The Mind Body Connection: 5 Practices For Self-Healing

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You already know this, but it bears repeating: your mental and emotional state impacts your health. And your health impacts your mental and emotional outlook.

They are interdependent, and if you support one, you are healing the other. If you neglect one, you are jeopardizing the other.

In Western culture, we tend to neglect both. We are overweight, sedentary, and stressed. And even if we take care of our physical health, many of us still feel overwhelmed, over-scheduled, stressed, anxious, angry, or depressed,

We ignore or suppress these feelings — until they cause physical symptoms. Then we can no longer blow off the mind-body connection as new age hooha. The evidence is staring us in the face.

Although there have been many relatively new studies and reports on the relationship between physical and emotional/mental health, it is not a new discovery.


Up until just about 300 years ago, almost every system of medicine and healing in the world treated the mind and body as a whole. But during the 17th century, the Western world began to view the mind and body as two distinct entities. They begin to treat the body like a machine with replaceable, independent parts that had no connection to the mind.

Some elements of this disconnected viewpoint were positive. During this time, there were great advances in surgery, trauma care, pharmaceuticals, and other areas of medicine. But there was little scientific inquiry into our innate ability to heal through our spiritual and emotional lives.

In the 20th century, this view gradually started to change as integrative medicine became more mainstream. Researchers began to study the mind-body connection and to scientifically demonstrate the links between the body and mind.

Evidence of mind-body self-healing

Mind-body specialist Dr. James Gordon, founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, reminds that the mind and body are essentially inseparable as “the brain and peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of our body and all the emotional responses we have, share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another.”

One of the most mind-blowing demonstrations of the mind-body connection was revealed over a decade ago. People with multiple personalities who were allergic to strawberries or had symptoms of insulin-dependent diabetes when exhibiting one personality did not have those physical problems when in another personality state. They experienced entirely different reactions within the same body!

Another frequently cited clinical case of the placebo effect is that of a patient with lymphosarcoma. His pre-terminal condition went into remission almost totally for two months while he was receiving injections of Krebiozen, an experimental drug he believed would cure him. Then after learning the drug was useless, he relapsed.

His physician later reactivated the patient’s faith in the medication by giving him placebo injections described to him as a more potent form of the same drug. The patient once again recovered, only to relapse and die several months later after discovering from a nationwide announcement that Krebiozen had no therapeutic value.

Visualizing healing

David-SeidlerAnd more recently, David Seidler, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay for the movie “The King’s Speech,” claims to have visualized his bladder cancer away. Seidler says when he learned his cancer had returned after his initial treatment, he decided to visualize a “lovely, clean healthy bladder” for the two weeks before a scheduled surgery. The cancer disappeared. He’s been cancer-free for more than five years.

“I spent hours visualizing a nice, cream-colored unblemished bladder lining, and then I went in for the operation, and a week later the doctor called me and his voice was very strange,” Seidler says. “He said, ‘I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s no cancer there.’ According to Seidler, the doctor was so confounded he sent the tissue from the pre-surgical biopsy to four different labs, and all confirmed they were cancerous. (Source: CNN.com)

If you need more proof of the connection between mind and body, here are some important facts compiled by The American Psychological Association:

  • Two-thirds of all office visits to family physicians are due to stress-related symptoms (American Academy of Family Physicians)
  • High levels of hostility have been found to predict heart disease more often than high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, or obesity (Health Psychology, November 2002)
  • Men high in optimism were less than half as likely to develop heart disease than were the more pessimistic men (Veterans Administration Normative Aging Study)
  • More than 1/3 of Americans say they have had an illness that was primarily caused by stress (APA 2005)
  • Employees receiving mental health counseling lowered the usage of medical insurance by 31 percent (Group Health Association)
  • Research supports the idea that having a positive outlook can extend one’s life (“Emotional Longevity: What Really Determines How Long You Live,” Norman B. Anderson and Elizabeth P. Anderson, 2003)
  • Work-related stress can double one’s risk of dying from heart disease (British Medical Journal, 2002)
  • Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. (“The Stress Solution: An Active Plan to Manage the Stress in Your Life,” Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D. and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.)
  • People with high levels of anxiety can have between two to seven times the risk of heart disease. (“Emotional Longevity: What Really Determines How Long You Live,” Norman B. Anderson and Elizabeth P. Anderson, 2003)
  • Consumers report that talk therapy was reportedly more effective than drug therapy for depression and anxiety (Consumer Reports, October 2004)

What you can do

So what does this mean for you and your mental, emotional, and physical health and longevity?

