Mind over matter? The role of our mind when it comes to our health

Can you think yourself better? Pseudoscience and miracle cures have given the power of thought a bad rap when it comes to healing the body. But new research is beginning to change all that, writes Amanda Cassidy


Did you know that hotel housekeepers do more exercise in a day that most daily gym goers? Walking up and down corridors, pushing heavy trolleys, hoovering, scrubbing baths, stretching sheets over beds – it is extremely physical work. However, when questioned, those who worked in hotels as housekeepers didn’t believe that any of their work counted as actual exercise.

As part of the study carried out by Stanford University, researchers revealed to half of the workers questioned just how much exercise they were getting, as well as the benefits to their health. Four weeks later, this group had lost weight and had lower blood pressure, despite making no lifestyle changes. The outcome of the result seemed to confirm what the researchers suspected – once people view work as an opportunity to exercise, it had more of a physical impact. Psychological changes as a result of the mindset.

Another study found that those who believed that old age began at the age of 60 were more likely to have serious heart problems later on in life.

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Positive thought

The power of thought when it comes to health has always been viewed with scepticism. Miracle cures, instant reversal of serious diagnosis and ‘kooky’ alternative medicine have often been dismissed as snake oil jiggery-pokery. But now some scientists have started to reconsider the role of the mind when it comes to healing.

Many now believe that not only does our mental health play a part in our overall level of health, but the way we think about our own physical activity can actually shape outcomes.

Dr David Hamilton spent four years working in the pharmaceutical industry. His PhD was in organic chemistry and most of his work involved "sticking atoms together to make pharmaceutical drugs". He began to notice that in the placebo studies carried out on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry, between 40% and 79% of those on the placebo began showing signs of improvement. This meant they were seemingly getting better while also having the benefit of avoiding some of the side-effects that come with certain medications.

"That for me was so interesting. That the mind could have such a big part to play when it came to bodily changes," said Dr Hamilton .

He went on to write a book, The Contagious Power of Thinking, which focused on kindness and positivity as a health benefit. "Ageing on a biochemical level is a combination of many things, but remarkable research now shows that oxytocin (that we produce through emotional warmth) reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system and so slows ageing at the source."

Mind-body link

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In the recent past, an ingrained bias in the medical world existed that viewed physical matter as more ‘real’ than subjective emotions and beliefs. It was taken that because thoughts aren’t ‘real’ they can’t influence the physical body.

But if you have ever been a nervous flier, you will know all too well that the fears your mind produces manifest itself as very physical results – sweaty palms and a racing heart. Such thoughts and perceptions also affect our physiology.

Even sexual arousal produces key hormones that we need to boost fertility. So if stress kills, could the opposite also be true? Could positivity really help the body heal?

Dr Andrew Goliszek believes so. "'Mind over matter' is not simply a catchphrase. It is a truth based on what we know to be fact: that the brain, given the right set of directions, the right environment and the proper stimuli, will always choose healing over disease."

"Naturally, the ability to fend off illness and disease depends on several factors, some of which are beyond our control, but the way we react to stress and general health when it comes to our immune systems are things we can influence," he writes. "If we’re not able to change our response to stressors, we'll find ourselves in a constant hormonal battle that will lead to serious health issues like hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. The brain and the immune system are in constant communication in this delicate balance that can be disrupted by any kind of physical or emotional stress."

Outliers

The connection between how we think and how we feel is the subject for the new Netflix documentary, Heal. Director Kelly Noonan Gore interviews eastern and western medical practitioners, spiritual healers, sound energy specialists and doctors for their take on the amazing nature of the human body to heal itself. Featuring Deepak Chopra, Bruce Lipton, Marianne Williamson and Michael Beckwith, the two-hour documentary delves into how non-traditional and traditional medicine might compliment each other even further than previously thought.

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However, in an attempt to dissect the argument that spiritual healing matters to physical healing, the film manages to do exactly what it is trying not to do - perpetuate the 'hippy' miracle-cure aspect of alternative medicine with a series of case studies where people managed to rebuild physical injuries through divine intervention, or curing cancer by simply thinking about it.

Though the documentary doesn't suggest patients should dismiss western medicine in favour of alternative spiritual therapies, there are issues with its messaging. The sticking point is that many of the stories featured are rare outliers rather than mainstream examples, such as a woman who recovers from stage four lymphoma. Focusing on such stories - with an added implication that the mind was more powerful than western medical treatment - can leave things open to spin and enterprise opportunities.

A new chapter

However, as research develops and more emphasis is placed on the role energy plays in our bodies, it is becoming clear that a true mind-body link can be established.

Imagining that the power of the mind can affect our physical wellbeing is no longer a form of deluded thinking – it is a previously unexplored and important avenue now worth considering in the unending quest for boosting our physical health.


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