“Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”
~ Carl Gustav Jung
Since time immemorial, people have been looking for a panacea for all illness, from common cold to cerebral cancer. In spite of the advances in technology, medical research has still not been able to fully understand the human body. One such mystery is the connection between the mind and the body. There are several questions that come to our mind as we delve deeper into this mystery. Can the human mind influence the body? Can all diseases be cured by positive thinking? Or, can the mind only cure illnesses like trauma, depression, and fatigue? Does the mind have an influence on the immune system? Has the mind been studied only by psychologists? Or, do we also have studies from physicians and surgeons?
Recent advances in medical technology have made it easier for us to find studies that are accompanied by research and observations. These studies are being conducted by independent research institutes, universities, hospitals, as well as the U.S. Government. Dr. Joyce Whiteley Hawkes, received her Ph.D. in biophysics and was a postdoctoral fellow with the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Hawkes’ work was honored with a U.S. National Achievement Award, and she was elected to the position of Fellow in the American Association for Advancement of Science. From her personal experience and from that of her patients, she discovered the profound and positive effect that emotional, mental, and spiritual feelings can have on the human body at the cellular level (Hawkes, 2006). Dr. Hawkes helps her patients visualize the healing process, in their minds, through meditation. In her book, Cell-Level Healing – The Bridge from Soul to Cell, Dr. Hawkes describes her work with patients of various medical conditions like Aging, Arthritis, Autism, Cancer, Diabetes, Menopause, Multiple Sclerosis, and Severe Emotional Trauma. In most cases, her patients have undergone allopathic treatment, but have not been able to recover fully (Hawkes, 2006).
One of Dr. Hawkes’ patients was Maureen Manley, member of the U.S. Cycling Team, a national record setter, holder of two national championships among other medals and championship awards. Maureen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve. It is considered to be an autoimmune disease. As a result of multiple sclerosis, Maureen had severe impairment in muscle function, fatigue, and problems of vision. She was no longer able to cycle, and had to learn to walk with a cane. Over a period of eight years, she participated fully in the medical assessments and the latest treatments prescribed by her doctors. Though she made considerable progress, she was unable to ride her bike outside on a road because of her unsteady vision. She was then referred to Dr. Hawkes by a trusted friend. Initially she was skeptical, but was eager to explore the power of the mind to cure the human body, by tapping its positive energies. Eventually, not only was Maureen able to ride the road again, she was also able to return to competitive cycling (Hawkes, 2006).
Charles L. Raison, M.D., is a psychiatrist and director of the behavioral immunology clinic at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. In an online article on WebMD.com, he says, “Optimism is necessary for good health. There’s growing evidence that, for many medical illnesses, stress and a negative mental state — pessimism, feeling overwhelmed, being burnt out — has a negative effect on immunity, which is especially important in rheumatoid arthritis.”
Raison explains that the human brain produces endorphins, which are natural painkillers; gamma globulin, which fortifies your immune system; and interferon, which helps combat infections, viruses, even cancer.
“There’s a lot of evidence that when people are depressed, they feel hopeless, they give up on themselves, which affects whether they take medications,” Raison says. “There’s also evidence that people who have a positive attitude, what we call realistic optimism, the fighting spirit… they live longer, do better… they take their medications” (Davis, 2008).
Numerous scientifically conducted studies indicate that social support, emotions, personality, or cognitions (e.g., beliefs, attitudes, values, modes of thinking, decision-making styles) have a significant impact on physical health. The Mind-Body Interactions and Health (MBIH) Program, under the aegis of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) addressed three topical areas (NIH, 2008):
(1) the effects of emotions, personality, or cognitions (e.g., beliefs, attitudes, values, modes of thinking, decision-making styles) on physical health;
(2) the determinants or antecedents of health-related cognitions and how these are formed, maintained, and/or changed; and
(3) the mechanisms through which stress influences physical health (NIH, 2008)
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a report in September 2008 titled “Mind-Body Interactions and Health Program – Outcome Evaluation and Feasibility Study”. According to the report, a survey on medical expenses, made by Americans in the year 1990, shows an estimated 425 million visits to providers of unconventional therapies, which exceeds the estimated 388 million visits to all primary care physicians (NIH, 2008). During that period, an estimated $ 13.7 billion (of which 75 percent was paid out of pocket) was spent by Americans on unconventional therapies which include acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicines, massages, megavitamins, self-help groups, folk remedies, energy healing, and homeopathy. A similar report in 1998 showed that 42 percent Americans visited practitioners of unconventional therapy, up from the initial 34 percent of the population in 1990 (NIH, 2008).
