We don’t often think of our mind as the cause of good health or illness, but our mind has as much, if not more, influence over our health than diet, exercise, or our genes. This idea that the mind directly affects what happens in the body has been known for over 70 years, but only relatively recently have main-stream physicians been suggesting to patients that they take-up mind-calming techniques such as meditation and mindfulness. These suggestions are beginning to replace prescriptions for tranquillizers, as the evidence shows that mindfulness teaches people to respond to situations, rather than react to them.
In the 1950’s Dr. Hans Selye was studying stress and its effects on health. Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer is the title of a seminal book, based on his work, and published in 1977, by Dr. Kenneth Pelletier, a US physician and academic. Dr. Pelletier is currently Professor of Medicine and Professor of Public Health at both the University of Arizona School of Medicine and the University of California School Of Medicine. Since Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer was published, he has written nine more books, either alone or with others, on the effects of stress on health and how to prevent or heal physical and psychological conditions.
Over the years the name for the kind of Medicine that he practices has changed from Psychosomatic Medicine to Mind-Body Medicine. These names both refer to a multidisciplinary branch of medicine dedicated to the study and clinical practice of medicine in relation to the effect that the mind has on the body with respect to health and illness. The name psychsomatic was changed to mind-body because many people thought that psychosomatic referred to a psychological illness. For people who don’t speak Latin (and most don’t), mind-body is a more acceptable term than psychosomatic, even though both mean the same thing.
It has been recognized since the early-1940’s that physiological stress is the root cause of many, if not all illnesses, but while many physicians are now more aware that stress can cause chronic disease, many are not aware of the mechanisms by which this happens. Consequently, they do not adequately inform their patients of the steps they should take to prevent or heal disease.
Most of us know what it is to feel stressed, but physiological stress is more than feeling stressed and is often present without our being aware of it. Stress is actually a physiological condition that arises in the brain and then causes changes in the body. This process is known as the fight-or-flight response. It is an automatic, unconscious response to perceived danger.
The fight-or-flight response arises from the oldest areas in the brain, the brainstem and the limbic system. These areas are unconscious and not normally under the control of the cortex, the conscious thinking part of the brain. The fight-and-flight system stimulates an immediate physical protective-response to either fight or run away, often before the cortex is even aware of the danger. Bodily changes include a rise in blood pressure, a rise in blood-sugar to provide energy for action, blood being shunted from the core of the body and away from the gut to the arms and legs to provide oxygen for fleeing or fighting, and suppression of the immune system. Essentially the body turns off any processes that are not required to fight the external danger (e.g. digestion and fighting internal dangers such as infections and diseases) in order to free-up extra energy for processes that enable fight or flight.
Once the external danger has passed, the stress response turns off and the body returns to normal. At least that is what is supposed to happen, but modern day stressors may not be as obvious as sabre-tooth tigers, and often do not just disappear, so the body may remain on high-alert. Pelltier gives an example of a man attending an office party, talking to a boss he dislikes and does not trust. The physiological response would be as if he were in the presence of an enemy, but he cannot show fear or run away, and may not even recognize subtle bodily responses as arising from the stress response. Such responses may include an upset stomach. headache, or muscle tension.
When stress responses are not recognized as arising from stress, they are often seen as signs of illness, and so cause more stress which takes the body out of equilibrium. They also can lead to to unnecessaty medical interventions, or the frequent use of over-the-counter medications, which with long-term use may lead to medical problems.
Both the effects of long-term stress on the body, and the inability to recognize bodily responses to stress as being the result of stress will, over the long-term, result in illness. These immediate and long-term effects of unacknowledged stress will be continued in a future post.