you can use your head to treat illness -- that's what traditional healers the world over advise and what medical science has finally come to appreciate.
Recent research indicates that there are more chemical communication routes than doctors ever dreamed of holding together your mental, emotional and physical states. Perhaps, as traditional Chinese medicine has long argued, your gut, liver and kidneys really do have awarenesses of their own. Is it possible that our entire bodies are involved in thinking and feeling?
Certainly the studies are piling up. We now know that heart patients have better prognoses if they're not depressed and that people can learn to control panic attacks with their thinking. But there is as yet no agreement on exactly how body and mind fit together. Western medicine generally sees consciousness as a by-product of physical processes, while eastern mystics tend to see our corporal selves as just a denser layer of what we ordinarily call our mind.
Although there is as yet no consensus on the relationship between the workings of the mind and what happens in the organs and tissues, most practitioners, from allopathic to holistic, now realize that when treating an illness one would be very unwise to ignore either.WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"We don't see the mind as being essentially apart from the body, and we don't see it as limited to the brain. A family of signalling molecules (neuropeptides) spreads information through the body and enables cells to talk back and forth to each other. Each tissue and organ is a mini-computer. The gut, for instance, processes information, some coming from the brain, some from elsewhere. You want to have all the parts talking to each other. There is a psychological component that goes into an illness. It's not about having a good attitude, but the process of catharsis and releasing your feelings. People who do this have better outcomes."
MICHAEL RUFF, research professor, Georgetown University school of medicine, Washington, DC
"The body is the hardware, the mind the software. If you have serious problems, whether they involve disease or life problems, a lot can be done by working with your mind. You don't always have to think of changing the external circumstances as a method of coping. A more fundamental method is looking at your own reactions and changing those. The basis of all suffering is wanting things to be different. If we're constantly in a state of resentment, our bodies are going to be stressed. Thinking patterns that assist in maintaining health include realistic acceptance and forgiveness, which in turn bring peace, joy and love."
ALASTAIR CUNNINGHAM, researcher, Ontario Cancer Institute, director, Healing Journey program
"In Chinese medicine emotions play a very big role in causing disease. Emotions are like the winds blowing -- they come and go. If people are strong in the root, they are able to bend with the wind, feel the emotions and then go on with their life. If you meet someone who's still emotional about a death that happened 30 years ago, the root is not strong -- the wind is gone, but the tree is still bent. You should be able to move on. It's most important in traditional Chinese medicine that you don't wait until you have a major problem to seek help. Your body will manifest a constitutional pattern. From looking at those patterns, a practitioner can make you stronger."
EMILY CHENG KOH, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner
"Most of the body has receptor sites that pick up emotional messengers,
(neuropeptides) use them and let go. (Researcher) Candace Pert theorizes that this transformation is important for health. If she's right, people who deny or repress their emotions should be at greater risk for morbidity. As we see it, healing is allowing oneself to be vulnerable to one's own emotions, thoughts, sensations and spiritual being in a non-judgmental way every day for the rest of your life."
MARK GILBERT, psychiatrist, director of mind-body medicine (clinic) and professional training program in mind-body medicine with the Michener Institute of Life Sciences
"I don't believe mental expressions or symptoms cause physical ones, or that physical symptoms cause mental ones. Both are expressing at the same time. I believe there's a vital force. If we have it we're alive, if we don't we're not. Whenever there are negative factors that influence our lives, this vital force is trying to push these negative factors outward via the mind, body and emotions in terms of symptoms. This current is working for our survival. When it's overburdened, that's when disease starts to show."
DANIELLE MOLCAR, homeopath
"There's an interconnection between the mind and the body, but there's still a shortage of information about how to use the mind to remedy problems in the body. By reducing reactivity (to your own thoughts), you reduce stress, which reduces the chronic strain on organ systems in the body. I think (emotional) catharsis is important, but I don't see it as sufficient. (Cognitive psychology) involves training people to become aware of what they say to themselves in the service of helping them to regulate their emotions more effectively.'
ZINDEL SEGAL, Morgan Firestone chair in psychotherapy at the U of T; director, cognitive behaviour therapy unit at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health