One of the most exciting areas of health research in recent years has been the discovery of the connection between the mind and the physical body through neurotransmitters. Major changes in health care are now taking place as a result of greater understanding of how the mind/body dynamic works. From runner’s high and endorphins, to biofeedback and imagery, the language of the connection is making its way into daily life.
We are all aware of the fact that our thoughts and feelings have a direct impact on body functions, such as when a feeling of embarrassment from someone’s remark causes our face to blush. We hear a strange sound when we are alone at night in the house. Perhaps someone is threatening our security. Our breathing becomes fast and shallow. We experience nervous tension in the body, sweaty palms, a pounding heart, and a general feeling of unease. When we discover it is just a strong breeze causing a tree branch to rub against the house-when the mental thought of threat is released-all our symptoms disappear.
The thoughts that we have each moment send a chemical response from the brain via the nervous system to affect all parts of the body, including the functioning of our immune system.
Hence the terms psycho – the mind, Neuro – the nervous system of communication linkages in the body, and immunology-the ability of the body to stay healthy through warding off dis-ease. Psychoneuroimmunology(PNI) allows us to see the effects of negative thoughts, ideas, and emotions, in terms of how they suppress the immune function, and also to learn about the chemicals that can be released to help strengthen the immune system.
As a result of these findings, we can actually begin to tap into the internal pharmacy of the body. We can begin to learn how to produce chemical releases through our thoughts, emotions, and actions that will help us maintain or rehabilitate the physical body.
This is not to imply in any way that the HELP approach precludes consulting with your health professional or to suggest that you forego recommended treatments prescribed by them in favor of positive thinking.
The HELP approach is complementary, and when research is referred to in this context it is always with this complementary approach in mind; rather than one approach being an “alternative” to the other. It may be possible to reduce prescriptions or avoid surgery, but always make these decisions in consultation with your health professional.
While researchers are still examining the communication network between mind and body, the basic conclusions thus far indicate there is a continuous dialogue between the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, whereby emotions influence immunity-uplifting emotions bolster it and negative emotions depress it. These systems release and receive messenger molecules called neuropeptides in response to anything other than normal functions that are triggered in the body such as anxiety, invading bacteria, and extreme temperature change. Neuropeptides carry a variety of messages dependent on their origins and their goal. Peptides can direct immune system cells, which can cause you to feel pain, raise or lower the body temperature, and influence emotional feelings of joy or depression.
While neuroscientists are busy exploring the nature of this communication system and the full range of neurotransmitters, other health professionals have been developing a range of studies to determine how our state of mind-particularly levels of stress, relaxation, hope, fear, laughter, isolation, intimacy, and service-may affect the body on a physiological level.
One of the better known studies conducted over 20 years ago by Dr Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School demonstrated that people who practiced what he calls the relaxation response, a state of profound rest produced through mental concentration, could reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduce oxygen consumption, and lower the breathing rate. In addition, through this state of concentration the brain waves shifted from the alert beta-rhythm to the relaxed alpha-rhythm. Other changes included a decrease in blood flow to the muscles and an increase in blood to the skin and brain, resulting in a feeling of warmth and rested mental alertness
Dr Benson’s study is one of literally thousands that have been and are now being done in order to assist people and medical science more about who gets sick, and how our beliefs, moods, thoughts, lifestyle, and environment affect our health. In addition to these factors, we must always remember that our genetic constitution and behavior are also determinants of health. While heredity is beyond our personal control, the many other factors can be worked with, and they form the basis of the HELP approach.
Dr George Solomon of the University of California, Los Angeles, often called the “father of psychoneuroimmunology,” began investigating the mind/body interaction 30 years ago, before it had become an accepted discipline. He has applied his research in the field of psychiatry, examining how personality may affect the capacity of the body’s immune system to fend off illnesses including cancer, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, viral infections, and lupus.
The profile of an immunologically healthy person, according to Dr Solomon includes:
Health researchers are finding that people who develop these skills are far more likely to survive AIDS, cancer, and other diseases. Scientists are now able to document changes in the various white blood cells involved in this process. Other findings have indicated the positive effects of diet, physical exercise, environment, and stress- management techniques on the mind/body equation.
As technology continues to advance, and as neuroscientists keep probing, thousands of messengers will be uncovered. However, we do not have to wait for those discoveries to begin to derive the benefits from these findings. The process can start now with the 12 components of HELP. By having an integrated, healthy lifestyle we can develop a strong immune function and a joyful outlook on life.
The success of all HELP components will be determined by our outlook on life. An analogy that we are all familiar with is the planting of a seed. No matter what the potential of the seed, unless the soil is appropriate, the climate suitable, and care is taken to look after it, the plant will not grow properly or remain healthy. The HELP approach is like a wonderful seed that can grow and unleash powerful energy and vibrant health in your life. Take the time to reflect on your approach to life. This is the existing soil. Enrich the soil by making a commitment to the points above. Examine the environment you work and live in. This is the climate. Bring sunshine and joy into it to promote growth. Then take care and look after the HELP seed with attention, and experience mind/body harmony.
