Can You Really Think Yourself Healthy?
The Mind-Body Connection Explored
“Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body — body and mind are one. (…) the body is the actual outward manifestation, in physical space, of the mind”
— Candace Pert, PhD, Neuroscientist & Pharmacologist.
Descartes’ Deal & The Genesis Of Our Mind-Body Dissociation:
In the seventeenth century, René Descartes made a deal with the Pope in order to gain access to human bodies for dissection. The deal was that the autopsies would not interfere with “the soul, the mind, or the emotions” of the person to whom the body once belonged.
In order for this deal to be made, it had to be accepted that there is a definitive mind-body divide. Until recently, few people (in the West at least) have questioned this. As the perceived gap between psyche (the mind), and soma (the body), has continued to expand, our sense of autonomy has vanished almost entirely. When unwell, we increasingly turn to outside help (doctors, healers, priests etc), rather than wondering how we can actually assist ourselves.
I believe that as a result of this, we have gradually lost touch with our natural connection and command of our bodies. And having worked with hundreds of clients who recognise a psychological component to their physical symptoms, I wholeheartedly believe that successful treatment of many “physical” problems must include some emotional work to reconnect the body and mind.
Molecules of emotion
In her book Molecules Of Emotion, neuroscientist Candace Pert describes how some ground-breaking discoveries over the last forty years have led scientific understanding of the psychosomatic away from its stubborn adherence to the Cartesian model.
In a nutshell, after discovering the opiate receptor in the early 1970's, Pert work went on to demonstrate the physical existence of human emotions in the body.
Her work showed for the first time that feelings exist within the complex system of ligands and receptors found on the surfaces of cells within the brain and body.
Very simply, ligands are proteins that float around the fluid between cells, and attach to their specific receptors in order to transfer information into the heart of that cell; information that can change the very state of that cell and stimulate a number of different fundamental processes. Amongst these are those that cause us to feel the way we feel when we experience an emotion.
It should be mentioned here that the primary function of an emotion is to get us to act (hence the word e-motion, which has its root in the French word émouvoir which means “to stir up”). Our emotional responses are absolutely crucial to our ability to make even the most basic of decisions.
Those who suffer damage to the particular parts of the pre-frontal cortex responsible for the production of emotion, invariably lose their ability to hold down the simplest job, or even choose which pair of socks to put on in the morning. This is an understanding that already puts into question the more traditional Western model of emotion as a (feminine) inconvenience.
Pert’s work on the molecular existence of emotion led her to theorise that not only are the body and mind linked, they are actually the same thing:
“Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body — body and mind are one. (…) the body is the actual outward manifestation, in physical space, of the mind”.
However, Pert’s “molecules of emotion” were not the only convincer needed for the scientific community to begin giving some credence to the discussion of the mind’s deeper connection to the matter that makes up our physical body. The placebo effect highlights some of the most compelling evidence for the mind-body connection (not least because of its measurability).
It’s common knowledge that a patient’s expectation regarding the effectiveness of a treatment can dramatically change the outcome of its administration. In his book Placebo Effects, Fabrizio Benedetti explains the various different mechanisms by which placebo and nocebo (placebo’s negative counterpart) effects can function.
The results can be so powerful that all manner of illnesses and diseases, from warts to cancer, have been known to heal (or indeed develop) after nothing more than the swallowing of a sugar pill or having an injection of saline solution. The only necessity for a placebo effect to occur is expectation: the patient just has to believe (on some level) that the treatment will work.
The importance of psychological rest
In her compelling TEDx talk, Dr Lissa Rankin discusses how placebo (traditionally considered somewhat of an inconvenience by the medical community) should really be prioritised as an area of focus for the ongoing development of healthcare and medicine.
The important take-home point from Rankin’s talk is that a state psychological rest is essential for any healing. The natural regenerative functions of the body are only operative when the parasympathetic nervous system’s “relaxation response” is in effect. When in the alternate state known as “fight or flight response”, these healing processes are temporarily suspended.
In other words; when we’re in a state of stress or excitement, we are not able to heal. This, of course, works fine if your fight or flight response is triggered briefly to get you out of the way of a bus, but not if it’s triggered by chronic stress in the workplace. Rankin looks at the things we can implement into our day-to-day life like meditation, fun, social support, creativity, sex, sport etc, all of which promote the this vital state of psychological rest.
Something I often find myself saying to clients is that we tend to get what we think about in life; that is, we tend to manifest what we expect will be the case. This is why it’s not uncommon for cancer patients to begin feeling sick, or even vomit on the way to their chemotherapy sessions — it’s their expectation which brings on the (re)action before any treatment is actually given.
In addition to those examples of psychologically stimulated healing provided by the placebo effect, the wealth of case-studies developed by practitioners such as Dr Bernie Siegel and the Simontons all point to the notion that our general psychological wellbeing directly affects our physiological state of health. Studies have shown correlations between the onset of physical disease (such as cancer) and the ongoing effects of previous traumatic experiences. There is also evidence to indicate the direct effects of a stressful environment on the immune system’s ability (or lack thereof) to deal with physical disease.
Recently, the work of Dr Vincent Felitti has been receiving a considerable amount of attention. Felitti developed a series of ten questions designed for GP’s to ask their patients in order to discern the level of emotional, physical and sexual abuse experienced during childhood. A patient’s score (from 0/10 being no experience of abuse to 10/10 indicating a highly troubled childhood) has been shown to be a reliable predictor of that person’s likelihood to develop heart disease, diabetes, depression or addiction (just to name a few) in their adult life.
Think yourself healthy
The relatively new field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) focuses on the study of the interaction between psychological processes such as guided imagery, and the immune functions of the body. There are countless stories about people who have engaged in self-hypnosis and/or mental imagery programs which they believe to be responsible for the “spontaneous remission” of their cancer (among other illnesses).
Our bodies are exceptionally good at maintaining their health. They have the ability to regrow skin and heal wounds; to combat cancerous cells; and to fight damaging bacteria, fungi and viruses without us ever needing to pay a single conscious thought to the processes. It’s this natural ability of the body to combat illness and disease that PNI seeks to fortify and direct by facilitating conscious-unconscious communication using mental imagery (primarily).
In Cognitive Hypnotherapy the idea that our thoughts colour the world in which we live is central to our method of working. The memory network is like an enormous web of subjective recollections. What we are able to remember at any particular moment will be influenced by our current emotional state, just as our emotional reactions will be shaped by what’s in our memory. So it follows, then, that if our emotions can so greatly affect our mental and physical functioning, then our remembered experiences must also be greatly influential in the development and maintenance of a state of mental and physical health.
As Pert concludes in Molecules Of Emotion, the ligands and their receptors in our brains and bodies form an intricate and multi-directional information network which links mind and body together. Her conclusion is that health is the natural state of affairs for human beings, in which this information can flow freely around the body-mind system.
It follows, then, that psychological disorders and physical disease alike, can occur when blockages develop to impede this flow. This is a concept that sits comfortably with both the psychoanalytical theories of repressed emotions and their effects on mental health by Freud, Jung and Riech in the late nineteenth century; as well as the ancient Eastern philosophies concerning energy flow which date back tens of thousands of years.
As the effective communication of information lies at the core of pretty much any therapeutic approach, it could be argued that by facilitating a healthy conversation between the client and their unconscious mind, therapy can help us to heal the damage done by the Cartesian split, and our subsequent disconnection from our own bodies. The goal being to (re)empower people with their rightly deserved sense of mental/physical autonomy, and perhaps ultimately to release us from our utter dependancy on external means to fix ourselves when broken.