In their studies on depression, Mayo Clinic researchers have found that many illnesses and medical conditions can, directly or indirectly, cause depression (Mayo Clinic, 2001). Some of the common illnesses are hormone-related diseases, heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, obstructive sleep apnea, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Mayo Clinic researchers surveyed a group of people who had taken personality test 30 years before and compared each individual’s health status with their test results. These studies have shown that pessimistic people become depressed more easily than optimists do. The Mayo Clinic study, published in February 2000, found that people with optimistic outlook generally live longer and healthier lives than pessimists. Pessimists also use the health care system more often. Optimists often see bad events as specific, temporary and controllable. In contrast, pessimists blame themselves and see events as permanent and pervasive. As a result, pessimists tend to give up trying, leading to what experts term as “learned helplessness” (Mayo Clinic, 2001).
According to Mayo Clinic research, until the early 1990s, there were two opposing camps when it came to treatment of depression – one pressing for medication and the other for psychotherapy. Several studies and advances in medical technology have shown that the best chance of improvement is with a combined approach. A large study by the National Institute of Mental Health found cognitive behavior therapy effective for mild depression but not as effective as medication for severe depression. Similarly studies suggest that spiritual beliefs have a beneficial effect on health. This, according to Mayo Clinic researchers, can be attributed to healing effect of hope, which is known to help the immune system. Meditation, which is part of many spiritual traditions, is said to decrease muscle tension and lower heart rate. Researchers also point to social connections that spirituality often provides. But studies by Mayo Clinic have not found that it actually cures health problems. Spirituality is viewed as a helpful healing force, but not a substitute for traditional medical care (Mayo Clinic, 2001).
In general, the Mayo Clinic studies have shown that apart from medical treatment, effective therapy involves:
- counseling and therapy,
- staying active and motivated,
- avoiding self-blame,
- getting adequate sleep,
- eating the right food,
- coping with grief,
- practicing forgiveness,
- managing anger,
- starting a journal,
- controlling stress,
- practicing relaxation techniques,
- keeping an optimistic outlook,
- finding spiritual well-being, and
- maintaining a strong social network (Mayo Clinic, 2001).
The improving rapport between traditional medicine and alternate therapy is not restricted to research institutes. It is, increasingly, being seen in many hospitals. In her book Positive Energy, Judith Orloff, M.D., observes that physicians, nurses, and therapists are bringing Energy Medicine into health care. “As an energy psychiatrist, I feel privileged to be a part of a Renaissance that is sweeping modern health care,” says Dr. Orloff. “We’re becoming less of a secret society” (Orloff, 2004).
Dr. Orloff gives the example of cardiologist surgeon, Mehmet Oz, at Columbia Presybyterian Medical Center in New York, who brings energy healers into the operating room during open-heart surgery. These healers apparently send energy to patients through their touch, a technique shown to accelerate post-op recovery. When energy is freed up, medications have shown to work better, and the healing system of the body kicks into higher gear. Dr. Orloff feels that Western physicians are not trained to identify subtle energy imbalances that cause illness. Patients are very often frustrated when they are told by their physicians, “The tests are normal. Don’t worry. You’re fine.” She advocates the use of the best of both traditional and alternative medicines (Orloff, 2004). The number of medical schools in the U.S., that teach these therapies, may be small today, but they are definitely growing. What may be an encouraging sign for patients, is that private health insurers and large employers are now endorsing some alternative therapies and including them in their benefits plans. Reports indicate a greater integration of medical approaches, by traditional health-care providers. For instance, India’s Apollo Hospitals Group, the largest in Asia, has established hospitals that offer both Western medicine and the traditional Ayurvedic Medicine, and is working with Johns Hopkins Medicine International to research the benefits of the Ayurvedic Medicine in addressing common diseases (IBM Global Business Services, 2006).
On the other hand, the research and funding has not yet resulted in an acceptable scientific practice or therapy based on mind-body interactions. Reports indicate that several barriers still exist, preventing integration of mind-body therapies into mainstream medicine. An online article in USA Today titled “Power of a super attitude” states that most research is focused on negative feelings, such as stress, anxiety and depression which have clearly defined scales. This apparently makes quantifying positive attitudes like happiness and well-being difficult for the purpose of such research (Jayson, 2004). In September 1998, a hearing on mind-body medicine was held by The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. In his testimony before the Subcommittee, Herbert Benson,M.D., described the four barriers to integration of mind-body therapies into mainstream medicine (NIH, 2008):
(1) the lack of awareness of existing scientific data supporting these techniques among health care providers, researchers in a variety of relevant fields, patients, and policymakers in government and industry;
(2) a bias against mind-body interventions in medical care as reflecting “soft science;”
(3) inadequate insurance payments for these treatments; and
(4) a bias against shifting away from the overwhelming use of pharmaceuticals, surgeries, and other medical procedures.