For starters, it means you have much more control of your health and well-being than you might think.

You already know the importance of exercising and staying physically active throughout your life.

You know how important it is to eat a healthy diet that includes loads of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains.

You know that with just a few small changes, you can create a healthy lifestyle that will help you feel better, look better, and live longer.

But . . . are you really embracing the “mind” part of the mind-body connection? Are you practicing stress-reducing, life-affirming strategies on a regular basis to support your long-term health?

Herbert Benson, M.D., is director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Relaxation Revolution: The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing. Benson’s research has found that mind/body practices elicit the relaxation response, quelling the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart slows, blood pressure falls, digestion eases and immunity soars.

Here are 5 practices for self-healing that you might try to affect these positive changes for your health:

1. Meditation

iStock_000010859891SmallMeditation is the cessation of the thought process through focused awareness, usually on breathing. During meditation, through breathing and stillness, you focus your attention and release the random thoughts that crowd your mind and created stress.

The goal is to reach a state of “thoughtless awareness” that provides profound, deep peace. It has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety; improve learning and memory; lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke; lengthen attention span; reduce pain; and enhance creativity. Read more about meditation here.

2. Yoga

Yoga is a mind-body practice combining stretching exercises, controlled breathing and relaxation. It helps reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve heart function. Yoga requires physical and mental disciplines to achieve peacefulness of both  your body and mind to help you relax and manage stress and anxiety.

iStock_000015280582SmallThe practice involves a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility. Yoga poses can involve simply lying on the floor while completely relaxed to much more difficult postures where you are stretching your physical limits. Also, breathing is an important part of yoga, as breath signifies your vital energy. Controlled breathing can help you control your body and quiet your mind. Learn more about basic yoga poses here.

3. Tai Chi

Tai Chi photoTai chi began in China as a martial art, but as it developed, it took on the purpose of enhancing physical and mental health. It is a series of low impact, weight bearing, and aerobic movements that enhance physical and mental health including:

~Improved strength, conditioning, coordination, and flexibility

~Reduced pain and stiffness

~Better balance and lower risk of falls

~Enhanced sleep

~Greater awareness, calmness, and overall sense of well being

There are a variety of styles of tai chi, but they all involve slow, gentle movements, deep breathing and meditation — sometimes called “moving meditation.” Tai chi is believed to improve the flow of energy in the body, leading to better health and providing a wide range of benefits. Find out more about Tai chi here.

4. Deep breathing

One of the quickest, most efficient ways to trigger the relaxation response is by controlling your breath. Not only will deep breathing lower your blood pressure, but recent research reveals it can increase antioxidant levels in your blood, helping protect you from  stress and the related conditions associated with it such as heart disease, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease and aging.

You can further increase the health benefits of breathing by practicing a few minutes of deep or complete breathing every day. The complete breathe, which is practiced in yoga, involves the entire respiratory system and employs all of the muscles. Read more about deep and complete breathing here.

5. Visualization and positive thinking

woman at sunrise with drops of waterResearch has shown that positive thinkers are less likely to develop heart problems such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. In fact, they generally live longer overall. In a 15-year study of more than 100,000 women, those with a positive outlook were 14% less likely to die in an eight-year period than their unhappy counterparts, according to the National Institutes of Health Women’s Health Initiative. In fact by visualizing happy memories and events and envisioning positive outcomes, you are actually changing your brain chemistry.

As Norman Doidge illustrates in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself,
visualization is experienced neurologically (as evidenced in many MRI studies) in the same way as the action itself. When we visualize a physical activity, the same neurons are activated as when we actually perform the activity — the brain doesn’t know the difference! Not only does the brain respond identically, but it experiences practice effects through visualization. This has huge implications for our physical and mental well-being. Read more about positive thinking here.


What mind body techniques are you practicing in your own life? How have they impacted your health and general sense of well-being? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Comments

  1. I follow meditation, deep breathing, visualization and positive thinking. Though I know some yoga, I am not really into that. For physical fitness, I run 4 times a week.

