Can our thoughts heal us? Skeptics insist the idea is deluded, but science journalist Jo Marchant travelled the world to discover what the latest research really says and her findings are the basis of her new book, “Cure: A journey into the science of mind over body.” She argues that although the mind isn’t a miracle cure, there's overwhelming evidence that it plays a crucial role in health.
We all know that our minds can have dramatic and wide-ranging effects on our bodies. Feeling afraid or stressed can trigger our heart to race and our bowels to empty. The sight or smell of delicious food makes us salivate, whereas rotten food causes us to retch. This doesn’t mean that the mind is a “miracle cure,” but it does suggest we should take seriously the idea that these biological changes might impact health.
Although more research is needed, there is now convincing evidence in many fields that our beliefs and expectations can and do shape our physical health. Some of these findings involve immediate and dramatic effects: in Parkinson’s patients, placebos trigger release of the neurotransmitter dopamine (just as their real drugs do); playing a virtual reality game dramatically reduces pain in patients with severe burns; your mood before an invasive medical procedure influences the outcome. Other studies reveal how our mental state can boost our health long-term: mindfulness meditation reduces susceptibility to infection, for example, while social connections lengthen life.
Here are six tips for people looking to harness the mind-body connection.
1. Find a doctor you trust.
Shop around to find a doctor that you respect and trust, whom you feel is engaged with your treatment and positive about your prognosis. Trials in conditions from irritable bowel syndrome to acid reflux disease suggest that patients with caring practitioners and extended consultations do better, no matter what treatment is prescribed.
2. Find a support system.
Remember that regardless of your physical condition, symptoms such as pain and fatigue are ultimately generated and controlled by the brain. Feeling fearful or anxious about your condition is likely to amplify any symptoms you feel, while feeling safe and supported will minimize them. Neuroscience studies show that these processes aren’t “all in the mind” but involve biological changes such as the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. To manage chronic pain, experts recommend reaching out to family and friends, and making an effort to engage in activities that you enjoy and find meaningful.
Feeling stressed or afraid triggers a branch of the immune system called inflammation, which is the body’s first line of defense against injury and infection. This is useful in an emergency but if switched on long-term can make us more susceptible to infection, from the common cold to HIV, and exacerbates autoimmune diseases from eczema to multiple sclerosis. One of the best-studied ways to reduce stress is mindfulness meditation. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Notice any thoughts that arise, without judging them, and let them go.
4. Ask yourself how you feel about your treatment.
Trials show that for chronic conditions such as pain and depression, a large proportion of the benefit we get from drugs is caused by our expectation that we will feel better, rather than the direct biochemical effect of the drug itself. To maximize these effects, ask yourself whether you’re engaged with your treatment and feel positive about your chances for improvement. If not, consider how you might overcome your reluctance, or look for another treatment approach that appeals to you more.
5. Improve your mood.
Your mood can influence the outcome of invasive medical procedures and surgery. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta studied 230 patients undergoing procedures such as inserting a catheter into a blocked artery and found that those who felt anxious or hostile beforehand (compared to positive or neutral) were almost twice as likely to suffer from adverse events such as lack of oxygen, post-operative bleeding or dangerous changes in blood pressure or heart rate.
Other trials have shown that closing your eyes and visualizing yourself in a safe place during medical procedures such as breast biopsies and tumor destruction dramatically reduces pain and anxiety — and cuts the complication rate.
6. Reframe your stress.
Stress can sometimes be good for your health, however, as long as it doesn’t last too long and you interpret your situation as a challenge rather than a threat. A “threat” response triggers inflammation and constricts blood vessels, which impairs physical and mental performance and over time can be damaging for health.
A “challenge” response, on the other hand, dilates blood vessels, which aids circulation and improves performance. To encourage a challenge response, focus on the positives of a situation — what you have to gain rather than what you have to lose. Trials suggest that simply interpreting any physiological signs of stress you experience (such as increased heart rate) as helpful rather than harmful works too.
For a quick fix to tackle stress, slow down your breaths — five seconds in, five seconds out — for a few minutes. Research shows that this breathing rate stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as a brake on inflammation and the fight-or-flight response.