In his book, The Self-Healing Personality – Why Some People Achieve Health and Others Succumb to Illness, Dr. Howard S. Friedman says that the biggest challenge for scientific research in positive thinking is the “failure to replicate” (Friedman, 1991). It is a term used in the scientific community to indicate that one researcher has not been able to replicate or reproduce the findings of another researcher. In physics and chemistry, experiments are straightforward, since physical laws do not change from day to day, and lab conditions can be controlled significantly. However, in the social, behavioral, and life sciences, attempts to replicate are not exact. Since the next studies have to use different samples of people in different environments (Friedman, 1991). Dr. Friedman identifies some of the challenges as:
- Many diseases take a long time to develop, requiring long-term observations
- People change emotional reactions over time, making it difficult for sustained long-term observations
- Psychological measures of personality are weak and non-standard, which makes it difficult to get accurate observational data and to compare observations from different researchers
- Other influences like genes, social circumstances, healthy habits like exercise and diet, make it difficult to isolate the influence of positive thinking (Friedman, 1991)
Another big hurdle for Positive Thinking as a method of treatment is from the practitioners of alternate medicine. A common example is the attribution of success to supernatural forces and the hype created around these “miracles” that supposedly cure illnesses instantly. Researchers have, however, learnt to properly attribute these to overall positive thinking and optimism. Practices like faith healing heavily depend on a person’s spiritual or religious beliefs and values. It is also difficult for a medical professional to create the same motivation as a faith healer.
While positive thinking, by itself, may not be able to reverse the effects of diseases on the body, it helps by creating a suitable environment in the body that makes it more receptive to medical treatment. Depression resulting from diseases can lead to chronic illnesses, which makes recovery of patients very challenging for health-care professionals. Medical professionals and hospital administrators are increasingly partnering with practitioners of alternate therapy. Positive attitude can be very helpful for healthy living, and is being seen as a preventive measure. It also helps the intrinsic ability of the human body to heal itself. Congressional Mandate for national level funding and research is an indication of increasing scientific evidence of success of alternate therapies that address positive thinking. But, for the benefits of Positive Thinking to be fully appreciated, more research is required in understanding how the mind influences the human immune system.
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven;’
or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’?“
(Mark 2:9, International Standard Version)
Davis, J. L. (2008, October 9). A Positive Outlook: Natural Healing for Rheumatoid Arthritis? Retrieved February 21, 2010, from WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/rheumatoid-arthritis/ra-tips-for-living-8/positive-thinking
Fox, E. (2008). Emotion Science: Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to Understanding Human Emotions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Friedman, H. S. (1991). The Self-Healing Personality – Why Some People Achieve Health and Others Succumb to Illness. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
Gerdes, L. (2008). Limitless You : The Infinite Possibilities of a Balanced Brain. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing.
Hawkes, J. W. (2006). Cell-Level Healing : The Bridge from Soul to Cell. New York: Atria Books / Beyond Words.
IBM Global Business Services. (2006, October 23). Healthcare 2015: Win-win or lose-lose? A portrait and a path to successful transformation. Somers, NY, United States of America.
Jayson, S. (2004, October 12). USATODAY.com – Power of a super attitude. Retrieved February 19, 2010, from USATODAY.com: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2004-10-12-mind-body_x.htm
Mayo Clinic. (2001). Mayo Clinic on Depression. Rochester: Mayo Clinic Health Information.
MayoClinic.com. (2009, May 30). Positive thinking: Reduce stress, enjoy life more. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from CNN Health: http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/library/positive-thinking/SR00009.html
Mindell, A. P. (2004). The Quantum Mind and Healing – How to Listen and Respond to Your Body’s Symptoms. Charlottesville: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.
NIH. (2008). Mind-Body Interactions and Health Program – Outcome Evaluation Feasibilty Study. National Institutes of Health, Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.
Orloff, J. (2004). Positive Energy : 10 extraordinary prescriptions for transforming fatigue, stress, and fear into vibrance, strength, and love. New York: Harmony Books.