February 4, 2016
Can your mind heal your body? It may sound far-fetched that the power of your thoughts and emotions could exert physical, biological changes, but there are countless examples, both scientific and anecdotal, showing this possibility is very real.
Science journalist Jo Marchant shared numerous such examples, from Iraq war veterans and many others, in her book “Cure.” She told Scientific American:1
“There are now several lines of research suggesting that our mental perception of the world constantly informs and guides our immune system in a way that makes us better able to respond to future threats.
That was a sort of ‘aha’ moment for me — where the idea of an entwined mind and body suddenly made more scientific sense than an ephemeral consciousness that’s somehow separated from our physical selves.”
Your State of Mind Influences the State of Your Immune System
Your mind wields incredible power over the health of your immune system, for good or for bad. Stress, for instance, has a major negative influence on the function of your immune system, which is why you’ve probably noticed you’re more likely to catch a cold when you’re under a lot of stress.
And, in the event you do get sick, emotional stressors can actually make your cold and flu symptoms worse. As lead author Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D. a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, noted:3
“Inflammation is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol and when cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can get out of control …
The immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease.
When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease.
Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”
The opposite also holds true in that positive thoughts and attitudes are able to prompt changes in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and chronic disease, and provide stress relief.
One study found, for instance, that happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive psychological attributes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.4
It’s even been scientifically shown that happiness can alter your genes! A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.5
The Placebo Effect Once Again Proves ‘Mind Over Matter’
By definition, a placebo is an inert, innocuous substance that has no effect on your body. However, the placebo effect, in which a patient believes he or she is getting an actual drug and subsequently feels better, despite receiving no “active” treatment at all, has become a well-recognized phenomenon.
As Marchant noted, there are many examples of the placebo effect in action:6
“Placebo painkillers can trigger the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. Patients with Parkinson’s disease respond to placebos with a flood of dopamine.
Fake oxygen, given to someone at altitude, has been shown to cut levels of neurotransmitters called prostaglandins (which dilate blood vessels, among other things, and are responsible for many of the symptoms of altitude sickness).”
As she explained, “none of these biological effects are caused by placebos themselves … they are triggered by our psychological response to those fake treatments.”7 The placebo effect was even found to produce marked effects even when no deception was involved at all.
In one trial, nearly 60 percent of patients given a placebo pill, who were told they were receiving a placebo, reported adequate relief from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. Only 35 percent of those who received no treatment at all reported adequate relief.8
The exact mechanisms behind the placebo effect are still being explored, but there’s no denying that the effect is real. And, most likely, the placebo effect takes on many different forms, impacting brain mechanisms involved in expectation, anxiety and rewards.
In short, a placebo really does change your physical body, including your brain, in a number of different ways. Writing in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers noted:9
“First, as the placebo effect is basically a psychosocial context effect, these data indicate that different social stimuli, such as words and rituals of the therapeutic act, may change the chemistry and circuitry of the patient’s brain.
Second, the mechanisms that are activated by placebos are the same as those activated by drugs, which suggests a cognitive/affective interference with drug action.
Third, if prefrontal functioning is impaired, placebo responses are reduced or totally lacking, as occurs in dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.”
Virtual Reality Games and Distraction Help Relieve Pain
Your pain pathways are plastic — they can be molded and transformed using a variety of approaches, because so many areas of your brain and nervous system are at play.
This is another avenue by which your mind has incredible power over your physical symptoms, as you may be able to drastically reduce your experience of pain by distracting your mind.
Researchers on the burn unit at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, for instance, have capitalized on the fact that the brain’s attention centers can be “distracted away” from a painful experience. Burn victims frequently undergo painful wound care procedures and debridement.
Since we all respond strongly to visual stimuli, even the mere sight of wound care instruments can amplify pain for burn victims. So researchers developed an action video game, called “Snow World,” that burn patients could engage in during wound care.
The results have been astonishing — burn patients experienced more than 50 percent less pain during their burn treatments when playing Snow World. Your brain has limits to its processing power, so if you’re highly engaged in an activity, your brain will not be able to process all of the pain signals.
The net result is that you experience less pain. Similar studies show that when your mind is encouraged to “wander” away from painful stimuli, an opiate-rich region of your brain is stimulated, resulting in pain suppression.10 Marchant told Scientific American:11
“This is just one of many lines of research telling us that the brain plays a big role in determining the level of pain we feel. Of course any physical damage is important, but it is neither sufficient nor necessary for us to feel pain. So I think we’ve got our approach to pain all wrong.
… Our focus is almost exclusively on trying to banish it with drugs, which is incredibly costly and causes huge problems with side effects and addiction.
Research like Snow World shows the potential of psychological approaches for treating pain: both to maximize the effectiveness of drugs and perhaps in some cases to replace them.”