Mind-Body Medicine: 5 Surprising Ways Psychology Can Improve Your Physical Health
On some level, most people recognize that psychological factors affect physical health. People basically seem to know, for example, that a stressful career or a ‘Type A’ personality might give them a heart attack, or that an abrasive colleague can give them a headache.
What most people aren’t fully aware of is the profound interconnection between the mind and the body. The past twenty or thirty years have seen an explosion of research on the ways that the mind and the body relate to each other. The further the research goes, in fact, the less it looks like there is a mind apart from the body, or a body apart from the mind. Everything that happens to your body has an effect on your thoughts and feelings, and every emotional or intellectual event has effects on your body.
The upshot of this is that you can improve your physical well-being through purely psychological means—just by talking to someone, or by thinking a certain way. There are purely psychological ways to:
Prolong your life
Psychotherapy doesn’t just improve your emotional health and well-being, it actually tends to improve your physical health as well. A particularly dramatic example of this is the effect of psychotherapy on the terminally ill.
At least six good studies so far have examined the potential benefits of psychotherapy for terminal cancer patients by randomly assigning some of these patients to participate in individual or group psychotherapy. We’re not talking about any specific, cancer-focused therapy or mind-body voodoo, just good old regular psychotherapy. So these patients, who had been told they were definitely going to die talked about their feelings, and their backgrounds, and what they were going through and how it related to their past experiences, and so on.
And you know what? These patients ended up living twice as long as their counterparts in the control group. The control group received the exact same medical care, administered by the same staff, in the same setting. But they only lived an average of about 9 months, versus a full year and a half for the psychotherapy group. Imagine if you could double your lifespan just by talking to someone.
Reduce your symptoms
While those kind of results definitely seem pretty fantastic, I can assure you that psychotherapy can be extremely effective for a wide range of physical illness. A great example is irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Psychotherapy is not only an effective treatment for IBS, it is now the preferred treatment for IBS. Psychotherapy is better at calming down an irritable bowel than any medication or combination of medications that have yet been tested.
The patients I saw at the Diamond Headache Clinic suffered from chronic headache pain. Naturally, they tended to have a lot of resistance to the idea of going to psychotherapy, oftentimes because their medical doctors have been telling them the pain is “all in their head” when in fact they feel actual physical pain right there inside of their actual bodies. “I’m not crazy,” they object, “I just have headaches.” And they do. But the fact remains that the patients who seek out and regularly attend psychotherapy tend to improve more than the patients that don’t.
Prevent and control pain
Some of the more targeted psychotherapeutic techniques can have particularly amazing results. Clinical hypnosis, for example, involves nothing more than talking to someone in order to help them achieve a state of extremely focused relaxation. And yet, people who cannot tolerate anesthetic drugs can often achieve the same effect through hypnosis.
When I say the same effect, I actually mean a better effect. Patients who undergo surgery using hypnosis instead of anesthetic drugs not only experience no pain, they actually usually enjoy the experience very much. There are also a number of side benefits: these patients tend to bleed less during the surgery, resulting in faster surgery times and lower cost; they tend to require much less pain medication after the surgery; they tend to experience far less physical and emotional discomfort overall; they also tend to heal up much faster, and much nicer.
Convince your body to cooperate
When I talk about improved quality of healing, I’m especially thinking about all the great research that’s been done on spinal surgery. Spinal surgery is one of the most delicate and difficult surgeries to perform, because the tissue itself is so complex, unique, and fragile. But you can be an absolute artist of a spinal surgeon, and perform the surgery completely flawlessly, and close everything up so that it looks beautiful and perfect. And in a couple months, the corrected area might very well just heal up into a gnarled mess of scar tissue. Or, it could still look great.
It turns out there are measurable psychological factors involved in this healing process. By administering a quick psychological test before the surgery, we can actually predict how well your surgery is going to heal. By using psychological techniques to modify the factors that interfere with proper healing, we can actually improve the healing of surgical wounds.
Make right what once went wrong
I saw a man with an alcohol burn over 90% of his face. He arrived at the ER with his whole face a big red swollen mess. He was fortunate enough to find himself at a hospital where someone trained in clinical hypnosis was on staff. This doctor placed the man into a nice hypnotic trance, and suggested that his pain and swelling would both begin to reduce and simply go away.
Within a half hour, this guy was voluntarily turning down pain medications. He simply wasn’t in pain. Not only that, but the inflammation response in his skin actually turned off. His face stopped swelling and began returning to its normal size. The damaged layers of skin then began to reattach to the rest of his face, and the affected cells slowly began to be cleared out.
Within two weeks, you couldn’t even tell that this guy had ever been burned. There was one tiny red patch above his eye; that was all that was left. Ordinarily, this type of injury would have resulted in severe and prolonged pain, extensive scarring, and risk of infection that would lead to extremely painful cleaning procedures.
As crazy as it all sounds—and it does sounds crazy—just having someone talk to you in the right way at the right time can do all of these incredible things. Psychological interventions can alter the course of a disease, regulate digestive and immune functioning, alleviate existing pain, prevent new pain, control bleeding, improve healing times, and turn off the types of inflammation responses that happen when you’re burned or have an allergic reaction. In many situations, seeking help from a psychologist could be the best health decision you could make.