We’ve always known that there’s a connection between the body and the mind – if indeed they are separate at all. For instance, anxious feelings can give rise to headaches, loss of appetite and an upset stomach – we’ve all experienced it. Sad thoughts bring on tiredness and lethargy, anger energizes, fear brings tension and can immobilize, and so on.
In contrast, a lover’s glance can send shivers down the spine and make the heart race, a relaxed mood calms the body, and when we’re happy, we feel more alive and have more energy.
Of course, anyone who has ever done a fire walk cannot fail to wonder how a pair of human feet can walk over burning coals without feeling any pain, or how someone can undergo open heart surgery or give birth by caesarean section under hypnosis (with no anaesthetic) and feel no pain. Or why one person reacts to an injury with little pain while another experiences excruciating, unbearable pain from the same injury.
In his book, Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, Dr Dean Ornish, a respected heart surgeon, gives the following examples of the mind-body connection taken from academic studies:
- Passive negative emotions like grief and despair, and feelings of loss or failure, throw the auto-immune system out of gear, reduce the body’s natural defences against infections and increase the likelihood of degenerative conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- The most dangerous emotions from a health point of view are fear, anger and hostility. Prolonged aggression causes changes in the immune system and autonomic nervous system, increases the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, tenses the muscles, and raises the level of free fatty acids in the blood – all of which can lead to migraines, hypertension, coronary heart disease and strokes.
- In one study, researchers found that young people who were beset with anger were seven times more likely to be dead by the age of fifty. Low frustration tolerance is a better predictor of an early death than smoking, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
We know that a single thought can bring about over a hundred biochemical changes in your body – instantly. Every thought, every emotion, and every change of thought or emotion, affects the body. A sudden fright, a burst of anger, a fit of jealousy all immediately impacts on the body. So do moments of pleasure, feelings of love and contentment, expressions of appreciation, gratitude and joy.
Why, then, did Western doctors once regard the mind-body relationship as relatively unimportant?
Long ago the Chinese, Hebrews, Greeks and many other cultures were well aware that our thoughts impacted on our health. So were Muslim doctors around 1000 CE. Why, then, for several centuries did Western doctors regard the relationship as relatively unimportant? What made them believe that they could fix bodies without taking the mind into account?
The idea that mind and body were quite separate is usually, and perhaps unfairly, attributed to the influence of Rene Descartes (1596 -1650). Then Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) built a model of the universe which dominated the scientific view of the universe for the next 250 years. There was no place in Newtonian science for the mind as non-physical and unseen, although, ironically, his major interest – magic and the occult – certainly did involve the human mind.
This suspicion lasted into our own era. As recently as the 1970s, few reputable doctors argued that our thoughts and emotions had a direct physical effect on the body. Without observable, measurable physical connections between the brain and the body’s immune system and nervous system, they said, the idea that thoughts and unresolved emotional pain can manifest as physical problems was just humbug. There was no concrete evidence, they said, just anecdotes.
But this is rapidly changing. Scientists such as Dr Candace Pert and the founders of PNI (psycho-neuro immunology) have discovered the exact mechanisms by which it functions and how to influence it. Nowadays all doctors are fully aware of the mind-body connection; once again science has finally caught up with the ancients!
 Dr Dean Ornish, Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, Harper Perennial, 1999, ISBN: 978-0060930202
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