Are some physical ailments “all in our heads?” The mind is a powerful organ, capable of creating reality for us. In the world of health, the mind can be a powerful healing tool, or a powerful hindrance to true cure.
As a Buddhist tenet suggests, all suffering is present in the mind: pain, itching and discomfort especially. The mind, when stressed, has the ability to produce a number of physical symptoms, pain being one of them, but also skin ailments, digestive concerns, weight gain, hypertension and virtually any other complaint take up significant residence in the mind. Is your eczema expressing an anger that you’ve been holding in? Is your inability to lose weight a need to shield yourself from the world? Our homeopathy professor holds that the our symptoms are outer expressions of an inner, emotional state and, in controlling our minds and dealing with repressed emotions, we can resolve the physical as well.
In 1955, the doctor Henry K. Beecher named this tendency of the mind the “Placebo Effect.” According to Beecher, 35% of patients got better when given a sugar pill, indicating that, when the mind believed it was being treated, it spontaneously resolved symptoms based solely on its own expectations. This effect was so pronounced that, to this day, clinical trials are all but tossed out if they are not controlled for the placebo effect by giving one group a sugar pill.
It’s unfortunate that in modern healthcare this healing power of the mind is dismissed as “placebo” and not exploited further. After all, harnessing the power of the mind is cost-effective and side effect-free. There are many ways to enhance the Placebo, or as some of my supervisors like to term it, the “Meaning Response,” such as good patient rapport, a healing intention and therapeutic setting. However, when we talk about placebo, we’re really just talking about tapping into the mind-body connection, harnessing the mind’s powerful ability to influence the physical body. Giving patients a sugar pill is only one part of it.
Seeing patients at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic made it clear to me how much of an obstacle to cure mindset can be. Often times patients’ core beliefs prevent them from getting better, especially if mental and emotional issues are at the root of their physical concerns. In many cases there is an ingrained belief of benefit to being unwell, or an unconscious fear of getting better. I find that identifying this fear helps untangle some of the mental obstacles to cure and helps patients approach healing with a renewed enlightenment.
Tapping into these unconscious beliefs is difficult, however. If approached from the wrong angle, the topic can seem insulting or belittling from the patients’ perspective. There are books such as “Messages from the Body” or Louise Hay’s “Heal Your Life”, that attribute emotional afflictions to physical ones in a dictionary-like layout, however the emotions behind a complaint are individualized and therefore such mind-body exercises are best explored on an individual level.
In the book Fat is a Feminist Issue, a comprehensive self-help book for compulsive eating and negative body image, there is a useful visualization that helps individuals access the feelings and beliefs that are preventing them from getting well. This book focusses on disordered eating and weight loss, however I’ve used the same visualization for a variety of complaints, including depression, circulatory problems, chronic infections and skin issues. The visualization consists of asking the individual to observe themselves as they are and then imagine that their condition is getting worse, then better. The visual dramatization often allows the individual to access the deep-held feelings, both positive and negative, that accompany both the worsening of and the alleviation of their complaint.
To truly access the deeper-held feelings, this meditation should be performed repeatedly. Those who attempt the visualization commonly realize:
1) There are positive aspects to having the condition: the condition protects them in some way, the condition benefits them in some way.
2) There are negative aspects to recovering: There is something threatening about the person they could become or the life they could lead without being burdened by the condition. There is something frightening about moving forward.
For stubborn conditions that do not respond to treatment, or conditions that commonly relapse, it becomes clear that, unless the mental-emotional reasons for having the condition or avoiding remission are addressed, cure is impossible.
This visualization is best done lying down and relaxed. It can be done with a trusted healthcare practitioner or alone as a meditation exercise. The party scene can be substituted for another scene that may be more relevant for you and words pertaining to your specific condition can be substituted as well. The dots (…) indicate a pause in the narrative.
“Fat/Thin Fantasy” from Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach
I’d like you to close your eyes, get as comfortable as you can, follow your breathing, in and out, in and out, and relax…
I’d like you to imagine that you are at a party…. This can be either a real party or an imaginary one… It might be a dancing party, a talking party, a small intimate party… Set the scene and take notice of your thoughts…. feelings… and body sensations… What are you wearing?… How do you feel in those clothes?…. What is your posture like?… Try and feel yourself in your body…. Now notice your behaviour at this party…. Are you an observer?… Are you actively mixing with other people?…. do you feel withdrawn?….
As you observe yourself at this party, I’d like you to imagine that (your condition is worsening)… How do you feel?… Try to be aware of your feelings…. and thoughts….observe any negative feelings about (having your condition worsened)… observe any positive feelings about (feeling this way)… what are you wearing?…. How is your body positioned?…. What is going on at the party and how are you interacting with the other people there?…. Now, imagine that (your condition) is communicating with the people at the party…. What is it saying to others?… is there a way in which it helps you to (have this condition) in this situation?… Does (having the condition) allow you to do or say certain things or act in particular ways?…
Now imagine that (your condition) is slowly vanishing, fading away and, in this visualization, you are completely healthy…. can you see yourself?…. can you feel your body (without the condition)?… notice what you are wearing…. what do your clothes say about you?… notice your body position…. you posture…. what do you see from the perspective of being completely healthy?… do you view the party, other people, with different eyes?… how do the people at the party view you?…. How do you feel?…. pay attention to any feelings that arise… positive feelings…. and negative feelings… are you sure of yourself?…. do you feel vulnerable?… are you you?…How are you getting on with the others at the party?… Are there differences in the way that you interact with others?…. Is there anything scary of unpleasant about (having this condition)?…
Now I’d like to you to imagine that you are back to the body you have now…. does the atmosphere change?… can you contact any feelings of relief about being back in your present body?… Allow yourself time to experience whatever feelings are coming up… notice your responses to other people… how you feel about yourself… watch these feelings without judgement, as an observer….
Now, look back over this entire visualization exercise…. see what new information came up for you about yourself… When you are ready, come back into the room and open your eyes…
Orbach, Susie (1978). Fat is a Feminist Issue. Galahad Books: New York, NY.