By Judy Wein
Mind-Body Medicine is the concept that our thoughts, feelings, support sources, past experiences, stress levels and coping skills can significantly affect our health, and vice versa, as illness impacts how we view and relate to our lives.
Paying attention to optimizing these factors can not only increase our sense of well being, but can have practical health results.
All of this is possible because the mind doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.
Brain scan studies show that in looking at a picture of a tree, or in simply imagining the tree, the same areas of the brain show the same patterns.
Elite athletes who sit for two weeks and imagine shooting hoops improve their free-throw scores as much as those who actually practiced.
Volunteers can show significant muscle strength improvement by imagining doing repetitive tasks, even though they don’t physically move those muscles.
Such evidence makes some researchers wonder whether beyond a mere “connection”, there is no separate “mind” entity at all, and that all of our body has “memory” and brain-type functions.
The discovery of neurotransmitters provided some insights on how the mind-body-spirit connection works. Neurotransmitters, small proteins, are released in response to thoughts, beliefs and feelings and directly impact and control the functions of our cells.
This also explains, why the innate and complex healing system of mind, body and spirit can only function properly when all parts are in alignment with each other.
A large number of medical studies demonstrated that negative emotions play a significant role in the development of heart diseases, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases and cancer.
Anxiety, anger, shame and sadness drain our energy and suppress our immune system. Stress-related illnesses are the number one cause of death in the US.
Self-sabotaging or addictive behavior keep us stuck in old, destructive patterns. Non-supportive self-talk such as “I can’t do this” or “I don’t deserve this” prevent us from accessing our full potential and achieving our goals. On the other hand positive thinking, a self-empowered attitude and optimistic beliefs stimulate and enhance the healing process.
Neurotransmitters send signals throughout the nervous system. We used to think these chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, resided in the brain at the end of nerve cells. We now know that they can be found in many other organs–the heart, the gut, the immune system–and that they can diffuse out into the tissues and the blood. This is why so much of what happens to us shows up in many different parts of the body; why depression, associated with low serotonin levels in the brain, also causes decreased immune function and decreased bowel function.
Why do we have a “gut feeling” about something? Because the neurotransmitters in our gut can be a mirror reflection of what’s going on in our head. Every day more neurotransmitters, cytokines, lymphokines, peptides and hormones and their interrelationships are being discovered, as well as how these factors are affected by events in our lives, and how we choose to respond to those events.
The autonomic nervous system, in charge of constant functions like heart rate and breathing, was named autonomic because it was thought to carry on independently in the background of our lives.
However, the discovery of the “relaxation response”, in which quiet breathing was found to be able to lower blood pressure, there is ever-increasing evidence that we can to some extent impact our own physiology.
Over one hundred studies have verified that relaxation can lower blood pressure. Biofeedback studies have demonstrated the ability to raise or lower the temperature of one finger, or raise the temperature of one small square of skin on the back by imagining a candle flame at that spot. Diabetics have been able to increase by several degrees the temperature of their feet, thereby increasing extremity blood flow, so important in counteracting the blood vessel complications of this disorder.
From pre-operative patients who can imagine decreased pain and improved bowel function and have it happen, to yoga masters who can skewer themselves with metal rods and feel no pain and have no bleeding, we are only at the beginning of our understanding of the magnificence and intricacy of the mind-body connection.
What are you doing to strengthen your own mind-body connection today?