What is mind/body medicine?
Mind/body medicine is an approach to healing that uses the power of thoughts
and emotions to positively influence physical health. As Hippocrates once wrote,
"The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well."
This is the essence of mind/body medicine.
What is the history of mind/body medicine?
Most ancient healing practices, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and
Ayurvedic medicine, emphasize the important links between the mind and the body.
Western medical views were shaped by systems of thought that emphasized the
opposite: the mind and body are separate. As science developed and with Louis
Pasteur's discovery of germs, the notion of a connection between mind and body
was thought to be superstition.
In 1964, psychiatrist George Solomon saw that rheumatoid arthritis worsened
when people were depressed. This led him to investigate the impact of emotions
on inflammation and immune function in general. Thus began the new field of
psychoneuroimmunology ("psycho" for psychology; "neuro" for neurology, or
nervous system; and "immunology" for immunity).
In the 1960s and early 1970s, a physician named Herbert Benson, who coined
the term "relaxation response," studied the effects of meditation on blood
pressure. Further understanding of how the mind/body link came in 1975, when
psychologist Robert Ader showed that mental and emotional cues affect immunity.
Today, there is renewed interest in age-old traditions such as yoga and
meditation. No longer viewed with suspicion, mind/body programs are now
established at prestigious medical schools in the United States and around the
What are mind/body techniques?
The key to any mind/body technique is to "train" the mind to focus on the
body without distraction. It is in this state of "focused concentration" that an
individual may be able to change his or her health. The following are some of
the most commonly practiced techniques.
Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a technique in which people are trained to
improve their health by learning to control certain internal bodily processes
that normally occur involuntarily, such as heart rate or blood pressure. These
activities can be measured with electrodes and displayed on a monitor that both
the participant and his or her practitioner can see. The monitor thereby
provides feedback to the participant about the internal workings of his or her
body. This person can then be taught to use this information to gain control
over these "involuntary" activities. Biofeedback is an effective therapy for
many conditions, but it is primarily used to treat tension headache, migraine
headache, and chronic pain.
Cognitive behavioral therapy: This technique is used to help people
recognize and change dysfunctional thought patterns. For example, people with
phobias might deliberately expose themselves, under the direction and guidance
of the therapist, to what they are afraid of. Brain scans show that over time
this therapy can actually change how the brain functions.
Relaxation Techniques: There are three major types of relaxation
- Autogenic training. This technique uses both visual imagery and body
awareness to move a person into a deep state of relaxation. The person imagines
a peaceful place and then focuses on different physical sensations, moving from
the feet to the head. For example, one might focus on warmth and heaviness in
the limbs; easy, natural breathing; or a calm heartbeat.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves slowly tensing
and then releasing each muscle group individually, starting with the muscles in
the toes and finishing with those in the head.
- Meditation. The two most popular forms of meditation in the U.S.
include Transcendental Meditation (students repeat a mantra [a single word or
phrase],) and mindfulness meditation (students focus their attention on their
moment-by-moment thoughts and sensations).
Hypnosis: During hypnosis (taken from the Greek term hypnos, meaning
"sleep") a person's body relaxes while his or her thoughts become more focused
and attentive. It is in this state of deep concentration that people are highly
responsive to a hypnotherapist's suggestions. Today, many mental health
professionals use hypnosis to treat people with addictions, pain, anxiety
disorders, and phobias.
Spirituality: Many researchers have been studying how spiritual
beliefs, attitudes, and practices influence health. In a recent study on people
with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), for example, people who had faith in
God, compassion toward others, a sense of inner peace, and were religious had a
better chance of surviving for a long time with acquired immune deficiency
syndrome (AIDS) than those who did not have such faith or practices. Research
suggests that qualities like faith, hope, and forgiveness and the use of social
support and prayer have a noticeable effect on health and healing.
Does mind/body medicine work?
While phrases such as "mind over matter" have been around for years, only
recently have scientists found solid evidence that mind/body techniques actually
do combat disease and promote health. In 1989, for example, a landmark study by
David Spiegel, M.D. at Stanford University School of Medicine dramatically
demonstrated the power of the mind to heal. Of 86 women with late-stage breast
cancer, half received standard medical care while the other half received the
standard care plus weekly support sessions in which the women were able to share
both their grief and their triumphs. Spiegel discovered that the women who
participated in the social support group lived twice as long as the women who
did not. A similar study in 1999 showed that in breast cancer patients,
helplessness and hopelessness are linked to lesser chances of survival.
