Psychoneuroimmunology – where the mind meets the body!

‘Psycho’ – the mind

‘Neuro’ – the brain

‘Immunology’ – study of the structure and function of the immune system (physiological healing)

The ‘mind’ has been linked to pathology and healing processes in the body.  As a medical doctor I have become aware of this and the fact that a ‘positive attitude of mind’ can lead to earlier discharge and faster recovery.

The placebo effect has been well documented. Patients taking medications made of ‘chalk’ have been shown to recover as quickly as those patients taking the ‘real’ medications.

People subjected to stress and anxiety have been found to recover more slowly than happy, coping individuals. It has also been shown to slow down the wound healing processes.

I strongly believe that a person can use the mind to act on the body and to influence its physiology. I have recently read an article by the psychologist Theodore Barber entitled ‘Changing ‘Unchangeable’ Bodily Processes by Hypnotic Suggestions’.

Barber put together over 60 clinical studies in which people under hypnosis, using the power of suggestion succeeded in altering physiological processes of their bodies simply by imagining the changes, mentally directing their bodies to make the changes. For example, people affected with medically untreatable skin diseases, from which some had suffered all their lives, restored much of their affected skin to a normal condition. Another example, about 70 women increased the size of their breasts!! The list goes on….

In the 1950s, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman (Cardiologists of Harold Brunn Institute for Cardiovascular Research) realised that heart disease certainly killed thousands of Americans but that there was something missing. Demographic data and their own experiences told them that risk factors as they were (i.e. high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and lifestyle choices, lack of exercise) could not be the whole story.

Individual countries with similar diets and similar cholesterol levels could have as much as a four-fold difference in rates of heart disease. They also noted that heart disease rates had risen sharply in several industrial countries while average intake of fat had not changed. This did not fit the general finding that heart disease rose as cholesterol levels increased.

On a daily basis, the cardiologists reviewed patients with heart disease and realised a common emotional style which they named ‘Type A’ behaviour. This included a combination of driving competitiveness, aggressiveness, impatience, anger and frustrations when dealing with everyday situations. They found that these people were twice as likely to develop heart disease as men without this behaviour pattern (‘Type B’ behaviour).This opened a new chapter in the study of the connection between the mind and body.

While Friedman and Rosenman were investigating behavioural causes of heart disease, another cardiologist researcher, Herbert Benson, was investigating emotional and behavioural pressures on high blood pressure (hypertension, a condition associated with heart disease). He wanted to know whether emotions, stimulated by behavioural demands and punishment, could increase blood pressure and lead to hypertension.

Benson carried out (perhaps controversially in many eyes) studies with animals (usually monkeys). One such study involved teaching them to press a lever 30 times in 30 seconds and were punished with a mild electric shock to their tails if they failed. During this test, the researchers monitored the monkeys’ blood pressure. They subsequently demonstrated that they could take monkeys with normal blood pressure and make them hypertensive by putting them through training trials and demands and punishments. It was reasonable to speculate therefore that similar patterns of demands and punishments in the workplace, for example, could make humans hypertensive too.

Benson also explored the use of the mind to treat hypertension. If activity of the mind could cause hypertension then perhaps activity of the mind could succeed in lowering blood pressure and even provide a treatment for hypertension. They showed, through their research, that various relaxation techniques can help treat assorted conditions including chronic pain, anxiety, headaches, hypertension, fear, nausea, muscle strain, loss of appetite. Basically , the relaxation response, like other relaxation techniques and therapies (including hypnotherapy) can deal with physical symptoms and emotional responses that are clearly the expression of psychological turmoil.

Hypnotherapy simulates the body’s natural ability for relaxation and reparation. Its benefits and effectiveness are well documented and if in any doubt, why not give it a go!!