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“The mind and body are not separate units, but one integrated system. How we act and what we think, eat, and feel are all related to our health. Physicians should be capable of teaching this behavior to patients.”
~ Bernie Siegel
Myth #1: It's All In Your Head
How many of you have heard those words uttered by a doctor who couldn't diagnose you, or a loved one who didn't understand why you weren't getting better? It's one of the worst things someone can say to you, because it combines dismissal and disbelief with blame, shame, and judgment. The message is clear: You are the cause of your problems, so you deserve no help and no sympathy. Just stop being so negative (or take an anti-depressant), and your physical health problems will go away. If someone has said this to you, let me reassure you. It's not all in your head – that's not how the mind-body connection works.
Myth #2: It Doesn't Exist
When someone dismisses your symptoms as “all in your head”, it's natural to become defensive about the idea of a mind-body connection at all. If it exists, does that mean they were right all along? (The short answer is no.) Therefore, some people will insist that their symptoms are all in their body, that their mind isn't part of the equation at all. That's not true, either. We are holistic human beings with bodies that contain more than just our blood, hormones, organs, and immune system. Our bodies also contain our thoughts and emotions, and it's all interacting all the time – nothing happens in isolation. We've all experienced this. When you get angry, does your face flush, or your hands shake, or your heart start to pound? When you're nervous, do your palms sweat, or your knees go weak, or your stomach flutter with “butterflies”? These are immediate physiological responses to emotions, but there are also cumulative responses to chronic stress and unconscious tension.
Research shows that stress not only increases inflammation, but also increases the likelihood of developing autoimmune disease, and if you have autoimmune disease, it increases flare activity. This will come as no surprise to many of you. When I ask my readers to name their biggest flare triggers, stress always tops the list. This doesn't mean that stress is the sole cause of autoimmune disease (see myth #1 above). But knowledge is power. While we can't always remove the stressor, there are many mind-body practices to help us manage stress better, and therefore manage our health better.
Myth #3: It Can Cure Everything
News headlines (and book and movie titles) like to simplify and exaggerate. They often take the scientific reality of the mind-body connection and claim that we can use that to cure all disease. This isn't true either, and it's an exaggeration that can harm instead of help. It sets people up for failure with the expectation that they should be able to cure the incurable. Some people then refuse other potentially effective treatments for their illness, believing that they’re unnecessary. It also diminishes respect for the true mind-body connection, by putting it in the realm of magic and fiction.
The truth is, the mind-body connection works best when both the mind and body are supported. That's because it works both ways – what we do to support our bodies can have a beneficial effect on mental health, and what we do to support our minds can improve physical symptoms as well. It may not be a cure, but isn't that magical enough?
10 Ways To Tap Into the Mind-Body Connection
The beautiful thing is that there isn't just one “right” way to harness the anti-inflammatory power of the mind. There are many avenues to explore. Here are 10 to get you started. Experiment to find the ones that work best for you:
- Emotional Freedom Technique
- Gratitude Practice
- Trauma Therapy
- Mind-Body Nutrition
- The Art of Stress Management
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