Physical and Emotional Health: How They Interact
Doctors are not sure exactly how physical and mental health inﬂuence each other, but growing scientiﬁc evidence suggests that the mind/body connection is real. For example, the so-called ﬁght or ﬂight response, in which the nervous system and the adrenal glands ﬂood the body with the hormone adrenaline when you are frightened, increases both heart rate and blood ﬂow to the muscles. This response prepares the body to deal with apparent danger. In this case, the sur- vival response is helpful.
However, when a person is under constant stress, the body steadily releases a hormone called cortisol, which can cause long-term damage to the brain and other organs. The harmful effects of this hormone include an increased tendency for blood to clot, a surge in the pressure on coronary arteries, increased blood pressure, and other demands on the heart and blood vessels.
There has been a recent surge of interest in the mind/body connection by physicians to see if positive health effects can be obtained from relaxation tech- niques such as meditation. The increasing complexity and pace of life and the awareness that long-term stress has a negative physiological effect on the body have triggered the exploration of relaxation techniques. By combining knowl- edge of meditative techniques from Eastern cultures with Western scientiﬁc techniques, doctors have developed a form of meditation that may have positive effects on blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation appears to lower metab- olism—decreasing breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure.
An understanding of the connection between the mind and the body becomes clearer as new techniques are found to examine and to measure the nervous system’s subtle control over changes in the circulatory system. The positive response of the circulatory system to a variety of relaxation tech- niques, such as meditation and biofeedback, can now be explained partly in physiological terms. In addition to high blood pressure, meditation has been
shown to beneﬁt people who have chronic pain, tension headaches, asthma, insomnia, and other stress-related problems.
Interest in the mind/body connection has now expanded into studying the pos- sibility of using mental techniques to strengthen the immune system. The immune system ﬁghts germs such as viruses and eliminates cells that are dam- aged, are turning cancerous, or have become cancerous. Researchers are trying to determine whether stress that accompanies major, life-changing events such as divorce or moving into a nursing home can lead to changes in the immune system that make people more vulnerable to infection, heart disease, or other ill- nesses. Factors that can contribute to a negative response of the immune system include whether a person feels in control of a given situation and whether a per- son feels lonely.
One technique being tested to teach the immune system to work better is biofeedback, in which special instruments that measure the body’s vital signs amplify the signs that represent relaxation, in order to train the person to recog- nize and replicate them. Biofeedback is being used in studies of people with dia- betes who are under stress; the aim is to substitute relaxation exercises for additional insulin injections needed to deal with the stress. Other research is focused on relieving chronic lower back pain and muscle pain. Guided imagery is a system that uses symbols to imagine the desired physical changes occurring in the body during the treatment of asthma and cancer. Some people who repeat- edly imagine a healing process may be able to boost their immune system. For example, a person might imagine his or her healthy white blood cells as white knights on horses subduing a source of infection. Or a patient with cancer might see his or her white blood cells as a computer game, gobbling up the cancer cells. Some people with AIDS (acquired immunodeﬁciency syndrome) or with cancer use complementary therapies such as meditation and massage to supplement their medical and surgical treatments.
Keep in mind, however, that few alternative and complementary therapies have been proven safe and effective through rigorous scientiﬁc testing, and some can be very expensive. If you are thinking about trying an alternative treatment, talk to your doctor. Some therapies can be harmful, especially if you forgo con- ventional medical treatment for a serious illness. Never stop taking a prescrip- tion medication unless your doctor tells you to.