Many recent studies also document the effect of meditation on mood and
symptoms in people with different types of conditions (such as high blood
pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer) as well as improve quality of
How does mind/body medicine work?
Researchers have found that stress hormones are associated with particular
unhealthy emotions. These hormones affect systems and organs throughout the
body. For example, stress related to hostility and anxiety can result in
disruptions in heart and immune function. Similarly, depression and distress may
diminish the body's natural capacity to heal. In contrast, emotional expression
that encourages openness and active coping with problems helps stabilize the
Certain emotions have been linked to disease. For example, hostile attitudes
may increase your risk for coronary heart disease, obesity (particularly having
excess fat around the waist), insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes),
and abnormal cholesterol (specifically, high triglycerides and low HDL
- the good kind of cholesterol).
Generally, research shows that being stressed and having negative emotions is
unhealthy. One study found that unconsciously being defensive or stifling
feelings resulted in serious medical consequences, such as high blood pressure.
High blood pressure is also associated with feelings of hopelessness. How a
person processes emotions also affects how long he or she may survive a chronic
The goal of mind/body techniques is to activate the relaxation response and
reduce the stress response. When you are relaxed, the levels of hormones related
to stress are reduced and your immune system is more efficient. High levels of
stress hormones circulating in the body may actually prove to increase one's
susceptibility to infection as well.
What is mind/body medicine good for?
Mind/body techniques are helpful for many conditions because they promote
relaxation, improve coping skills, reduce tension and pain, and lessen the need
for medication. For example, many mind/body techniques are used (along with
medication) to treat acute pain. Symptoms of anxiety and depression also respond
well to mind/body techniques.
Because they improve coping skills and give a feeling of control over
symptoms, mind/body techniques may help treat many different diseases
- high blood pressure
- coronary heart disease
- cancer, such as pain and nausea/vomiting related to chemotherapy
- stomach and intestinal disorders (including indigestion [dyspepsia],
irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, heartburn,
and Crohn's disease)
- menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, depression, and irritability
In an analysis of mind/body studies, researchers found that cognitive
behavioral therapy is the most long-lasting treatment for tinnitus (ringing in
the ears), but relaxation techniques, hypnosis, and biofeedback were all also
effective treatments. Some researchers believe that chronic fatigue syndrome,
which affects the immune system, is best understood and treated with mind/body
Is there anything I should watch out for?
There is a danger that mind/body medicine might encourage you to feel that
you caused your illness because you lacked a healthy mental attitude. This
incorrect idea can lead to blame, and blame only causes feelings of distress and
Mind/body medicine is generally very safe and works well as an adjunct to
usual medical care. Each mind/body technique may have its own risks and side
effects associated with the practice; please check the monograph on individual
topics, such as spirituality, hypnotherapy, and biofeedback, to review. Talk
with your doctor about any concerns you may have.
How can I find more information on mind/body medicine?
Biofeedback: Specialists who provide biofeedback training range from
psychiatrists and psychologists to nurses, dentists, and physicians. The
Association for Applied Psychology and Biofeedback
(www.aapb.org) is the national membership
association for professionals using biofeedback and is a good resource for
finding qualified biofeedback practitioners in your area. To receive a directory
of trained biofeedback specialists in your area, write to the AAPB at 10200 W.
44th Avenue, Suite 304, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033-2840 or call them at 800-477-8892.
Relaxation: Numerous clinics and hospitals around the country have
integrated relaxation techniques into their healthcare programs. To learn more
about relaxation techniques and to locate healthcare facilities that include
them as part of their practice, contact the Stress Reduction Clinic at the
University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass. at
508-856-2656. You can also visit them on the Web at
www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mbsr to find
a list of the healthcare facilities in 38 states that offer information on and
training in relaxation techniques.
Hypnosis: Most hypnotherapists are licensed medical doctors,
registered nurses, social workers, or family counselors that have received
additional training in hypnotherapy. For example, members of the American
Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) must hold a doctorate in medicine,
dentistry, podiatry, or psychology, or a master's level degree in nursing,
social work, psychology, or marital/family therapy with at least 20 hours of
ASCH-approved training in hypnotherapy. To receive a directory of professionals
practicing hypnotherapy near you, contact either the American Society of
Clinical Hypnosis (visit them on the Web at
www.asch.net or call 312-645-9810) or the
Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (on the Web at
or by phone at 509-332-7555).
Spirituality: To learn more about spirituality's role in health
(including the latest research on this topic), call the National Institute for
Healthcare Research at 301-984-7162, or visit their website at
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