It Really Is Mind Over Matter

Consider this…

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), three quarters of deaths among people younger than 75 are avoidable.

In the last two decades, the prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases has been steadily growing. Studies have shown that the major preventable risk factors for these diseases are smoking tobacco, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, insufficient physical activity, obesity, poor nutrition and diabetes.

Statistics show that these numbers are only going to get worse as a result of the population ageing. With governments, hospitals and health care centres pushed to the limit, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to promote our own health and wellbeing.

Health is often a non-event for the young – a gift acknowledged just after birth with the traditional mother-and-baby-are-both-doing-well statement. We tend to continue to take good health for granted until we experience disease close to home. “Lack of ease” usually fits into one of two categories – the first is treated easily with creams, shots, diet and exercise, and the second is far more devastating. Rarely treated with the same ease as the first group, the likes of cancer, degenerative diseases and heart conditions create enormous pain and suffering. We are considered extremely lucky if we manage to survive the second group.

We are all carrying numerous viruses that would be devastating if they became active. The reason these diseases don’t manage to gain a foothold in our system is that our immune system recognises the invaders and sends out killer agents called T-cells to engage with the virus. There is literally a war raging away inside us each and every day.

If our immune system takes even the shortest holiday, we’re in for a rough time. Watch a family suffering from a cold – at least one of them will usually escape unscathed despite living in an environment crammed with 10 times the normal level of germs. If our immune system is functioning well we can even sleep with a partner who is sick, breathing in their germ-laden breath, and not become infected.

Try the opposite.

When our defences are low we can catch a cold just from travelling on a plane with someone who is sick, even if they are sitting 40 metres away. It becomes obvious that the most important thing we can do to look after our health is to ensure our immune systems are operating at peak efficiency. The better our immunity, the healthier we will be. Therefore we need to understand what has a negative impact on the immune system and work towards reducing our risk factor and promoting healthy immune function. 

Stress is the most common immune system depressor. While a certain amount of pressure can be good, too much of the emotional component of stress damages our immune function. Our grandparents are often the best illustration of this – chances are the death of one of them triggered the passing of the other within a short time. Grief itself is natural, but when it is associated with an avenue of love being permanently shut down we see devastating effects. The second grandparent may have had pneumonia, but we instinctively know they died from a broken heart.

Very few people succeed at eliminating stress, even when they consume masses of time and energy trying to relax. The biggest mistake we make is taking a break to “get away from it all”. More often than not we spend three weeks relaxing on a blissful island somewhere, and after only two days back at home we feel like we never left.

Working long hours inside is also damaging to the immune system. There is a reason farmers in their mid-seventies are often as fit as fiddles – the hard work outdoors is excellent for building health and fitness.

The next immune system killer on the list is unrealised dreams. When we lose hope, or feel that our efforts are not getting us where we want to go, we get sick. In order to avoid this you will need to determine your values and act on them – see our blog posts on life management for help with this.

In our experience, very few people allow themselves enough “me time”. This is devastating for the immune system. Many of our clients fail to allocate enough time to the activities that revitalise, refresh and rejuvenate them.

Health care professionals have a saying: “take the time out to care for yourself before you are forced to”. This holds true for many of us – we have had hundreds of clients who are forced to stop and take a break when they get very ill. Too many of us run on empty for too long and then end up wondering where the magic in our lives has gone.

Poor diet is another immune suppressor. The amount of food we eat that is intrinsically bad for us is absolutely astounding. We could spend a lot of time talking about the health problems associated with being overweight, but you’ve probably heard it all before. We will simply say this – every extra kilo depletes your energy and shortens your life span.

While we are on the subject, we would like to recommend the following diet. If you stick to it, you will achieve amazing results. There is only one rule….

Do not eat until you are hungry!

When you think you are hungry, drink a large glass of water and wait another fifteen minutes just to be sure. If you’re still hungry, eat about half of the normal serving size and do not eat until you are full. It takes the body roughly twenty minutes to get the message to your brain that it is full – in this time we could eat triple what we need.

Even if you are a food lover, do your best to think about the body as a car that needs fuel – poor quality fuel will only clog up your filters and eventually result in break down. And if the body is like a car, then water is its oil – so get drinking. 

The effective self-coach develops daily stress management techniques and consistently applies them – no matter how long it takes. Investing time and effort in looking after our immune systems (and therefore ourselves) is essential for good health. Take the time each day to go outside, eat balanced meals, drink plenty of water, take a few minutes out just for yourself and ensure your emotions are properly processed. There are hundreds of other immune system “depleters”, and many strategies you can employ to improve your health, but if you focus on some of the ones outlined here you will be well on your way to health and vitality.

Of course, good health is about more than fresh air, exercise and good food.  Excellent health has everything to do with your attitude.

This concept of mind over matter is not new. 

The influence of the mind in healing is addressed in almost every medical tradition from as far back as the ancient teachings of Ayurveda. What is new is the legitimisation of research in this field. Today, we find governments, academic institutions and hospitals around the world beginning to fund mind-body medicine programs, which has lent it credence and helped it to expand its reach beyond people interested in alternative medicine.