Take some time for reflection, open your journal and answer the questions below:
This reflection serves as a starting point for the journey of enhancing the quality of your life. As you continue with the components of HELP, become aware of the interactive nature of the program. How your thoughts influence your physical well-being, as well as how looking after your body through food awareness, exercise, and yoga uplifts your mental health. Take time out to answer these questions again as you progress with HELP.
Each component of the HELP lifestyle program is designed to enhance the mind/body connection, allowing you to acquire skills and empower yourself. The following points serve as a foundation for bringing greater harmony and flow through all 12 components of HELP:
If you lack vitality, peace of mind, and physical well-being, it may be that one or more of the above are not currently a significant part of your life. To some extent, we all need HELP, to assist us to keep this perspective and develop a lifestyle program that will increase the quality of our lives.
The most joyful and easily accessible approach to harmony is humor. While other HELP components will provide assistance with the physical, mental, social, and environmental factors associated with mind/body harmony, it is clearly the case that laughter and humour are fundamental keys to the quality of life. Many research studies have documented what we already know: it feels great to laugh. For those still needing proof, the following physiological responses are all associated with laughter:
If laughter had been recently discovered and was sold by pharmacists, it would be prescribed as an antidote for a wide variety of ailments. Yet humor’s power as a remedy for body and mind has failed to make its way into mainstream medicine. Laughter provides a healing environment. From a social and psychological perspective, there are few antidotes more effective than laughter. It helps to release stress, promotes Camaraderie, and is a key indicator of mental health. When we can no longer laugh at ourselves, depression and alienation are not far behind.
To increase the laughter and humour in your life is easy. Once we know how important it is to our health, make a commitment to joy as your medium. Know that it will not only enhance your health but all you come in contact with. When is the last time you avoided being with someone who made you laugh and feel good about life? Who is the life of the party? He who laughs last is a fool for waiting so long.
Use humorous affirmations to keep you attuned to joy. Remember funny phrases, incidents, or stories and recall them during the day. Remind yourself that you are funny and life can be playful. It may be as simple as wearing brightly colored socks or mismatching them as a reminder not to get too serious during the day. Your birthright is joy and peace. Know that this life could end at any moment, and how nice it would be to go out with a smile on your face, a humorous thought, a skip in your step, or just having brought joy into someone’s life.
Reframe your perspective to find humor in the challenges that you face. I remember a time when my grandfather was dying of lung cancer and staying in our home. He had only a few weeks to live and was sleeping outside on a lounge chair being warmed by the summer sun. We were inside attending to lunch preparations when Grandpa came in with a fresh bird dropping on the top of his bald-head. We felt like crying on seeing him there. What else could happen to this poor man in the few remaining days of his life. He immediately shared his gift of life that had carried him through years of challenge. In a weak and raspy voice he announced it was a joyous sign of good fortune, as he had been sleeping with his mouth wide open, and if it hadn’t been for God’s grace and good luck it might have landed on his tongue. We all burst out laughing. He had reframed the situation for all of us.
Use the following tools to your imagination, sense of play, wonderment, curiosity and joy! These can be particularly good reminders when life and the news around you seem to carry little to laugh about Add your favorite fun ideas to the following suggestions:
Adams, Patch with Mylander, Maureen. Gesundheit!, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont, 1993.
Benson, Herbert. The Mind/Body Effect, Simon Schuster, New York, 1979.
Borysenko,J. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, Bantam Books, New York, 1988.
Cousins, Norman. Head First, Dutton, New York, 1989.
Chernin, Dennis, MD & Manteuffel,Gregory, MD. Health: A Holistic Approach, Quest, London, 1984.
Ekman, P, Levenson, RW & Friesen, WV. “Autonomic Nervous System Activity Distinguishes among Emotions”, Science, 221 (4616) 1983, 1208-10.
Goleman, Daniel & Gurin,Joel (eds). Mind Body Medicine, Consumer Reports Books, New York, 1993.
Jaffe, Dennis T. Healing from Within: Psychological Techniques to Help the Mind and Body, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, New York, 1986.
Justice, Blair. Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health, Jeremy P Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1987.
Moody, Raymond Jr. Laugh After Laugh: The Healing Power of Humour, Headwaters Press, Jacksonville, FL 1978.
Moyers, Bill. Healing and the Mind, Doubleday, New York, 1993.
Solomon, George. “The Emerging Field of Psychoneuroimrnunology with a Special Note on AIDS”, Advances, 2 (1), 1985.
-Interview in Natural Health,January/February 1992, 52-59, Siegel, Bernie S. Love, Medicine and Miracles, Harper & Row, New York, 1986.
-Peace, Love and Healing, Rider, Sydney, 1990.