Look in the self-help section of any bookstore, and you’ll find them: a whole slew of books dedicated to the power of the mind to create all kinds of wonderful changes. Yet the science behind the philosophy that thought can create physical change remains a topic of debate and exploration.
“We don’t know the exact mechanism for it,” says Dr. Shaheen Mansoor, a psychiatrist and owner of Psych Health. “There are some parameters linked to it that we know of. One example is that negative thoughts may cause the immune system to weaken. It’s not proven, but it’s a good hypothesis. That can cause a body to not function well and that, in turn, leads to an increased time for healing.”
Scientists have shown, however, that chronic stress and pessimism contribute to the release of stress hormones. According to the American Psychological Association, “Extended reactions to stress can alter the body’s immune system in ways that are associated with other ‘aging’ conditions such as frailty, functional decline, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, inflammatory arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.”
This is not good news, but before you let it stress you out and affect your health, consider the flip side. “There is another thought that positive thinking may just make one take care of oneself better, eat healthier and have better coping mechanisms—contributing to good emotional and physical condition,” Mansoor says.
Dr. Annette Vaillancourt, a St. Louis area psychologist and member of the International Positive Psychology Association, uses a variety of mind-body techniques in her practice. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly how it works,” she says. “In Western medicine, we have a certain mindset that limits us in understanding how these mind-body modalities work.”
However, Vaillancourt points to the work of several eminent researchers, such as Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. The institute states that “mind/body medicine integrates modern scientific medicine, psychology, nutrition, exercise physiology and belief to enhance the natural healing capacities of body and mind.” It champions techniques such as relaxation training, cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, nutrition and social support as the ‘third leg’ of the three-legged stool that comprises health. Medication and medical procedures form the stool’s other two legs.
“Some people think you have to believe in a mindbody technique in order for it to work,” Vaillancourt says. “But, no, you just have to do it. Do you have to believe in the pill you’re taking in order for it to work? No. If a technique seems unfamiliar, remember that back in the day taking penicillin was unfamiliar.”
As an adjunct to traditional Western medicine, mindbody techniques continue to elicit interest and gain popularity. “Our bodies and our minds tend toward natural health if we remove the blocks,” Vaillancourt says. Negative or fearful thinking create those blocks to a healthy body and mind, she adds.
“The first step is to have a positive expectation for a positive outcome,” she advises. “That will allow you to take action toward doing what you need to do in order to heal. Hope and a positive mindset is crucial.”