You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive. Maya Angelou
In the field of philosophy much was made historically of the mind/body dichotomy. As the world evolves and science along with it many of the barriers that have stood between the two are gradually being eroded. And yet there is still a great deal we don’t know. Just how important is the mind to physical well-being? How can a seemingly ephemeral thing influence the corporeal? Where and how does this interaction occur? We are all familiar after all with the placebo effect, the process by which a person with a medical complaint is unwittingly given a sugar pill or some other inert substance in place of the ‘real’ medicine and yet nevertheless experiences an improvement in their condition. This is a remarkable thing and a dramatic example of the ability off the mind to influence the body. (I should note at this point that the term placebo effect is a little misleading as the placebo in question treatment has no direct effect but rather it is the response of the body in expectation or belief that a particular condition will be alleviated that does the work.)
This is no myth. There are numerous studies out there documenting the ability of a placebo to improve a range of ailments or aid in pain reduction. In one such study in 1996, scientists assembled some students and told them that they were going to take part in research on a new painkiller called “trivaricaine”. It was a brown ointment accompanied with instructions that it be applied directly to the skin. The smelly concoction was actually a mixture of water, iodine, and thyme oil. The trivaricaine was applied to the index finger on one hand with the index finger on the other hand left untreated. Each one was subjected to varying amounts of pain and pressure courtesy of a vice. The students reported significantly less pain in the ‘treated’ digit. This experiment has been replicated numerous times with ailments ranging from IBS to stomach ulcers. Indeed the placebo response has even been shown to aid the former in healing faster than they otherwise would.
The placebo response is a well accepted part of modern medicine, so much so that the NHS website warns that people should guard against it when receiving treatment as it may interfere with the effectiveness of their care i.e. if one believes or expects they are receiving the required treatment there may be an immediate but short term response that masks a worsening condition. The website states that
‘It’s important to be aware of the placebo effect when choosing complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs). That is because if we choose a complementary or alternative treatment that does not work – and only causes a placebo effect – we may miss out on more effective treatments.’
A particular interesting study was conducted by Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School which suggested that some conditions can be calmed by placebo, even when everyone knows that is precisely what is being administered. Kaptchuk tested the effect of placebo versus no treatment in 80 people with irritable bowel syndrome. Twice a day, 37 people swallowed an inert pill that could not be absorbed by the body. The participants were made aware of the content of the pill but were told that it could improve symptoms through the placebo effect. 59% of the group receiving the placebo reported an improvement in their condition compared to 35% who received no treatment at all. Katptchuk reported that, “The placebo was almost twice as effective as the control”, further stating that it ‘would be a great result if it was seen in a normal clinical trial of a drug.” Although this research has to be validated by larger trials, Kaptchuk believes this may be an ethical way of harnessing the placebo effect.
I believe there is a strong interplay between the body and the mind, that our physical health is affected by our emotions and stress. The term psychosomatic is the name given to this interplay where ‘psyche’ means mind and ‘soma’ means body. A psychosomatic disorder is a disease which involves both mind and body.Good emotional health is the ideal state, where healthy ways of coping with life’s stresses and problems have been learnt, where we feel good about ourselves and where our relationships are healthy. However, as we all know, this is often very difficult to attain, at least all of the time. When we have experienced stress and trauma, our bodies may conceal this emotional ill health as it is our body that often carries the illness our mind doesn’t want to acknowledge or is unable to. Connections are not made to the mental and emotional causes of our physical ill health as they are often unconscious. As human beings we have complex and hidden ways of dealing with our feelings. This is where the work of psychotherapy is incredibly beneficial.
The way our mind and body is fundamentally connected is made explicit when we look at our gut. Our gut is often referred to as our second brain. The ENS (Enteric Nervous System) arises from the same tissues as our CNS (Central Nervous System) during fetal development and these two systems are constantly communicating with each other. Our gut is thankfully nowadays seen more than just aiding digestion. It is increasingly recognised that it has a key role in regulating inflammation and immunity. Anxiety and depression for example contribute enormously to gastro conditions such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). All those familiar sayings, ‘gut instinct’ or ‘feeling butterflies in your stomach’ have a basis in reality and illustrate the complex interaction between our thought processes, mood, digestion and our general health.
On a personal level I have seen a number of clients where their feelings and past experiences are clearly manifested in their bodies. For example, they might have a physically painful mouth condition or a tight jaw or an inflamed stomach condition. Over time, however, following treatment and discussion, when they become able to discuss and communicate these painful and deep feelings to their partner or family member, it is incredible to see these physical discomforts disappear. There is no miracle at play here. The way we think can strengthen or weaken the immune system. Having a positive outlook can improve brain function, decrease pain and chronic disease and provide stress relief. In general studies, optimistic or happy individuals have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer.
In a previous blog, I touched briefly on the field of epigenetics, specifically how trauma can change the way genes function. In a similar way researchers at UCLA have shown that individuals with a deep sense of happiness exhibit reduced levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses (they are less likely to get sick on exposure or if they do they exhibit fewer symptoms). Before we all get our happy vibe on however it would seem there is a caveat to this. A hedonistic lifestyle in which one simply pursues pleasurable experiences such as sex, consumption and so on won’t quite cut the mustard. It would seem the more noble types of happiness such as Eudaimonic happiness, a term which originates with Aristotle and refers to the type of happiness that accompanies the pursuit of greater meaning or fulfillment, is better fit for purpose. Indeed the gene expression profiles associated with the hedonists were closer to those seen in people experiencing stress due to adversity. The Eudaimonic profiles in comparison were much more favourable.
And why is this?
Cole, one of the key researchers on the project, argues that an individual who is hedonist is more likely to be ego-centric and therefore more sensitive to situations that don’t go their way. The other however is motivated more by goals that lie outside themselves (the greater community experienced in art, charity, politics and so on) and that small everyday disappointments are less likely to be experienced in the same way. These people are able to deflect stress more effectively.
Clearly genetics has a role to play as does life experiences, but if I could propose two things to get you started on the road to happiness, it would be ‘to be mindful’and to seek ‘authentic connection’. Being in the moment sounds trite, but the simple appearance of that injunction belies its real power. So much of our time is spent on automatic pilot. We have so many conflicting demands on our time that we move from state to state without any sense of being present in our lives. We miss the good things and ignore what our bodies are telling us. We berate ourselves with a barrage of self-criticism, constantly evaluating and revaluating the things from our pasts as we try and manipulate, anticipate and control our futures that we lose ourselves. Becoming aware of ourselves in a way that eschews judgement can have an incredibly positive impact in our lives. This approach is summed up well by Juliet Adams, Founder of Mindfulnet.org.
‘Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives. It will not eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a calmer manner that benefits our heart, head, and body. It helps us recognise and step away from habitual, often unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. It provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, and improve our quality of life.’
The second and equally important thing would be to understand how crucuial authentic connection with others is (as well as with ourselves). This topic needs to be a blog in itself but for now, I think Robert Waldinger sums it up beautifully in his TED talk ‘What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.’
Check it out below