In an earlier post I raised the question of the mind healing the body. We know that this is possible because of the placebo effect, in which patients obtain relief even though the doctor has given them only a sugar pill, an injection of saline solution, or some other innocuous substance. The placebo effect, contrary to widespread suspicion, is a “real” cure. Pain is diminished; symptoms are alleviated. But it depends upon deception. The doctor knows that he is giving a harmless substance; the patient doesn’t.
So the issue comes down to triggering the mind-body connection without being deceived. Is there a way for each person to influence his body consciously? We do this all the time, of course. You can’t lift a finger, throw a baseball, or drive a car without translating a mental intention into a physical response. But when it comes to disease symptoms, the mind-body connection feels weak or non-existent. Every sick person wants to get well. How can the mind help?
There are four conditions that would insure a stronger mind-body connection during illness, and all are inter-connected:
— The mind contributes to getting well.
— The mind doesn’t contribute to getting sick.
— The body is in constant communication with the mind.
— This communication benefits both the physical and mental aspects of being well.
When the placebo effect works, it’s clear that all four aspects are involved. The patient’s mind cooperates with the treatment and trusts it. The body is aware of this trust. There is open communication, and as a result, cells throughout the body participate in a healing response. The healing system as a whole is incredibly complex and all but impossible to explain as a whole. We only know parts of how it operates, such as our knowledge of antibodies and the immune response to infection.
Yet somehow, for all its complexity, the healing system can be triggered by a simple intention of the mind. To be your own placebo, then, requires the same conditions that apply in a classic placebo response:
1. You trust what is happening.
2. You deal with doubt and fear.
3. You don’t send conflicting messages that get tangled with each other.
4. You have opened the channels of mind-body communication.
5. You let go of your intention and let the healing system do its work.
Clearly, everyone finds it easy to let go when a problem is small, such as a cut finger or a bruise. The mind isn’t interfering with doubts and fears. But both play a major role in serious illness, which is why a practice like meditation or going to group counseling can be a great help. Sharing your anxiety with others in the same position is one way to begin to clear them.
It’s also helpful to follow your instincts. Most of us deal with illness through misleading processes like wishful thinking and denial. Our fears lead us into the blind alleys of false hope. In such cases, the mind isn’t really alert to what the body is saying, or vice versa. The atmosphere is clouded. To trust what your body is telling you implies that you will take action to give it what it wants. Each body wants different things at any given moment, but at the very least our bodies do best without tobacco, alcohol, excessive medications, and various chemical adulterants.
One way to become more aware of your body is to sit quietly with your eyes closed and simply feel the body. Let any sensation come to the surface. Don’t respond to the sensation, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Relax and be aware of it. Notice where the sensation is coming from. There won’t be one sensation or feeling only. You will find that your awareness goes from place to place, one moment noticing your foot or your stomach, your chest or your neck.
This simple exercise is like a mind-body reconnection. Too many people are in the habit of not paying attention to any but the most gross signals from their bodies, like extreme pain, stiffness, or discomfort. What you want to do is to increase your sensitivity and your trust at the same time. Your body knows at a subtle level where dis-ease and discomfort are. It sends signals at every moment, and these are not to be feared. Even if you consciously ignore what is happening in your cells, there is a level of conscious information that is being exchanged just below the level of awareness.
Indeed every cell in the body knows, through chemical messengers, what every other cell is doing. By bringing your conscious mind into the loop, you are adding to this communication. How? The body operates through two compatible aspects of the nervous system. One is involuntary and takes care of every process that doesn’t need your awareness. The other is voluntary, meaning that it responds to your awareness. These two aspects of the mind/brain are connected. You can switch from one to the other.
For example, if you are stuck in traffic and feeling stressed, your heart rate can increase involuntarily. Yet you can also choose to go running, which increases your heart rate as the result of your intention. We know from research experiments that advanced yogis can alter involuntary responses at will, such as lowering their heart rate and breathing to very low levels or increasing skin temperature in a very precise way. As it happens, you and I have the same abilities, although we don’t consciously use them. You can be led through an exercise to make a spot on the palm of your hand grow warmer, and it would happen even though you have never used that ability before.
One can venture that the placebo effect falls into the same category. It’s a voluntary response we could use if only we learned to. The healing system seems to be involuntary. You don’t have to think in order to heal a cut or a bruise. Yet the fact that some patients can make their own pain go away when given a sugar pill they think is aspirin implies, very strongly, that intention makes a difference in healing. We aren’t talking about positive thinking but a deeper mind-body connection.
One final note: Because this is a public forum read by all kinds of people with all kinds of health issues, let me be clear. I am not — repeat not — advising anyone to stop conventional medical treatment or to reject medical help. The placebo effect remains mysterious, and this article is exploring that mystery, not giving you a how-to for self cure.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
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