    Thanks for post. The David Siedler story is an eye-opener!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Braja,
      It sounds like you are really tuned in to the mind-body connection! That’s fantastic. Running can be a form of meditation too I think. I can definitely get into a meditative state once I get in the flow of my run. I’m so glad you liked the post.

  2. Pure perfection, Barrie!
    There are no isolated events in our wonderful energy system:)
    The practice of yoga, meditation and Tai Chi practically saved my life about 15 years ago,
    I don’t even dare to think about where I’d be now without it – I love this article:)
    Thank you ever so much!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Cheyenne,
      Wow — you really are committed to practicing mind/body techniques. How did Tai Chi save your life? I’d love to hear about your experience with it.

      • Thank you, Barrie, I’d love to tell you about it:)
        I was about to disappear into a fog of addictions, violent relationships and eating disorders – something had to change, I knew I had to do something differently to survive and turn things around, you know?
        This was it…first meditation..I took a class in TM, then Zazen, before I discovered yoga, then Qi Gong, and then Tai Chi:)
        Here I am, addiction free, alive and now I teach these things:)
        It’s been a long journey, I’m still on it learning something new every day involving less and less pain, gaining balance and a new understanding of how we work:)
        You are welcome to contact me if you want to know more, Barrie:)

  3. Stephen says:

    There is also equal evidence out there that positive thinking does not work. I do believe stress and trauma can cause illness. I think meditation, yoga, exercise and therapeutic activities can help along with psychotherapy. I just have seen many people be harmed by positive thinking, personally and professionally…it is also not helpful to tell people who are stressed out that they will probably drop dead or get very ill…it only adds to anxiety and that may or may not be true.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Stephen,
      One of the most compelling books I’ve read is The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge MD about the science of neuroplasticity (the way the brain is plastic, flexible, and adaptable and can re-wire itself). Repetitive thoughts and actions do impact brain chemistry which in turn can impact cellular changes. I think there is much to it — but I agree that dabbling in positive thinking or relying on it alone isn’t the only solution. It is a piece of the healing pie that should be part of our approach to health and wellness.

  4. Well, I agree with Stephen. It’s not demonstrated that stress and anxiety can cause hearth problems. Some say that a state of anxiety actualy helps the heart, because the body is in an active state and all the functions are accelerated and regarding the heart, it is better trained that on a relaxing state. I personally don’t agree with this ideea, but it may be true. Nobody realy knows how anxiety and stress can affect the body, but in my opinion, no metter how long our life will be, it is important to have a quality time durring our life.
    Once again I agree with Stephen, that is not incouraging at all fir the people with stress/anxiety problems to scary them with all this ideeas that tgis condition can affect the heart; it will only increase their negative thoughts that they can get sick and have heart problems.
    I agree about the body-mind connection. I think that we have to find together ways for relaxation and not to increase people’s stresses with the deseases that they can have because of the stress.
    We all must have on goal : TO HAVE A GOOD QUALITY LIFE!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Ionut,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I would love to see some scientific studies that contradict the studies on the relationship between stress and heart disease. In addition to the studies I’ve read supporting the connection, it seems intuitive to me that stress could lead to high blood pressure and other heart problems. But I may not be seeing all of the relevant studies.

  5. @Barrie: I have read a lot of pieces on the mind-body connection but this is one that really stands out from the rest of the pack. One thing I really love about this particular write-up of yours is the fact that you took your time explain some of the most important concepts in this area: meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, visualization and positive thinking. Also, in quoting the relevant statistics and backing them up with valid scientific observations, you have demonstrated that you are more than qualified to write on this topic. I thoroughly enjoyed this! Thanks a lot!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Allan,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. It is definitely a topic that interests me, so I enjoy the research. I know from personal experience that stress can cause physical symptoms. I think there’s too much evidence out there to ignore the connection.

  6. Hello Dear

    I hope you will be good in your health. I need to know weather you can help me in my relationship; I had with my Loved one. But now she has disconnected it and don’t want to keep it any more… I need to help in finding out the reason of our breakup and also how can I again get my real love back.

    Thank you.
    Regards
    MIS (these are initials)

  7. What mind body techniques am I practicing? I do a lot of guided meditations that bridge the mind body connection. In particular, I like this relaxation response meditation: http://theotherenlightenment.com/relaxation-response-meditation/

    I also do yoga fairly frequently, but informally at home. I find I prefer to do several short yoga practices through the day than one long class. I seem to get greater impact from the time invested that way.

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