Posted 2 years ago

Engaging the Healing Powers of the Mind

“It is all in your head”.  This is a statement that many have been told when they felt poorly but no physical findings were identified to explain the way they felt.  This statement reflected the long-held belief that our thoughts and feelings have no connection to our physical health.  But as science is advancing our understanding of the mind-body connection, we are finding that the mind can influence our physiology and can be a very powerful tool in healing.

One of the great examples of how our mind affects our health is demonstrated in the placebo effect, which is a common phenomenon found in research studies.   The concept behind the placebo effect is that if the brain believes a fake treatment is real, there is a good chance that it will create the desired response in the body.  One example of this is what is found in blood pressure medication studies, where both the group given the placebo (sugar pill) and the group given the blood pressure medication are found to have a  general improvement in blood pressure readings .

The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect which is when a patient has a negative expectation for a treatment outcome.   An example of this would be when patients are given a sugar pill and told it will cause terrible side effects, and then a significant number of those patients develop those side effects after taking the sugar pill.

The placebo and nocebo effect demonstrate the power of the mind’s ability to influence the workings of the body.  To sum up these findings, if we believe a treatment is going to work, there is a greater chance of it working and if we believe a treatment is harmful or won’t work, it is less likely to work or will be more likely to result in  negative side effects.

The field of Psychoneuroimmunology is the field of science that is researching this connection between our thoughts and our physiology.  What we are learning from research is that creating healing imagery with our thoughts can improve factors like blood pressure, inflammation and immune markers which have a role in healing.

Here are some ways that you can use the power of the mind to take an active role in your own healing.

  1. Change the Message.  Many patients go into their chemotherapy session with the thought that they will be receiving a poison or something very toxic or they take a pill to treat their cancer and think about how horrible they are going to feel. To tap into the power of the mind, l recommend that my patients think about the desired effect they want from those treatments and create a mental image about how the treatment is going in their body and creating that healing effect.  Simple changes in messaging like “ I  am giving  myself a healing medication”  versus “I am giving myself this toxic drug” can reinforce the positive outcome you are hoping to have from a treatment and lower your chance that you will have side effects from the treatment.
  2. Utilize Guided Imagery. The field of guided imagery helps a patient create mental images of healing.  Whether it be a Pac-Man type image of your immune system eating up cancer cells or images of a healing light melting any cancer cell away, imagery can help invoke a healing response in the body.   A great resource for some of these guided imagery recordings are on the website where you can find recordings on guided imagery for topics that address cancer, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.
  3. Rewrite the Story. When going through a health crisis like cancer, the mind naturally will drift to worst case scenarios.  Patients commonly start thinking about how their cancer is going to progress and cut their life short.  Instead of perseverating on worst case scenarios, redirect your thoughts to visualizing yourself being cancer free 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years down the road.  What will you be doing?   What would that life look like? 

The mind-body connection is a way that patients can take an active role in their health.  As I tell my patients, use your thoughts for good (healing), not evil (worry about negative outcomes).  Pausing and being mindful of the messages you are sending your body can be an important way to influence your own healing.