Then there's the young lady who was always thinking so much that she was perpetually ahead of herself. And she wondered why she was getting headaches.
Sound far-fetched? Well, maybe not. We know it's not unusual for a lot of heartache to precede a heart attack. That could be from the increased levels of stress hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine that are circulating in the blood stream. So could you somehow be influencing your body with subliminal messages?
Throughout history, emotions have been linked with disease. But as conventional medicine became advanced, it became governed by science. Based on Cartesian logic, it necessitated a split between mind and body. So you went to the doctor for physical problems, or the psychiatrist or psychologist for emotional ones.
Never mind spiritual issues. They were in the domain of whatever religion you practiced. Although this was helpful when you were sick or dying, spiritual issues were not to be confused with your health. Right? Well, perhaps not.
The Mind-Body Connection
Modern science has begun to look at how emotions affect our health.
A prominent researcher in this area is Candace Pert, the discoverer of the morphine receptor in the brain. Pert proved that chemicals that influence our emotions also affect our health. For instance, serotonin, a chemical which improves mood, also has receptors on white blood cells. So there is a good scientific reason why depression and a lowered immune system go hand in hand.
Serotonin is produced abundantly in the gut. So if your gut is not functioning well, could you get depressed? Does the body influence the mind, or vice-versa?
Actually, it's a two-way flow. Yogis have known for centuries that altering the way you breathe can affect the way you feel, as well as having an effect on your autonomic nervous system. So do mothers in labor they naturally concentrate on their breath. All for good reason. Changing the way you breathe causes a rise of endorphins (morphinelike substances) in the cerebro-spinal fluid. Among other things, this helps to lower pain.
Pert calls this occurrence the "dismantling of the psycho-somatic network," describing a new scientific understanding of the way the mind and body influence each other. This idea is not new, but its validation by science is. As a result, the practice of working with the mind and the body together has renewed legitimacy.
All of this is fascinating to us because this is what many alternative therapies espouse to do work cohesively with the mind and body. Ancient cultures knew this all along. Chinese traditional systems do not differentiate between the two; they are considered to be one.
The Role of Feelings and Spirituality
So if we can influence our mood, we might somehow be able to affect how our body functions. It's not so simple as "Think right and all will be well." Somehow we have to learn to change the way we feel. It might be as simple as learning to relish the smell of a flower or the laughter of a child. At times, it might be more complicated, requiring psychological techniques or insight. Or it might involve something considered esoteric, like learning to pay attention and listen to our dreams.
What then of spirituality? It should make us feel better. Actually, studies have shown that people who attend church regularly have better hospital outcomes than those who don't. Another study showed that patients in intensive care who were prayed for did better than those who weren't. (This isn't always the case. Another study showed that alcoholics who were prayed for fared no better than those who were not. Perhaps there's a message there!)
We're living in a time when the paths of body, mind and spirit are once again converging. This is one of the main strengths of integrative medicine.
Integrative medicine combines the ancient knowledge of alternative therapies with the technology of modern science. It marries the old with the new, looking at outcomes rather than judging theories. It's all about maintaining what works, and rejecting what doesn't.