The Mind-Body Connection

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Resources for the Mind-
Body Connection

The Biofeedback Certification Institute of America. Phone: 303-420-2902 - for list of certified professionals

Emotions and Health:
Williams, Edward, MD, and Williams, Virginia, PhD: Lifeskills (Times Books, 1999)

American Society of Clinical Hypnosis
Phone: 630-980-4740
or www.asch.net (for referral to or listing of medical professionals who use hypnosis in their practices)

Catalano, MA and
Kimeron N. Hardin, PhD: The Chronic Pain Control Workbook (New Harbinger, 1996)

Relaxation Response:
Borysenko, Joan: Minding the Body, Mending the Mind (Addison-Wesley, 1987)

Q. What do religious faith, meditation, hypnotherapy and biofeedback
have in common?

A. All of these "mind" activities can confer relief from stress,
coupled with huge health benefits.

In recent years, mainstream medicine has begun to recognize that positive thoughts or beliefs, plus regularly "tuning in" to certain mental states, can aid deep physical relaxation, lower anxiety, and actually heal the body. Meditation and related practices seem to alleviate some symptoms in conditions as diverse as asthma, arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, headaches and back problems, as well as confer better resistance to disease, more energy, better concentration, and cure or easing of chronic pain. What is a common thread in these conditions? Stress, anger, anxiety and depression tend to worsen the symptoms. If stress and negative psychological states contribute to disease, it stands to reason that practices that addresses them will help relieve symptoms. No wonder more and more physicians recommend stress reduction techniques as an important adjunct to medical therapy.

How Stress Can Make You Sick
Certain substances people are exposed to daily can be toxic over time. Cigarette smoke, for example, can stimulate unhealthy changes in lung tissue. Stress is a prime example of how a state of mind can exercise similarly toxic effects on the body. This view of the "Mind-Body" connection also suggests why changing a person’s state of mind can effect healing or cure.

Stress seems to do its mischief through a combination of factors: by provoking chronic muscle tension on the one hand; on the other, by causing actual chemical changes in cells through the action of adrenaline and other stress hormones—those "fight or flight" substances generated by our adrenal glands in response to shock, fear and anxiety. In the short term, this is fine— a good thing for survival in war, and for triumph in competitive situations. But when these physical conditions persist day after day, they can be enormously destructive.

Joshua Greenspan, MD, director of Pain Management at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Long Island College Hospital, agrees that thoughts and emotions have a huge impact. "We pain specialists say that pain is a problem of perception," he says. "I see over and over that the deep-rooted beliefs patients bring to therapy, and the positive or negative stories they tell themselves, may have as much impact on their recovery as any physical treatment." Dr. Greenspan believes that the most effective pain therapies combine standard medications and therapeutic approaches with mind-based practices that change attitudes and reduce stress and anxiety, whether through meditation, biofeedback, hypnotherapy, visualization therapy, psychological counseling, prayer, or a combination of theses.

The mind has tremendous powers to soothe, and it operates differently according to the culture a person is raised in, notes Dr. Greenspan. People growing up in Asian cultures seem to tolerate pain better than others, perhaps because their cultures place more emphasis on stoicism, or because experience with meditative practices helps them detach their minds from the pain signals sent to the brain by the body. He points to the "placebo effect" as further evidence of the mind’s role in healing. "We can use the mind to help heal ourselves," Dr. Greenspan says. "I see that the people who are seriously motivated to get better do get better.

Rediscovering the Body-Mind-Spirit Connection
Once, it was taken for granted that spirit was deeply involved in every aspect of human life. Early healers—medicine men and women, or shamans—were believed to have a special connection to spirit. Even in Western medical traditions, the practices of physicians tended to be viewed as ‘art,’ and the healer’s work targeted both the body and spirit of the sufferer. In the last century, however, Western medicine came to regard the body as a kind of machine, with its internal processes defined by anatomy. "But now it seems that doctors are realizing what our ancestors knew intuitively," says Sister Karen O’Neill, who, with Protestant Chaplain Anita Crooks, heads the chaplaincy program at SUNY Downstate. "Not everyone is on board yet, but there is a whole new thread we are looking for."

