Recently I was asked to give some examples of how mind and body influence each other in health and illness.
The understanding of the interconnectedness of the mind and body in health and illness has been such a huge part of my own journey as a healer. I have found in my personal experience of health (as well as in my clinical experience as an acupuncturist) that receiving and providing compassion and nurturance changes and positively affects the healing process.
This connection was understood for most of human history and a shift away from the integration of mind, body and spirit only started in the 17th century when more mechanistic view of the universe and our place in it became the predominant belief (Most, 2015).
The effect of the mind over the body and vice versa is something that I’ve always known intuitively but has become more and more apparent over time. A primary example is one of my first patients who was diagnosed with liver failure. His doctor informed him that he had no other option but to have a liver transplant. This patient had suffered from drug and alcohol addiction throughout his life. When I met him, he was at a turning point and sincerely wanted to change, not only his physical state but also his entire lifestyle. We talked about the nature of healing, and how the body and mind could heal from any imbalance given the proper nourishment and care.
Within a month and a half of treatment, his lab results had changed dramatically to the point where they no longer necessitated a transplant. His doctor was confounded but the patient was taken off the transplant list. This sort of outcome has happened repeatedly over my six years and counting of practice as an acupuncturist, and I know it happens regularly in the practices of my colleague’s as well. With this particular patient, I had no extraordinary clinical approach or skills other than classical Five Element care. Meaning, I helped to remove some of the blocks his own body, mind and spirit carried that would prevent him from being well. The Acupuncture treatments did their job of clearing emotional imbalances and pathological patterns, which fostering the true qi (healthy, natural energy) of the organ systems. The patient was not receiving any other care, allopathic or holistic.
Because he responded so quickly in what was perceived by his MD to be a dire situation, it was clear that something more was happening and creating an outcome beyond the grasp of Cartesian-based scientific expectation. It was also the relationship between the practitioner and patient that provided hope and compassion-and changed his thinking about what was possible-assisted his body to heal.
There are now many studies showing the propensity of mental perception to help patients heal. Speaking to the mind body relationship Pim Cuijpers asserts that “Many randomized trials have shown that when depressed patients receive no active treatment, e.g. they are administered pill placebo, a large part of them improve anyway. This improvement can be partly explained by natural remission or by the patients’ expectations that a treatment will have an effect on their problems (even when they receive pill placebo).” It’s clear that patient’s seeking care for depression do not always need a physical medicine or “active treatment” as it is called here – they are able to heal when being offered the space and possibility to do so.
The power of the mind to create health or illness is also demonstrated in research by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Her research on stress and our perception of stress really changed my own thinking. What she discovered in her clinical studies was that stress itself, often thought of as the culprit and pre-cursor to illness, is not necessarily harmful. What is harmful is our mental perception of the ill effects of stress.
Her study showed that “people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.” However, “people who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress” (McDonigal, 2013).
I found her research and her TED talk to be truly amazing. For years I had warned patients about the detrimental effects of stress, only to realize that I was possibly creating an unhealthy route of thinking for them. If we frame stress as a natural and potentially positive motivator, any potential harmful effects on the body can be avoided. She also found that compassion and creating community reduced overall stress. Her full TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
I've also been recording a before and after of my mind and body with each meditation session this year (started Jan 1 and going strong!) My own state is more relaxed and my breathing deeper. The simple awareness that meditation is a tool that is always available to brings me a sense of peace, which I experience as less tension held in my body. This supports research showing that meditation may also lower blood pressure (Berkley Wellness, 2014.) I also notice that meditation improves my circulation, bringing warmth to my hands and feet.
See how sitting quietly, with the intention of "dropping into stillness" changes your daily experience. There are many options are far as ways to meditate, but the basic premise is to sit still, without any outside distraction. First thing in the morning or before bed is usually easiest.
To start, you can silence your phone, and set a timer for 11 minutes. You can focus on your breath. As thoughts come up, allow that to happen, but return to a place of stillness and non-reaction to those thoughts. They're like bubbles and twigs flowing down a river. Your focus is the river's depth and peace. Keep breathing deeply. Try writing down how you felt before and after meditation, without expectation.
Cuijpers, P., & Cristea, Ioana. (2015). “What if a placebo effect explained all the activity of depression
treatments.” World Psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA)
Most, H. (2015). “History of Mind Body Medicine.” Module 1 Class Power Point. Online Course. Mind
Body Science 2016 1/3/2016-4/16/2016. Maryland University of Integrative Health.
McDonigal, K. (2013, June). Kelly McDonigal: How to make stress your friend. [video file]. Retrieved
“The Body-Mind Connection.” Berkeley Wellness. Berkeley University of California, 24 June 2014.
Web. 09 Jan. 2016.