The idea that our minds and emotions play a critical role in our health—a fundamental premise in integrative medicine—is far from new. Many ancient healing systems emphasize the interconnection between mind and body in healing, including Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, who taught that good health depends on a balance of mind, body, and environment.
Modern scientific research supports this age-old tenet of medical wisdom. It began in the 1920s, when Harvard scientist Walter Cannon, MD, identified the fight-or-flight response through which the body secretes hormones called catecholamines, such as epinephrine and nonepinephrine. When they enter the blood stream, these hormones produce changes in the body—i.e. a quickened heart or increased breathing rate—that put the person in a better physical state to escape or confront danger.
In the following decade, Hungarian-born scientist Hans Selye, MD, pioneered the field of stress research by describing how the wear-and-tear of constant stress could affect us biologically.
Since then, scores of scientific breakthroughs have illuminated the mind-body connection in health. Experimental psychologist Neal Miller, PhD, discovered that we can be trained to control certain physical responses, such as blood pressure, that were previously considered to be involuntary. This discovery gave birth to biofeedback, which has now been found to be effective in the treatment of anxiety, attention deficit disorder, headache, hypertension, and urinary incontinence.
Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, identified the flip side of the stress response, which he called the “relaxation response.” Benson demonstrated that meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques can bring about physiological changes including a lower heart rate, lower breathing rate, and decreased muscle tension along with positive changes in brain waves. Mind-body techniques that elicit this relaxation response have been successful in treating many stress-related disorders.
Research by psychologist Robert Ader, PhD, at the University of Rochester provided a link between the brain, behavior and immune function, and founded the new field of psychoneuroimmunology, which researches ways to increase immune function through the use of the mind.
Based on a Buddhist meditation practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts, developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a mediation technique that has successfully reduced physical and psychological symptoms in many medical conditions, including pain syndromes.
“When we are on automatic pilot, trying to get someplace else all the time without being attentive to where we already are, we can leave a wake of disaster behind us in terms of our own health and well-being, because we’re not listening to the body. We’re not paying attention to its messages; we’re not even in our bodies much of the time,” explains Kabat-Zinn. “Mindfulness—paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally—immediately restores us to our wholeness, to that right inward measure that’s at the root of both meditation and medicine.”
Guided imagery, which utilizes the power of imagination to heal, has been shown to reduce anxiety and pain in people with a wide range of medical conditions, including asthma, back pain, and headache, and to help patients better tolerate medical procedures and treatments. “Imagery utilizes the natural language of the unconscious mind to help a person connect with the deeper resources available to them at cognitive, affective and somatic levels,” explains Martin L. Rossman, MD.
Innovative research by Dean Ornish, MD, and his colleagues found that a program integrating mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation, stress management, and group support with diet and exercise reversed coronary artery disease. “What we are finding is that comprehensive lifestyle changes may ‘turn on’ the beneficial parts of the genome and ‘turn off’ the more harmful parts,” says Dr. Ornish.
Today, these breakthroughs in our understanding of the mind-body connection have translated into effective therapies that support a patient’s journey through illnesses and trauma. Virtually every major medical center now has a stress management or mind-body clinic, and practices such as meditation, yoga, and group support are woven into the medical treatment of heart disease, cancer, and other serious illnesses.
James Gordon, Director and Founder, Center for Mind-Body Medicine, has conducted mind-body skills trainings for patients and health care practitioners around the world. Gordon has said, “Mind-body medicine requires that we ground information about the science of mind-body approaches in practical, personal experience; that we appreciate the centrality of meditation to these practices; and that we understand—experientially as well as scientifically—that the health of our minds and the health of our bodies are inextricably connected to the transformation of the spirit.”
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