Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the challenge and the opportunity to take a meaningful role in improving and preserving our health and well-being. Yet, with countless claims for healthcare approaches from such a wide variety of sources, how can one know precisely where to begin … or for that matter, what to believe?
In recent years, medical scientists throughout the world have discovered exciting insights about supportive approaches to traditional medical care. These are the findings (published in leading medical journals) that can enable us to take an active, meaningful role in our health and well-being.
Rational health care approaches are not just for people facing the challenges of surviving chronic illnesses! Let’s learn to preserve what we already enjoy … before we are faced with the greatest challenge of our life.
Your body is a 3-D projection of your current state of mind. Your slightest shift of mood is picked up by every cell, which means that you do not think with your brain alone — all 50 trillion cells in your body actively share your thoughts. At the level of the quantum mechanical body, you are a constantly flowing river of intelligence.
Dr. Deepak Chopra
Correctly channeled, it has enormous power says Dr. Chopra. The power to make us sick or well, depressed or joyful, sluggish or dynamic. The mind body connection is the gateway to unlimited creativity and happiness. Unfortunately, our society has not taught us how to use it.
Practices to Promote Health and Well-being
Your personal wellness plan may include a range of lifestyle and mind-body practices to support maintaining a higher level of health and wellness and it will change over time to focus on the areas of your life you are currently most motivated to change. Some of these practices carry little or no cost, while others carry heavy costs. For example, paying attention to how you breathe, move, eat your meals, process your feelings, communicate with others, and taking daily walks, carries no costs. Other practices, such as yoga, Pilates, qigong, tai chi, and some fitness routines, can first be learned in class and then later practiced on your own (or with video instruction). These have small up-front instructional costs and sometimes some ongoing costs if you enjoy the class environment.
Finally, there are practices with heavy associated costs, such as fitness club memberships
and dietary supplements, as well as trips to your massage therapist, acupuncturist, nutritionist, energy healer, naturopath, chiropractor practices, or holistic physician to help monitor your state of health and wellness and help bring you back into balance if necessary. Most of these costs will be in the first 12–18 months of your plan as you are learning and choosing the wellness practices that you would like to integrate into your life.
The beauty of this approach is that you are investing time and money in your health and well-being by creating a long-term, strategic wellness plan which allows you to see the holistic health practitioners you most trust to guide you to a higher level of health and well-being, and to pursue the wellness practices which address the areas of your life you are most motivated to change. Your greatest reward will come from the wellness practices you pursue on a daily basis until they become part of the fabric of your life.
Our thoughts and feelings influence the body via two kinds of mechanisms: the nervous system and the circulatory system. These are the pathways of communication between the brain and the rest of the body.
The brain reaches into the body via the nervous system. This allows it to send nerve impulses into all the body’s tissues and influence their behavior. The brain can thus affect the behavior of the immune system with its nerve endings extending into the bone marrow (the birthplace of all white cells), the thymus, the spleen, and the lymph nodes.
It also reaches into all the glands of the endocrine system, all the bones, muscles, all the internal organs, and even the walls of veins and arteries. It can influence the behavior of the heart with its nerves penetrating the heart tissue, affecting heart rate and other aspects of the heart’s functioning. The entire body is literally “wired” by the brain.
The brain is also a gland. It manufactures thousands of different kinds of chemicals and releases them into the bloodstream. These chemicals circulate throughout the body and influence the activity and behavior of all the body’s tissues. The brain could be described as the ultimate apothecary, producing many more drugs than science has ever invented.
The cells of the body have receptors on their surfaces that function somewhat like satellite dishes. These receptors receive the chemical messages being released by the brain and respond accordingly.
Finally, the mind/body connection is a two-way street. In addition to sending messages into the body’s tissues, it also receives feedback, both in the form of nerve impulses and its own receptors that sense what chemicals are being released by other tissues in the body.
The use of mind/body medicine takes place within a broader context of changing one’s lifestyle to promote health. Making a daily practice of mind/body techniques is but one of several areas of lifestyle change that work together in a synergistic way. Other areas include proper diet, exercise, and social support.
While the health benefits of diet and exercise are obvious, there is a growing body of research now indicating that supportive interpersonal relationships are strongly associated with better health. They seem to ameliorate or buffer the harmful effects of stress on the body.
Variations: The Many Contexts of Mind/Body Medicine
This field is uniquely cross disciplinary, which accounts for its wide availability, helping make it the most commonly used form of alternative healing. Medical doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, naturopaths, osteopaths, practitioners of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, body workers, homeopaths, and chiropractors, may use its variety of techniques. Other human service providers such as psychologists, clinical social workers, marriage and family counselors, ministers, and hypnotherapists also use these tools. And of course there are very specialized applications for midwives, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, respiratory therapists, and others.
