In the West most people believe that the body is a thing: a machine that needs to be fueled (with food and water) and exercised in the hope that this will stop it from going wrong. We greatly enjoy the pleasure the body gives and work hard to keep it looking good. If something in this machine goes wrong then it can usually be mechanically repaired. Difficulties are cured with surgery, radiation, or drugs—the offending part is cut out or eliminated with chemicals—and life goes on as before.
In this context, modern Western medicine has worked wonders. It is extraordinary when we consider the breakthroughs that have occurred: the development of antibiotics and vaccinations, laser surgery, and organ transplants, to name but a few. Medical science has saved millions of lives and dramatically reduced suffering. Modern understanding of the body machine and the ways in which it can go wrong is undeniably impressive.
However, this approach does not always work. Sometimes the side effects of drugs cause worse complications. Other difficulties may emerge even if the original cause is cured. Or the problem might go beyond the bounds of medicine; there may simply be no available cure. For instance, illnesses related to stress are numerous, and their incidences are rapidly rising. Maladies directly caused by stress include migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle tension, and chronic fatigue. Modern medicine does not have a cure for stress, and, as it does not acknowledge the influence of a patient’s mental or emotional state on their physical well-being, no medical cures are available. Yet up to 70 percent of patient visits to the doctor are for stress-related illnesses.
Reuniting body and mind
The last few years have seen a growing recognition of the direct relationship between the mind and the body with the emergence of a field now known as psychoneuroimmunology. This new understanding does not deny the organic causes of illness—such as germs, bacteria, or microorganisms—or that some illnesses are genetically inherited. At the same time, we all know that not everyone in the office falls sick when “the flu is doing the rounds,” and that a disease does not have the same effect on every afflicted person.
It appears that our emotional and psychological states do greatly influence the onset and passage of illness, as well as our ability to heal. “Medicine is beginning to see that the origin of disease cannot be spoken of without including lifestyle, diet, social milieu, the environment, and, perhaps most interestingly, consciousness and the emotions,” writes Marc Ian Barasch in The Healing Path.
The stress factor
The clearest way to see how the mind directly affects the body is through stress. The cerebral cortex in the brain sounds the alarm whenever there is a form of perceived life-threatening or stressful activity. This affects the limbic and hypothalamus organization, which in turn affect hormone secretion, the immune system, and the nervous system. This fight-or-flight response enables you to respond to danger if, for instance, you are on the front line of a battle or face to face with a large bear.
However, seemingly unimportant events can also cause a stress reaction because the brain is unable to tell the difference between real and imagined threats. When you focus on your fear about what might happen, it plays as much havoc with your hormones and chemical balance as when you confront a dangerous situation in real life. For instance, try remembering a gruesome scene from a horror movie, and you will feel the muscles in your back, shoulders, or stomach contract. The images are just in your mind, yet they trigger an instant response in your body.
More importantly, the fight-or-flight response built into your body was only intended to be temporary. Once the danger has passed, the body is meant to come back to normal functioning. When there is a consistent psychological and emotional pressure, the higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol that the stress response releases are sustained, leading to a compromised immune system and more likelihood of physical sickness.
Some of the physical symptoms that result from excessive stress are headaches, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, muscle tension, heavy breathing, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, nausea, dry mouth, gastritis, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, backache, excessive sweating, rashes, acne, and hives. The immune system becomes compromised, so it is much easier to catch a cold or other infectious illness. Alongside these, there may be psychological transformations such as depression, anger, rapid mood changes, and anxiety. You may also experience impaired concentration, memory loss, an inability to make decisions, confusion, irrational fears, self-consciousness, or marital and sexual problems. Behavioral changes may include sloppy dressing, fidgeting, sudden outbreaks of tears, overindulgence in habits such as smoking or drinking, phobias, and impaired sexual performance. This is quite a list, and many of these symptoms can easily lead to more serious states of ill health.
The link between psychological stress and physical problems is perhaps best illustrated by research, cited by Dr. Larry Dossey in Healing Breakthroughs, which shows that more heart attacks occur on a Monday than on any other day of the week—and not only on a Monday, but most often around 9 am. No other animal dies more frequently on a particular day or time of the week.