There is a misleading perception that when people heal or fully recover from a chronic disease using mind body medicine it means their illness was all in their minds. Or that if meditation, mindfulness, yoga or any type of psychotherapy are recommended to a person with a chronic illness, that it implies their disease is psychological. Or worse, that getting sick is their fault.
People also suggest that if recovery doesn’t happen by meditating, slowing down, reducing stress or practicing other mind body approaches, they must not be doing it right or trying hard enough.
These mistaken beliefs cause a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering.
In this post I’ll define mind body medicine, some approaches and how they can be valuable tools that support health. Then I’ll talk a little more about some of these “limitations” and misperceptions, including how recommendations for mind body practices and for mind body psychotherapies such as body-based trauma therapies does not imply that diseases or symptoms are psychological. The last section includes a personal anecdote.
Table of Contents
The Benefits of Mind Body Medicine
Wikipedia defines mind body medicine as an approach that “uses the mind to alter physical function and promote overall health and well-being.“
Many people, including myself, have experienced improvements in their health – and in their lives – through such approaches as:
- slowing down
- mindfulness & meditation
- try a written exercise of mindfulness or audio guided exercise
- video introduction to 9 principles of mindfulness
- CBS 60 minutes transcribed interview with Anderson Cooper
- Full Catastrophe Living, a book on mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) clinic first started in 1979 by molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn for people with chronic illness, chronic pain, cancer and other conditions that medicine could not heal, at U Mass
- yoga, Tai Chi and other methods of stress reduction
- counseling and / or support groups
- making time for intimate friendships and supportive connections with others
- incorporating alternative and complementary medicine
- dietary changes
- and / or creating more balance in work and daily life
The benefits of mind body medicine can be tremendous:
- Physician Dean Ornish showed that heart disease is reversible for many by making the kinds of changes listed above (1)Ornish, D., et al. (1990). “Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial.” Lancet 336(8708): 129-133., (2)Ornish, D. (2012). Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease New York, Ballantine Books.
- Donna Jackson Nakazawa has begun to reverse the effects of her severe autoimmune and other illnesses through mind body medicine, stress reduction and other tools and perspectives (3)Nakazawa, D. J. (2015). Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. New York City, Atria Books.
- Dr. George Jelinek has recovered from MS and has helped many others who have followed his program of lifestyle changes.
- The 2014 documentary on mind body medicine, The Connection, interviews leaders in the field and tells the stories of individuals who have recovered from very serious illnesses, including cancer in very late stages as well as autoimmune diseases. Journalist Shannon Harvey’s film describes the science and the fact that over 10,000 research studies have reproduced and supported the findings of mind body practices. These approaches have been used by cultures all over the world for centuries. She first learned about mind body medicine after trying many things. Her own lupus has improved significantly as a result.
They also show that this process is COMPLEX. This is essentially why mind body practices do not guarantee cures or recoveries even as they can be enormously helpful.
When Mind Body Perspectives are Used to Judge or Blame
People are still told every today, even now in subtle and overt ways, that if they’re sick it’s because they haven’t tried hard enough. Or because they have too little will power, a personality flaw, or too much negative thinking. Or because they are weak.
That it’s because they can’t deal with their emotions. Or poor impulse control.
Or, perhaps even worse, they are disbelieved when they have no visible or objective evidence of illness that a doctor (or relative, friend, or employer) can recognize or understand.
If there’s one thing people living with chronic diseases learn, it’s that the inability to recover is not for lack of trying.
The principles of mind body medicine have gotten corrupted by our common American belief that good health and good outcomes come to those who work hard, think positively, and don’t give up. And that anyone who is sick has caused it themselves and is therefore somehow weak.
These views are missing the underlying message of mind body medicine, which is that coming into mindful, present moment, nonjudgmental awareness of ourselves helps us feel more whole, more at peace with things as they are, and more capable of facing life’s common stressors and challenges.
Mind body medicine helps us be present with reality and to understand that health is not about merit.
That getting sick or having chronic health conditions is not the result of “sin,” “negative thinking,” or “being weak or bad.”
Mind body practices offer new tools for those living with chronic diseases as well as anyone experiencing the inevitable suffering that comes with being human – whether the loss of a loved one, impossible deadlines at work, financial struggles, or when things simply don’t work out as we hoped.
Sometimes these approaches can lead to cures, but cures are not the goal or “a given” with mind body medicine.
Psychotherapies that Work with Mind and Body
Here on my blog about the role of adverse life experiences as risk factors for chronic illness, I recommend somatically based trauma therapies as potentially important and helpful tools for reducing or healing symptoms of very real physical diseases.
These are approaches that work with both mind and body as well as interactions between the two. I recommend them because of all that is being learned about the role of adverse life experiences in changing nervous system function and shaping long-term health.
When I suggest these may be valuable tools to incorporate into treatment of chronic illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), autoimmune diseases and other chronic health conditions, it is often interpreted as my saying that an illness is psychological.
I’ve been asked – sometimes politely – to butt out and stop sabotaging the conversation about the real science. To stop sullying research results and biochemical findings that might finally explain what is really going on with what remain so frequently incurable, invisible or routinely questioned illnesses.
