Healing the Body with the Mind

By Mary Braud, M.D.

Mind-body medicine, as it is known to some, offers great promise both as a healing modality and as a means of prevention. What is it? Does it work? How does it work This article will answer these questions and provide examples of techniques that you can begin to use for yourself.

What is mind-body medicine? The term refers to a broad range of techniques or practices that can aid in healing. Some of these practices have been used in ancient forms of healing for centuries, even thousands of years. Many have been introduced to Western cultures and Western medicine only in the past few decades.

Does mind-body medicine work? Answers regarding the benefits of these techniques continue to be developed by researchers. Studies have documented benefits from using mind-body practices in patients with cancer, irritable bowel disease, arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions.

How do the practices of mind-body medicine assist in restoring and maintaining health? The primary benefit is that they turn off the stress response. They also help patients regain a sense of control, something that is often lost in the midst of facing a medical crisis. From a place of greater ease and a sense of competence, it is possible to then develop a different perspective of the experience of being ill or any life experience for that matter.

Much of the science of mind-body medicine has been established upon its ability to modify the stress response. Why is this so important? Excessive activation of the stress response plays a role in every chronic illness. In particular, the stress response plays an important role in the creation of the symptoms of pain, depression, and anxiety that are so commonly experienced by those who are facing health challenges or overwhelmed by other difficult situations.

The stress response includes the observable behaviors of the fight or flight reaction. It also includes unseen biologic changes, including decreased blood flow to the intestines and immune organs and an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol. In the short term, the stress response promotes survival, as it allows an animal to fight or flee from some threat. Long-term and excessive activation of the stress response produces disease, the result of lowered immunity and digestive problems. Other toxic effects include problems with learning and memory. Prolonged stress is also harmful to relationships because it is not possible to truly connect with others from a place of survival.

Meant to ensure survival, the stress response becomes toxic when it remains active for long periods. It is not only experience that activates this response. Merely thinking about a difficult situation produces the same result as being there. This is where the healing powers of mind-body medicine can intervene. Relaxation methods used can dramatically alter the stress response. Many work very quickly. They all work best when practiced frequently, because the mind and body become conditioned to re-creating relaxation. Once learned, it’s possible to produce the relaxation response whenever and wherever it is needed.

Deep, relaxed breathing quickly activates the relaxation response. To begin, find a place where you can be sitting or lying down. The simplest of instruction is to “follow your breath.” Breathe through your nose only if this is comfortable. Some suggest inhaling with your nose and exhaling through the mouth. Just focus upon the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. You might notice the sensation of air at your nostrils. When thoughts enter your mind (and they will), simply re-focus your attention upon the breath. It only takes a few moments of breathing in this way to produce relaxation. The benefits increase when the exercise is done for longer periods of time. Once relaxation is learned, you can quickly restore a state of relaxation even in the midst of a difficult situation.

Relaxed breathing is a form of meditation. It is known as a concentrative technique, where the focus is the breath. It is also possible to meditate using another focus, such as the light of a candle, a mantra, or a prayer. Mindfulness is another relaxing mind-body practice in which attention is allowed to shift between the body and whatever might be going on in one’s surroundings. No attachment or judgment is made about the observations or thoughts that arise.

Besides relaxation, mind-body medicine employs other methods which can be described as being expressive or exploratory. For some, even relaxation techniques can stir up strong emotions. Expressive and exploratory practices can do this, so they should be approached with some caution. It can be prudent to have support from someone who can serve as a guide. A guide can assist you in making sense of the thoughts and feelings that arise.

Journaling is one route of self-expression. Write down any thoughts or feelings that come to mind. It is helpful to remember that this is for no one but you. It doesn’t matter if what you write is positive or negative, only that you put down what normally would stay trapped in your mind. Somehow, putting it on paper provides relief.

Dance and other forms of movement, such as yoga or Tai Chi, are other expressive practices. Whether you move slowly or fast, dancing fosters a healthier relationship with the body and a greater appreciation for it.

You can create relaxation or explore the mind and glean its wisdom through guided imagery. Just as stress can be triggered by the imagination, profound peace can be created by the mind. Known as “safe-place,” this technique is easily done by placing your awareness upon some real or imagined place of safety or peace. All of the senses can be activated to see, feel, and hear what this place is like. This kind of imagery is often employed by patients who must undergo painful or difficult procedures, such as chemotherapy.

Guided imagery is an exploration when it is used to explore the meaning of symptoms or to gain a different perspective on an issue. Inner guides or other spiritual helpers are accessed in these practices. Another variation of this type of practice is to “interview” a problem or symptom in your mind and see what it tells you.

Unstuck, Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression, a new book by James Gordon, M.D., provides further details on the techniques mentioned in this article. Participating in a group or class is one way to encourage progress from reading about these techniques to using them routinely.

Dr. Braud offers an opportunity to learn these skills in the Mind-Body Discovery group held each Wednesday during her monthly visit to The Center. Upcoming dates are February 18, March 4, April 1, and May 20. Please call to confirm attendance.