have researchers been able to see this dialogue in the exquisite detail now provided by powerful brain and body imaging technologies. Real-time images of the human brain at work, for example, can actually detect minute changes in nerve cells as they prepare to fire. Advances in the "hard" sciences (chemistry, biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology) have also made significant contributions.

"Understanding brain/immune connections at these levels is causing physicians to pay greater attention to their patients when they say that belief and laughter are making them well," notes Dr. Sternberg. "Suddenly an ephemeral, ghostlike concept such as a belief, which previously could not be grasped in concrete terms, has a chance of being broken down into the specific cells, nerve pathways, and chemicals that make it happen."

And with ever more sophisticated scientific tools, it's now possible to sensitively and quantitatively measure the before and after effects of mind-body interventions, using diverse techniques ranging from hypnotism, meditation, and group therapy to soothing rituals such as aromatherapy and even prayer.

The Practice of Mind-Body Medicine
Today, many mainstream doctors now accept--although most still stop short of fully embracing--the merits of mind-body medicine. Mind-body therapeutic techniques are currently being studied (and taught) at medical schools nationwide, and physicians experienced in the field soon expect to be designated "psychosomatic medicine specialists," a credential that will likely help patients get insurance coverage for mind-body treatments.

The new research has also given popular (as well as scientific) legitimacy to many mind-body practitioners who are not physicians. These skilled therapists (who should be certified or licensed in their specialty by a qualified credentialing agency) offer a variety of treatments. Often these are "portable," in that they can be taught to patients (and used by them) in the privacy of their own homes. It's also now possible to tap into helpful self-care resources. including specialized websites, CDs, audiotapes, and books (see "Mind-Body Resources" below), as well as mind-body skills classes, often offered at pain centers, community colleges, and hospitals.

Useful techniques you can learn range from meditation, guided imagery, and relaxation to "journaling," biofeedback, and self-hypnosis. Here are several you can try on your own:

 Guided imagery

How it works: This relaxation technique is especially useful for conditions that are exacerbated by stress, such as high blood pressure, arthritis pain, and headache. The brain's visual cortex, which processes images, has a powerful connection with the part of the nervous system in charge of such involuntary activities as pulse, breathing, and other physical responses to stress. Soothing, uplifting images introduced by audiotape or other means can actually slow your pulse and breathing, as well as help trigger the release of hormones such as endorphins, which make you feel good and nurture your body's restorative powers.

Exercise to try: You can create your own positive images or you might want to use the following. Read the words that follow slowly into a tape recorder, then play it back, concentrating on the images: "I see myself next to moving water. I'm watching waves break on a sandy shore. Wherever my pain is hurting, I can actually see it. It has color (red? black?). It has texture (smooth? rough?) I am now imagining all the pain slowly moving away from my body, forming a thick liquid, lying in a puddle right at my feet. Finally, the puddle that was my pain flows to the water's edge, and is slowly carried off by the waves."

 Journal therapy
How it works: Shown to improve the functioning of the body's immune system, journal therapy involves writing about emotionally charged memories for 20 minutes a day, three or four days a week. Scientists now know that the strong emotions conjured up by writing about these memories are very real, and need to be released. They have been sealed into your brain through hard-wiring of nerve pathways and chemicals. Research also confirms that emotions such as unrelieved stress can result in disease: Stress causes hormones and chemicals called neurotransmitters to be released from the brain and adrenal glands, and they in turn can alter the way immune cells function.

Exercise to try: If you're a novice journaler, the most important thing to remember is that there are no rules. Whatever works for you, do it. Some journalers write at the same time every day; others write only when the muse strikes. Some need to sit in the same chair to write; others write on the fly. Some set a timer; others write for hours. Some keep one journal; some keep many. The options are endless. The point is to get started and the positive results will follow.

 Relaxation therapy
How it works: In the early 1970s Harvard cardiology researcher Dr. Herbert Benson described what he called the "relaxation response," a physiological state that is actually the opposite of stress. Benson showed how relaxation provides what he termed a mental and physical "sigh of relief." After using various relaxation techniques, he found that breathing and heart rate slow, blood pressure drops, metabolism decreases, and rejuvenation and healing can occur.

Exercise to try: Find a quiet place to sit. Take slow deep breaths and then repeat the following mantras to yourself the specified number of times.  My hands and arms are heavy and warm (5 times).  My feet and legs are heavy and warm (5 times).  My abdomen is warm and comfortable (5 times).  My breathing is deep and even (10 times).  My heartbeat is calm and regular (10 times).  My forehead is cool (5 times).  When I open my eyes, I will remain relaxed and refreshed (3 times).

Mind-Body Resources

Check out the following websites for more information on mind-body therapies and for relevant books, CDs, and tapes. The website of the Mind/Body Medical Institute. Here you can learn to elicit the relaxation response, follow the research findings of President Herbert Benson, M.D., find M/BMI and Harvard Medical School courses, and connect to medical services for people suffering from stress-related illnesses. The website of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. This nonprofit, educational organization is dedicated to reviving the spirit and transforming the practice of medicine. It features a free mind-body magazine and newsletter as well as mind-body exercises you can do on your own. This site offers a wealth of guided imagery tapes, books, and CDs for treating a variety of ailments, most are by Belleruth Naparstek, a noted authority on guided imagery. This is the site for ordering the stress reduction tapes of John Kabat-Zinn, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The following books can be ordered online or from a bookstore near you. The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions by Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., W.H. Freeman & Co., 2001. The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, M.D., with Miriam Z. Klipper, WholeCare/Avon books, 2000. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Hyperion, 1994. Healing Visualizations: Creating Health through Imagery, Gerald Epstein, M.D., Bantam Doubleday Dell 1989.

Date Posted: 03/29/2003

Date Published: 03/28/2003
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