The modern concept of mind-body medicine was developed in the 1970s, when George Engel, a well-respected medical researcher from the University of Rochester, made the bold statement that modern medicine needed a new way of thinking about health and illness.

He proposed what he called the “biopsychosocial model”, in which health is the outcome of many factors interacting together. This provides the theoretical framework underpinning mind-body medicine.

In Engel’s view, health is not just a matter of “the drugs keeping up with the bugs”. Rather, health is determined by an interaction between:

  • Our genetic vulnerabilities
  • Environmental factors such as germs, viruses, or pollutants
  • Psychological factors such as stress, lifestyle, attitudes and behaviour
  • Social factors such as supportive relationships, economic well-being, access to health care, and family and community patterns of behaviour

When we look at the big picture of all the factors that influence health, we can see that many are within our direct control.

Engel’s perspective is gradually penetrating the thinking of mainstream medicine. However, if you’re sceptical about the mind-over-matter concept, it might help you to know about the growing body of medical evidence supporting it. In fact, there are now more than 100,000 scientific articles emphasising the effects of mind on body and body on mind. Just some of the clinical findings include:

  • 36% reduction in visits to physicians by chronic pain patients (The Clinical Journal of Pain, 1991)
  • 50% reduction in doctor visits after relaxation-response based intervention (Behavioral Medicine, 1990)
  • Lowered blood pressure and decreased medication in 80% of hypertensive patients, 16% able to discontinue all of their medications (Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, 1989)
  • 100% of insomnia patients reported improved sleep and 91% either eliminated or reduced sleeping medication use (The American Journal of Medicine, Volume 100, 1996)
  • 57% reduction in physical and psychological symptoms for women experiencing severe pre-menstrual tension (Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1990)
  • Infertile women who practice mind body medicine have a 42% conception rate, a 38% take-home baby rate, and decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and anger (Journal of American Medical Women’s Association, 1999).

Mind-body medicine strategies have helped millions of men and women reduce the stress that can cause or exacerbate conditions such as joint pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypertension, repetitive strain injuries, cardiac disorders, chronic pain, migraine headaches, diabetes, menopause, gastrointestinal disorders and infertility.

Today, mind-body medicine integrates modern scientific medicine, psychology, nursing, nutrition, exercise, physiology and belief to enhance the natural healing capacities of body and mind. It encompasses a wide variety of techniques including biofeedback, relaxation training, autogenic training, meditation, guided imagery, spiritual healing, prayer, and many other short-term psychotherapeutic interventions. 

So, what would happen if your attitudes and beliefs – positive, mediocre and negative – influenced every cell in your body? What if your thoughts and beliefs affected your success or failure in every area of your life? 

Every day, most of us prove the connection between our mind and body to ourselves by engaging in a common activity – worrying. Each time we create a negative thought in our minds, our body responds with tears, increased heart rate and blood pressure, irregular breathing, increased muscle tension and stomach tension, to name just a few. In fact, one thought can cause millions of biochemical reactions.

How does this happen? Here’s a quick biology lesson.

Our brain is linked to two pathways of communication: the nervous and circulatory systems. In the case of the nervous system, the brain sends nerve impulses to all of the body’s tissues, which in turn influence behaviour.  Everything from muscles and bones to the heart and lungs, veins and arteries, to the glands of the endocrine and immune systems – it’s all “wired” by the brain.

The brain is also a gland. It manufactures thousands of different kinds of chemicals and releases them into the bloodstream. These chemicals circulate throughout the body and influence the activity and behaviour of all the body’s tissues. The brain could be described as the ultimate apothecary, producing many more drugs than science has ever invented.

The cells of the body have receptors on their surfaces that function somewhat like satellite dishes. These receptors receive the chemical messages released by the brain and respond accordingly.

While the brain can send messages through the nervous and circulatory systems, it also receives feedback, both in the form of nerve impulses and from its own receptors that sense chemicals released by other tissues in the body.

The message is simple: your body begins and ends with your brain. What you think affects your body and what your body does affects your brain.

Let’s look at an everyday example. Imagine it’s nighttime and everything is quiet.  Suddenly, you see someone outside, near a window. Your body starts to respond. Your pupils dilate. Your heart rate goes up. You start to sweat.

The belief that something threatening is out there produces a host of physical responses that you have very little control over. If you were told to calm down and turn off these sensations, you couldn’t. But if the belief changes – say, it turns out that it’s just your husband coming home – the physical response changes.

The question is: how do you tap into these powerful, unconscious responses? 

As astounding as it may seem, parts of the human mind don’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. That’s why your heart can race when you imagine someone at your window, when in fact it’s just a shadow.  Your mind imagines something and then sends messages to the rest of your body, which acts accordingly.

Brain scan studies show that in looking at a picture of a tree, or in simply imagining the tree, the same areas of the brain show the same patterns. Elite athletes who sit for two weeks and imagine shooting hoops improve their free-throw scores as much as those who actually practiced. Researchers have demonstrated that volunteers can significantly improve muscle strength simply by imagining doing repetitive tasks, even though they don’t physically move those muscles.

