It is finally official. Your mind can, indeed, cure your body’s illness. However, the mechanism by which this is done is not any spiritualism or other mumbo-jumbo. It is pure science. It has to do with the levels of hormones – the beneficial ones and the not-so-beneficial ones – that affect how we feel. Let us see how the mind cures the body.
If you believe that the treatment you are receiving is going to absolutely cure you, there is a high chance that it will. This works even if the treatment is just a sugar pill. Research has shown that for a wide range of illnesses from multiple sclerosis to osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s to depression, the placebo effect is real. How does this happen? It has been shown that absolute belief about the efficacy of the treatment can speed up the recovery process through lowered blood pressure, boosted immunity and the release of natural painkillers. In fact, a belief in anything is a good thing. Studies find that people who are staunch adherers of a religion and believe that their God is the reason for everything in life have less stress-related illnesses.
Optimistic thinking is known to lead to good health outcomes. Optimists have been reported to recover faster and better after medical procedures such as cardiac surgery, have more active immune systems and live longer. This holds true for the general population, and also for those who suffer from conditions such as kidney failure and cancer. Negative and pessimistic thoughts can make us ill. Stress triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response that can increase the risk of medical conditions such as diabetes. Optimism, on the other hand, reduces levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, and stress-induced inflammation. It may also dampen the sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates “rest-and-digest” response which is the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system.
Having a rosy view of yourself is also conducive to good health. People who see themselves as better than how others may see them have lower cortisol levels, lower cardiovascular response to stress and recover from illnesses faster. Even if you have a low self-esteem, it is possible to change and train to think positively about yourself. In one research study conducted at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, scientists asked students who were facing exams to write short paragraphs on the times when they had shown qualities such as creativity or independence. The aim of the activity was to boost the students’ sense of self-worth. It was found that compared with a control group, students who self-affirmation in this way had lower levels of ‘fight-or-flight’ hormones in their urine at the time of their exam. Most importantly, the effect was greatest in those students who started off being most worried about their exam results.
People who trust others tend to have good friends and warm, open relationships. An active social life and avoiding loneliness is as good to your health as giving up smoking, according to researchers in the area. Not trusting people leads to avoiding people and hence loneliness. Feeling lonely can impair the immune system, which lowers resistance to diseases. Socially integrated people who trust their friends have a lower systolic blood pressure and lower Body Mass Index. Persistent feelings of isolation can increase the risk for depression, Alzheimer’s disease and poor sleeping habits, which in turn can lead to adverse psychological and physiological consequences.
Meditation, and the resulting relaxation of the mind, boosts immune response in vaccine recipients, soothes skin conditions and protects against a relapse in depression. It may even slow the ageing process. Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that get shorter every time a cell divides, play a role in aging. Researchers at the University of California showed in 2011 that the levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a meditation retreat than in a control group. People who habitually meditate have lower cortisol levels, and even have changes in their amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.