Ways to use your mind to strengthen and heal your body

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While some doctors still caution against using creative visualization and other “mind-body” techniques to the exclusion of conventional medicine, studies make it increasingly clear that one’s attitude and emotional state play key roles in the prevention of and recovery from illness.

We asked Harvard Medical School scientist Steven Locke, MD, about the relationship between the mind and the immune system…

• What effects do positive emotions have on immunity?

Close relationships with friends and family members seem to have significant and highly beneficial effects on the immune system. Several studies have shown, for example, that married people live longer than those who are single or divorced. Other studies have linked happiness and positive emotions to longer survival among cancer patients.

Study I: Eighty-six women with advanced breast cancer were divided into two groups. One group received standard medical care the other received medical care and weekly group therapy sessions.

Result: The women who received group therapy lived nearly twice as long as those who received only medical care.

Study II: Melanoma patients were divided into two groups. The first group received medical care only.. .the second group received medical care as well as stress-management training.

Result: Those in the second group suffered far less distress over their cancer diagnoses than those in the first group their immune functions were much stronger and their rate of survival was greater. Also: There was a greater trend though not statistically significant for melanoma to recur in the first group.

• How do negative emotions affect the immune system?

Stressful events, such as the death of a family member, marital separation, the loss of a job even taking a college exam cause marked deficits in the immune function, as measured by changes in the number and function of specialized blood cells.

Unknown: Whether or not these events increased susceptibility to illness. Also unknown is whether depression and other emotional problems cause cancer. While they can lead to self-destructive habits that cause cancer, there is no clear evidence that they themselves result in the illness

• Is there a cancer personality?

Some researchers suggest that there are behavior patterns including suppression of hostility or a helpless/hopeless attitude that place some people at greater risk for cancer. In my opinion, the notion that your personality determines your cancer risk is simplistic and emotionally destructive. Cancer is bad enough without believing your illness is your fault.

Reality: People develop cancer not because of personality defects but because of hereditary predispositions to the disease, exposure to tobacco smoke or other carcinogens, a high-fat, low-fiber diet or excessive alcohol use.

• Is there any value in guided imagery, deep relaxation and other “alternative” techniques?

Such techniques certainly give those who are ill a psychological boost by engendering a sense of empowerment.

Less certain: Whether these techniques do what they are intended to do marshal the immune defenses against pathogens. In a study at Ohio State University, elderly people received training in progressive muscle relaxation.

Result: The subjects had significantly more natural killer-cells a type of immunity that protects against viral illness and cancer in their bloodstreams after the training than they did before.

Caution: These techniques are unproven for cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. Patients who wish to use them should not abandon their conventional treatments in the belief that these techniques will cure them.

• Does laughter play a role in the battle against illness?

Norman Cousins, the late editor and essayist who wrote about his personal health battle in Anatomy of an Illness, was among the first to argue that laughter does not play a role. He felt misunderstood about the power of laughter. He believed what made the difference for him was the sense of empowerment from being an active participant in his treatment. Although he used comedies to induce positive emotions, he emphasized hope, a sense of control and loving support as critical factors in healing. Research, however, suggests laughter may affect immunity.

Study: Watching a humorous video (in this case a comedian) reduced levels of adrenaline and cortisol in the bloodstream according to scientists at Loma Linda University in California. These and other substances that suppress immunity are produced by the body in great quantities during times of stress.

• Is it true that hostile, angry people die younger?

Dr. Redford Williams and his associates at Duke University found that certain forms of hostility, cynicism and mistrust are associated with higher mortality. Other studies suggest that people who are either too angry or who never express their anger may be at higher risk. At Harvard, my colleagues and I did a study of various psychosocial factors and immunity.

Among our findings: People who were deemed most hostile had lower natural killer cell activity.

Possible explanation: Hostile and mistrustful individuals may have poor social networks. Many studies suggest that the support of friends and family plays a protective role in health.

• Can mind power combat a common cold?

Stress increases the likelihood of developing colds. Since relaxation techniques have increased immune responses in other studies, deep breathing and meditation might be helpful in strengthening resistance to the cold virus. Although this hasn’t been well researched, it seems worth a try.

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