You’ve probably heard dozens of stories about the “placebo effect” – where patients start to feel better even though they are only taking a sugar pill. For years, scientists have looked at the placebo effect as just a figment of overactive patient imaginations. Sure, dummy medications seemed to curb epileptic seizures, lower blood pressure, soothe migraines and smooth out jerky movements in Parkinson’s – but these people weren’t really better.  Or so scientists thought.

Now, using PET scanners and MRIs to peer into the heads of patients who respond to sugar pills, researchers have discovered that the placebo effect is not all in patients’ heads but rather, in their brains. New research shows that belief in a dummy treatment leads to real changes in brain chemistry.

In 2006, researchers found that anticipation of relief from a placebo could lead to an actual easing of aches, when the brain makes more of its own pain-dousing opiates. Brain scans of Parkinson’s patients showed increases in a chemical messenger called dopamine, which leads to an improvement in symptoms when patients think – mistakenly – that they are receiving real therapy.

Studies in depressed patients have found that almost as many are helped by placebo treatments as by actual medications. In fact, as it turns out, a person’s response to placebo treatment may offer clues as to whether “real” treatments with antidepressants are likely to work.

So, can we control our physiology?

Researchers are just starting to appreciate the power that the mind can have over the body. The autonomic nervous system, in charge of constant functions like heart rate and breathing, was named “autonomic” because it was thought to carry on independently in the background of our lives. However, with the discovery of the “relaxation response”, in which quiet breathing was found to be able to lower blood pressure, scientists uncovered ever-increasing evidence that we can, at least to some extent, affect our own physiology.

More than a hundred studies have verified that relaxation can lower blood pressure. Biofeedback studies have demonstrated the ability to raise or lower the temperature of one finger, or raise the temperature of one small square of skin on the back by imagining a candle flame at that spot. Diabetics have been able to increase the temperature of their feet by several degrees, thereby increasing extremity blood flow (vital in counteracting the blood vessel complications of the disorder).

Looking at the basics of brain connections, if you are right handed, the left side of your brain is more associated with linear thinking, maths and logic. The right side is linked with creativity, pictures and relationships between objects. This right brain has very dense connections to the limbic system and amygdala, parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion and five-sense memories. The smell of wood burning, or of bread baking; hearing the sounds of the ocean or the wind in the trees; the feel of an old t-shirt – all these can trigger memories of another time, and the emotions that went with them. These limbic system memories and emotions are in turn densely connected to the hypothalamus, the main switchboard of brain function. 

On one track, the hypothalamus interacts with the autonomic nervous system, where pleasant memories are translated into decreased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and relaxed muscle tone. On another track, the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland, which controls many bodily hormones and functions. Pleasant memories are translated into a decrease in cortisol, the stress hormone, and normalisation of sex hormones and blood sugar levels. These hormones combine with output from the autonomic nervous system and feed back into the immune system, making immune cells function at their optimum. In short, sensory images provide immediate access to the right brain, translating that image into feelings and then into bodily changes – both positive and negative.

This happens constantly and spontaneously in our daily lives, but we can also have conscious input. Patients have successfully prepared for surgery by imagining improved function and decreased pain, while martial arts masters can smash bricks using their heads and experience no pain or injuries. Current affairs television shows and local newspapers are littered with stories of people overcoming tremendous difficulty. When it comes to mind-body medicine, we have only scratched the surface – we are just beginning to understand the power and majesty of the mind-body connection.

Although the high technology treatments of modern medicine are extremely useful, most people have given up their inner power to heal themselves, trusting only their doctor to fix them. The result is a terrifying pill popping mentality that forces us to seek external solutions for problems we have the power to resolve. Pharmacies are extremely profitable businesses because doctors prescribe so much medication – often at our request. A sore throat can earn us antibiotics, and slightly elevated blood pressure is treated with medication rather than tackling the cause of the problem. A study published in the British Medical Journal established that the British take (on average) nearly 400 painkillers per person per year. We have become almost entirely reliant modern medicine to keep us healthy.

And yet, time and again, research shows us that people who take control and make their own choices for better health are more active and happy and live longer than those who do not.

The bottom line is that you have absolute control over your own health – staying disease free and maintaining vibrance and vitality is within your grasp if you simply put in a little effort.


Self-Coaching Exercise – Evaluating Your Own Health and Wellbeing

Ask yourself the questions below and use the answers to formulate a plan for improving your own health.

1. How would you describe your health: great, average or poor?

2. Are you taking regular medications, and if so, do you think there is a different solution you could try?

3. How important is health to you, and what are you willing to do be fit and healthy?

4. Does your health affect your daily life – is there something you want to do but can’t because of your health or lack of fitness?

5. Have you ever had to fight a serious illness? How did you do it and what was the result? Do you think there was something you could have done better?

6. Does your physical health affect your mental attitude?

7. What kind of regular exercise do you do and how often do you do it? Do you think this is enough?

8. What are your eating habits like? Can you identify any patterns you have with food? What could you do better?

9. Do you get enough sleep or do you have sleep difficulties?

10. Are you often tired?

11. What do you do to relax? Do you think this is healthy? What new relaxation habit could you introduce to improve your physical and mental health?