Chaplain Crooks and Sister O’Neill have a strong belief in the power of prayer, and in the positive role that medical practitioners can play—consciously or unconsciously—in channeling the healing powers of spirit. In addition to their work counseling patients and offering spiritual comfort to family members, they conduct programs to educate nurses and medical students about spirituality in the broader sense, and the power of the mind. Nurses at Downstate’s University Hospital of Brooklyn are currently developing a manual that includes alternative therapies for stress and pain management based on insights achieved through this training. The chaplains give credit for their insights to the work of Herbert Benson, MD, a Harvard physician who has played a leading role in researching the mind-body connection, and in educating medical professionals about using these insights to help patients.

The Relaxation Response
A major insight of Dr. Benson’s concerns what he has dubbed the "relaxation response"—a letting go of tension by both body and mind—that he has found to have immediate and measurable calming effects. In the body, these include a slowing of the heartbeat, a lowering of blood pressure, and slowing and deepening of breathing—reversing the changes brought on by stress. Eliciting such a state for a period of time daily keeps down blood levels of stress hormones, with positive long-term health effects. Methods for achieving this profound relaxation usually have to be learned through instruction and then developed by regular practice.

Meditation–Getting Your Mind Back on Track
Meditation is one of many ways to achieve the relaxation response. Meditation is taught in various forms. Classes are offered by institutes oriented to Buddhism, yoga, and other Eastern disciplines. Meditation classes also are offered by individual teachers and as part of stress reduction programs conducted at medical centers, churches, YWCAs and other educational facilities. You also can learn on your own, using a book or meditation tapes, available at libraries, health food stores and book stores.

The Experience of Meditation
The meditator sits calmly in a comfortable position, focusing on her breathing or a repeated, soothing phrase. She gradually allows herself to release the tension in her body. As she does so, she feels it dissolve away from her limbs, shoulders, jaw and eyelids. As she pays attention to her body, gradually she stops paying attention to the incessant mind chatter of thoughts and worries. Eventually, deep relaxation seems to bathe every cell in her body. She may experience a "power, a force, an energy" that seems to integrate her with a greater universal force.

This deep state of calm delivers its benefits whether or not a person’s meditation practice has a religious focus. Besides alleviating pain and gradually improving the symptoms of other conditions, regular meditation practitioners report enhanced ability to concentrate, less tendency to "fly off the handle," better sleep and a more positive mental outlook.

Other Pathways

• Exercise can generate the release of endorphins, natural, "feel good" substances produced in the brain that reduce pain and elevate mood.
• Support groups have proven value, for those with particular medical problems.
• Positive affirmations and creative visualization also combat stress.
• Self-hypnosis, which can be learned from expert practitioners, is known to provide relief from pain and phobias.
• Biofeedback offers a way of electronically measuring heart activity, blood pressure and body temperature so that people can learn how to control these signs of stress.

For his pain patients, Dr. Greenspan recommends Managing Pain Before It Manages You, by Margaret A. Caudill, MD, PhD, which features extensive discussion of the mind-body connection, plus instructions for achieving the relaxation response. These can help anyone suffering from stress-related syndromes or illness. Could a book truly change your life? Kathleen Hyack, a Brooklyn resident, is now a believer. "My 80-year-old mother was practically bed-ridden for years. She had surgery for a slipped disk, but it didn’t improve, and she had all sorts of pains and complaints," Ms. Hyack says. "Then last summer she read a book that said she could overcome it all by doing relaxation exercises and changing her outlook—and she has! She took charge. Her mood is upbeat, she’s walking again and going out to see people. It’s like a miracle!"

This is not to say that everyone will find self-help methods of pain control effective. If you have a persistent pain problem, you should discuss it with your primary care doctor, and find out if a referral to a pain management specialist is in order.

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