By Robert Palmer
Mind-body medicine – the belief that the mind and the body work in concert to create wellness – is both ancient and revolutionary. Hippocrates, a founding father of mind-body medicine, wrote that “the natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.” Of course a lot has changed in the past several thousand years, but today many have discovered that positive belief, along with a healthy mindset, can be a powerful factor in health and healing. How it works – even if it works – has been a continuous source of controversy within the scientific community and throughout traditional and popular culture.
Traditional Chinese medicine and ancient Hindu Ayurvedic medicine draws a direct link between the mind and the body, while Western medicine generally teaches that the mind and the body are two separate systems that happen to operate in the same environment. The Placebo Effect is generally accepted in the medical community, but usually with the caveat that only sugar pills administered in a clinical setting trigger the Placebo Effect. A patient’s blood pressure elevating when taken in a doctor’s office, the argument goes, is an example of how the mind can influence the body in good ways and bad. But to many in today’s medical community it’s nothing more than an interesting phenomenon.
There are well-known practitioners and evangelists of mind-body medicine, including such luminaries as Deepak Chopra, Bernie Siegel and Dr. Joe Dispenza. Mixing metaphysical and spiritual philosophy with observational science, they have converted millions to acceptance of mindfulness as a path to wellness. But, slowly, Western medical science is opening the door to mind-body medicine as an adjunct to hard science.
Lissa Rankin, an OB/GYN physician and author, has driven a stake in the ground: “I still believe that love, support, and positive belief go far beyond healing and can actually manifest cure.” This is certainly hard to prove. As she also wrote, “It seems to me that the equivocation over whether support groups help cancer patients in randomized controlled trials is a bit silly, because while you can study cure rates, you can’t really study rates of healing [and] healing and curing are different.” In other words, even if a patient eventually dies of cancer, he or she may have been healed both spiritually and to a degree physically by loving support and encouragement; acceptance and peace are a form of healing that can offer powerful solace to a dying patient. The patient wasn’t cured of the physical ailment, but was healed mentally and spiritually. Medicine alone can’t do that.
Western medicine becomes mired in circular logic when it comes to curing many diseases. It has little to offer that will “cure” late-stage terminal cancer, for example, yet we don’t conclude that medical treatments such as chemo and radiation are useless. And virtually no physicians would call their colleagues who offer these therapies charlatans. Yet they tend to demand that nontraditional approaches stand up to the standards of clinical trials in order to be valid – even as some of their own therapies fail to offer a cure. Is it better to prolong life through medical intervention, or enrich what’s left of a life through a mind-body medicine approach? In this era of medicalized aging, that’s an important question.
“Positive thinking” is a loaded term that doesn’t capture the mind-body medicine philosophy. If positive thought doesn’t include a deeply felt sense of the connection between our spiritual mindfulness (not to be confused with traditional religious doctrine) and our corporeal, material body in all its complexities and frailties, then it is not only useless but it is potentially counter-productive. Dr. Kevin Pho, author of the MedPage Today blog KevinMD, writes about “the tyranny of positive thinking.” He describes such thinking as the enforced, unwelcome negative message from well people that sick people get better or worse depending on how they feel – that they are somehow responsible for the outcomes of their treatment, good or bad.
Contrary to popular culture, many pessimists survive and many optimists die from their diseases – being one way or the other is no guarantee of a favorable outcome. But a reasonable assumption that the mind and the body work in concert to promote overall better outcomes is rooted in logic as well as belief. By effectively using our most powerful, yet least understood resource, the mind can indeed induce health, wellness and healing.