Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Healing from (and managing) a ‘physical’ disease like Hashimoto's depends not only on physical approaches to wellness, but also psychological too. These approaches include an array of life-style changes, from dietary and exercise (physical approaches) to managing emotions and improving resilience to stress (psychological approaches). Studies show that
psychological approaches such as meditation improve ‘physical’ health conditions such as
cardiovascular, neurological, and autoimmune diseases (amongst others). An individual could be eating the ‘healthiest’ diet for their body, and have the ‘best’ exercise and sleep regime - but if they are not addressing their psychological state and emotional stress, then they can not achieve optimum health. Science has known for decades (and humans for THOUSANDS of years going back to ancient Egyptians) that our psychological state has an immense influence over our physical state. The sad thing is, this information hasn't been integrated into mainstream medicine. Maybe because there isn't big money to be made out of this type of intervention? Meditation can't be 'patented' by big pharmaceuticals so they have no interest in it.
And even though our conventional systems completely dismiss the intelligence and wisdom of many ancient civilisations, it can not be denied that there is SO much modern-day science to back up that there is a MIND-BODY CONNECTION. In fact, that act of denying it can contribute to disease.
The phrase ‘fight-or-flight response’ coined in the 1920s by Dr Cannon, described the
relationship between perceived stress and the function of the nervous system. Cannon
taught us that it is not the event itself that causes stress, but the individual’s perception of
the event. This perception in the form of a thought sends a signal to the nervous system.
In the case of the person perceiving an event as stressful, this negative thought tells the
nervous system that the body is in danger. The body responds by going into a ‘fight-or-flight’ response and creates an ‘emergency-like’ state which blocks the specific neurological signals which are responsible for our body to heal and to regenerate. Instead, it only puts energy into areas such as the muscles and heart rate. This response can be useful in moments of short term stress - however, in cases of repeated acute stress, this response is activated daily and can lead to a major imbalance of the immune system and therefore cause disorders such as autoimmune diseases. This episodic acute stress is frequent in modern western culture partly due to a fast-paced lifestyle where digital technology has enabled us to be constantly available, with the added pressure of continuous notifications, alerts and frightening News stories. This constant stimulation from technology can leave people feeling like they can’t switch off, and in the majority (if not all) individuals, will set off the ‘flight-or-flight’ response. Especially at this time in history where more than ever the media are sending a barrage of scare-mongering messages to the public and instilling fear into everyone.
I have personally experienced this in my own life. I began looking at my mind-body connection when I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s. I made physical changes such as changing my diet which improved my health significantly, but I found that I had ‘hit a wall’ with my healing journey. Through research, I discovered the mind-body connection which made me realise that my body was in a constant state of stress. It was reacting to the smallest of things such as a News story, a work email or having multiple social media notifications and messages to get back to. I was restless, had a racing heart, and my anxiety levels were ‘through the roof’. After learning the science behind the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, I realised that I needed to change the message I was sending to my nervous system and work on calming my mind. I used a variety of techniques from yoga and meditation to managing emotions (with approaches such as CBT and EFT) to activate the relaxation response and enhance my resilience to stress. This took a long period of time and HUGE amounts of commitment. It wasn't an overnight fix. But over time, I began to retrain my nervous system. And as a result, my health (and lab results) dramatically improved. I am still practising this to this day - especially right now when everything has been turned upside down…!
Another example of the influence our mental state has on our physical state can be found
in the emerging field of research, Epigenetics. Since the Human Genome Project, we have
believed that we are victims of our genes and that the fate of our genetic destiny is fixed.
Bruce Lipton PH.D, however, tells us that our DNA is controlled by signals outside the cell,
including the change in the body’s chemistry due to positive and negative thoughts. He
undertook a pioneering experiment to find out what is responsible for controlling the fate of
a cell using cloned genetically-identical stem cells. He separated a culture of these cells
into three different petri dishes and changed the environment in each dish. He had three
different environments, and the results revealed that in environment a, the cells formed
muscle, in environment b, the cells formed bone, and in environment c, the cells formed
fat. He realised that the only thing that was different in each petri dish was the environment, as the cells were genetically-identical. He concluded that environment shapes the behaviour of genes, and debunked the myth that genes alone are our destiny. This confirms that simply thinking a negative or positive thought can cause an alternation of the chemistry in the body and therefore change the environment for the cells and in turn, the cell’s DNA. This emerging research is incredibly empowering for patients suffering from ‘physical’ diseases (especially those with autoimmunity), where conventional medicine and physical approaches cannot always offer a solution.
The idea that our thoughts can alter our DNA is also at the forefront of pioneering new
research by Dr Joe Dispenza. He has developed meditation programmes which are
primarily focused to help people heal their bodies through meditation.
‘We can modify our genetic destiny by turning on the genes we want and turning off the ones we don’t want through working with the various factors in the environment that program our genes’ (Dispenza, 2014: p93)
Dr Joe Dispenza tells us about the placebo effect which has been scientifically proven that the mind can affect the body and that thoughts can activate the autonomic nervous system which produces physiological changes in the body. In one study, a group of patients with Parkinson’s disease who thought they were taking a drug to improve their symptoms were actually prescribed placebos (sugar pills). At the end of the experiment, It was found that they had a significant improvement in physical symptoms, which was also backed up by brain scans. It was deduced that the only explanation for the change of health was the patient’s belief that they were taking the medication and thus had the expectation that they were going to heal. This positive belief that they were going to feel better, actually did just that and led to their bodies making a set of chemicals that resulted in their healing. This tells us that our thoughts can have a massive impact on our bodies, how our genes are expressed, and our general state of wellness.
Psychological wellness is an EXTREMELY important factor to address when
healing from (and managing) a physical disease. The mind and body are not separate and
should be seen as one system which works together. Physical approaches to wellness
should be accompanied by psychological approaches to wellness in order to achieve
optimum health. I hope that one day conventional medicine catches up with this. However, it is ultimately up to us to ensure we are taking care of both our mind and body (and soul for that matter!). Don’t wait for conventional medicine to catch up!