But even as doctors and medical care still focus on physical causes for physical diseases or emotional and psychological causes of mental health conditions – it’s more because medical care isn’t up to date with the research.
Emerging science such as the cell danger response supports what so many already know deep in their hearts, minds and guts. Which is that you can’t really separate how life experiences affect your thoughts and how you feel, how your thoughts and feelings influence your body, or how sensations of pain or physical symptoms influence your thoughts and emotions.
But these interconnections still don’t mean that chronic disease is purely about your thoughts. Our physical health is influenced by life events, genes, our brain’s perceptions of threat, by infections and toxins, and much more.
Science is discovering that genes do not operate in isolation. Genes are influenced by life experiences, which guide them and tell them whether to turn on or off, when to do so, and how much or how little to do. Brain function is also shaped by early life experiences and other events.
We are coming into new ways of understanding chronic illness. And these offer new tools such as trauma therapies while also explaining how life style changes such as diet, mindfulness, slowing down, exercising and more, influence health beyond simply treating “the mind.”
The Intelligence in Mind Body Connections
When I was in the last weeks of my medical training as a family practice resident in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1993 I went to a book store in my neighbourhood. It felt like this was the first time I’d been to a non medical book store in all my years of training.
One of the books that caught my eye that day was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, which was about mindfulness. I had long believed in alternative health practices but had let go of it all during my training. And now that the end was in sight, my interest had a little more room to grow again.
When making my final decisions at the counter, however, I had taken his book out of my “to buy” pile and decided to leave it behind, perhaps because it was many inches thick. But when I got home, I discovered that it had made the trip somehow into my bag. I was intrigued by the potential serendipity. So I did a little test.
I decided that if I opened it up to a random page and found that page to be of interest, I’d keep it. The page I opened it to was about a French-Canadian truck driver struggling with chronic pain. My roots are French-Canadian.
I kept it. And loved it.
I have just started rereading sections of the updated 2013 edition this past week while healing from a gum graft. I don’t tolerate medications or pills of any kind anymore as they trigger Sjogren’s-type symptoms of dryness and beyond (dry mouth, sinuses, eyes, lips and skin; thirst; restless legs, and more), so this gave me some coping tools.
I haven’t been able to make meditation a part of my daily self-care but I was able to do it for this specific, short-term need.
I’ve been doing a daily guided 45 minute body scan, meditating and slowing down. Having these tools has been helpful for listening to my body, respecting my body’s need for rest and very slow days, for deciding to walk only a very little on some days and only very slowly, or to keep my head elevated even at night because of the sensations of increased blood flow that I knew could increase swelling during the normal inflammatory phase of healing to cause more pain.
It’s also helped me stay curious and deal with fear – fear I wouldn’t have as good an outcome without the antibiotics and anti-inflammatory meds they recommended, fear of pain, fear that my body wouldn’t do a good job of healing given my 20 year experience with chronic fatigue, etc.
It’s been empowering to have a clear set of practical, useful, free tools at my disposal. And comforting to listen to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s heart-warming talks, even as I was quite uncomfortable for 4 or 5 days.
I’ve been surprised to see how much my philosophy today has similarities to what I read in that book 25 years ago. And how related it all is to my leaving medicine, retraining in somatic psychology in 1999 and using curiosity as a critical tool for befriending, exploring and working with my symptoms and those of clients.
This process of mindfulness is so much about compassion for suffering, about listening to the body without judgment, and exploring symptoms from a view that is nonblaming and nonshaming.
It has also contributed to the path I discovered in the science of how life experiences shape health.
When I first sought to understand more about what drives and underlies the development of chronic illness, I was intrigued by one particular question. This question was founded in curiosity about illness and disease.
I wondered whether symptoms could stem from an intelligent process gone awry.
Not as the result of a psychological problem.
Nor as a set of physical symptoms caused by a body attacking itself at random or having defective genes or cell function.
And not as a simple stress response.
But as a process that starts in our cells and immune and nervous systems, and in our tissues and enzyme cascades, and in our minds and bodies.
As a process in which intelligent self-protective mechanisms are based on a deep, evolutionarily driven intention bent on helping us survive threat or danger.
A process where our body’s deep, courageous, persistent attempts to defend us and protect us from harm have gotten caught or prolonged somehow.
And that it is our body’s supportive, innate design that has gotten stuck in an attempt to help that is what has lead to disease. This includes mental health conditions as well as physical diseases. Neither of which are “psychological.”
Mind body medicine and new science give us opportunities to befriend our bodies, our symptoms and ourselves. To cultivate different tools in support of healing to whatever extent is possible, without judgment or blame or shame if that does not mean cure.
A new understanding of chronic disease is emerging, and it offers approaches to healing that go far beyond our current medical model.
I’ll share more on how to incorporate mind body medicine and other treatment tools in support of the social nervous system health, how it can inhibit patterns of fight/flight/freeze to reduce symptoms, and more.
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|↑1||Ornish, D., et al. (1990). “Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial.” Lancet 336(8708): 129-133.|
|↑2||Ornish, D. (2012). Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease New York, Ballantine Books|
|↑3||Nakazawa, D. J. (2015). Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. New York City, Atria Books|