The repertoire of mind/body medicine includes all psychological strategies that directly influence physiological states. Following are the most commonly used methods.
Meditation: The process should take place in a quiet environment, a setting where one can be quiet, undisturbed, and in a comfortable position for at least fifteen to twenty minutes. Given this setting, there are only two essential steps: the silent repetition of a word, sound, phrase, or prayer and the passive return back to the repetition whenever other thoughts intrude.
Mindfulness: This is actually another approach to meditation, which involves the ability to focus completely on only one thing at a time. In other words, in mindfulness the mind is full of whatever is happening right now. This can include walking, cooking, sweeping the floor, dancing, watching a bird, hearing the sound of a river, or any other focus you may choose.
Whenever thoughts intrude, you simply return your attention back to the focus.
Progressive Relaxation: This is another common approach to eliciting the relaxation response. In this technique the body itself is used as the focus of attention. It may be done either lying down or sitting. They technique involves progressing through the body one muscle group at a time, beginning with the feet, moving up the legs, and so on, spending approximately a minute in each area. For each muscle group, you hold or clench the muscles in the area for a count of ten and then release for a count of ten before moving on to the adjacent area.
The remaining techniques described below, while they also can lead to induction of the relaxation response, are also used for other purposes.
Mental Imagery: This involves using symbols to imagine that the changes you desire in your body are actually happening. For example, you might imagine that pain is melting away and dripping like a warm liquid out of your fingertips. Or you might develop an image of your immune cells actively subduing and preying on cancer cells or viruses, like birds of prey swooping down to engulf field mice in a meadow. This is a highly personalized technique and you would use images that are uniquely exciting and meaningful to you.
Studies of mental imagery have found that people can actually influence their immune functioning as well as significantly reduce pain and tension in the body with this method. But aside from the physiological benefits, which take some practice to achieve, there is also the knowledge that you are doing something to help yourself, channeling your energy into a healing activity. This in itself helps to improve emotional well-being and build a sense of self-efficacy or confidence, which research has found to improve immune functioning.
Autogenic Training: This approach involves using a combination of autosuggestion and imagery. Phrases are used to describe to oneself what changes in the body are desired as if they are happening now. For example, “My legs are warm and heavy,” “All the muscles of my back are softening and melting,” “I am calm,” and “Warm; peaceful relaxation is flowing throughout my body.” These phrases are repeated while maintaining one’s focus on those parts of the body being addressed. Whenever the mind wanders, the attention is gently and passively returned to the focus.
Breath Therapy: A variety of breathing exercises can help one to release tension, anxiety, and pain. They can be used in conjunction with imagery or autosuggestion. They can also be used to encourage fuller breathing in general and give the body a greater supply of energy, which it can use for healing. It takes energy to fuel the body’s self-repair mechanisms including the immune system. Since we take a thousand breaths every hour, each breath is an opportunity to contribute to a healing process.
Some breath therapy techniques use the breath in a calm, peaceful way to induce relaxation, to release pain, or to prepare for imagery. Another variety is Evocative Breath Therapy (EBT), which uses stronger breathing, sometimes accompanied by music, to stimulate emotions and emotional release.
Hypnosis: A simple description of hypnosis is offered by Karen Olness, M.D., of Case Western Reserve University who calls it “a form of self-induced, focused attention that can make it easier for you to relax or learn to control your body’s functions.” It is this experience of extraordinary focus of attention that makes it possible to influence bodily states.
The Mind/Heart Connection: Scientists have pieced together how stress affects the heart. This work is well summarized by Cynthia Medich, Ph.D., R.N., a cardiovascular specialist and researcher at the Mind/Body Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School and New England Deaconess Hospital, Boston. What Medich describes as the mind/heart connection involves the release of two kinds of stress hormones into the bloodstream: corticosteroids and catecholamines.
These hormones set off a cascade of changes in the body including increased platelet aggregation (tendency for blood clotting); increased coronary artery tone; a surge in coronary artery pressure; increased blood pressure, glucose levels, and lipid levels; a more rapid and powerful heartbeat; and, paradoxically, a constriction in the coronary arteries. In short, the demands on the heart all increase.
Relationship to Other Forms of Medicine
Mind/body medicine is usually used in the role of complementary therapy. This means it works alongside other treatment in a supportive way. It communicates a cooperative partnership rather than being exclusive of other traditions. In fact, all medical traditions now include within them some attention to mind/body interactions and ways of working with them.