We all know that emotional stress can cause physiological responses in the body via the nervous and hormonal systems, illustrating the mind-body connection. These physical responses kick off a cascade of reactions in the body that often lead to disease ranging from things like mild digestive issues like an upset stomach to full-blown autoimmune issues or cancer. There have been numerous studies showing that stress and a negative mental state leads to illness in the body.
Dis-ease leads to disease.
There was a period in my life when I was really struggling with multiple sclerosis, and I was giving myself daily shots. Every day I was telling myself: “I’m sick, I’m sick, I’m sick.” After I finally got well, I didn’t often talk about multiple sclerosis. But when I went on the History Channel’s show Alone, the producers keyed in on my health journey and the story came out that I have MS. Before that, I rarely talked about it. It wasn’t a part of my daily identity. I had reconnected to myself to think of myself as healthy in order to combat the psychology of illness and have a positive mind-body connection. Once the story of my illness became such a strong focus for people watching me on the show, I realized that my journey of wellness needed to be shared.
I believe that an illness can so easily become such a part of your identity that you forget who you are. There is a definite psychology to being unwell. It’s common knowledge that illness is worsened by stress. How many times does someone get a diagnosis and all of a sudden they are even sicker? This happened to me first-hand.
When people are told they’re sick, they get sicker. It’s the mind, and it’s not controllable at that moment. It isn’t hypochondria. It’s real. But…if we can be aware and say to ourselves: “I received this diagnosis and it will affect my mental state. I’m probably going to feel worse at first because right now I’m thinking of myself as sick. Let’s acknowledge all of that and then move forward using some tools like gratitude, mindfulness, finding a sit spot, etc.” Those words can help with illness directly by changing your mindset.
Focusing attention on the present moment and on mindfulness have both long- and short-term effects and benefits for the brain. Short term it will decrease our stress by decreasing our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Long term this practice can actually alter neural pathways.
Altering your neural pathways for health
Until recently it was believed that the human brain, which is about a hundred billion neural cells, could not generate new ones. The old model assumes we were born with a finite number of brain cells. When a brain cell died, no new cell grew in its place. But it’s been proven that certain areas of the brain can generate new cells – neurogenesis – as well as create new neural pathways.
Neural pathways are stored in the memory. It’s like riding a bike again after twenty years; you remember how to ride a bike because that pathway is there. We can establish new pathways in our brain.
Neural plasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself constantly by creating new neural pathways and losing those that are no longer used. There are a lot of ways to do this: visualization, meditations, gratitude, connection. For the brain to rewire itself, it requires a sustained practice of a new behavior that will sufficiently challenge the brain to think in a new way. Pressing the pause button on our hectic daily lives and helping simplify our brain’s work can have a surprising impact on its ability to grow and change.
Similarly, the brain can actually learn to remember pain, the same way it remembers riding a bike. There are studies that have shown people who’ve experienced whiplash in a car accident. They’re expected to feel better about four to six weeks after the accident, but many people are still feeling high levels of pain long after that time has passed. They’re not faking it, but they’re also not actually in pain anymore. What has happened is that the pain pathway their brain created while living in pain for those four to six weeks is telling them that they’re in pain. They’ve now got a neural pathway that’s telling them they are in pain, even when the pain is gone. There are ways to change that neural pathway, to alter it for total healing.
So how can we change those neural pathways? It’s these three main keys to holistic health that I keep referring to: connection to self, connection to others, and connection to nature.
The same mechanism in the brain that learns to remember pain can be trained to let go of pain and even to control and overcome it in the moment through various techniques. By using tools like meditation, visualization, and positive thinking many people are able to use their minds to control and manage their pain. This article from Harvard Medical School’s Health Publishing site explains that using deep breathing, meditation with guided imagery, mindfulness, and yoga or tai chi can help control pain. I’ll go into a few mental pain control techniques you can try yourself:
Meditation: A study conducted in 2011 found that mindful meditation helped reduce pain intensity from 11% to 70% in people who only had 80 minutes of instruction on how to meditate. The implication here is that with more exposure to meditation techniques, the result in pain management could be considerably higher.
Breathing: For some people, breathing exercises can help alleviate pain. This article explains how use a technique called ‘Box Breathing’ to manage stress, and relatively, pain. The piece further explains that the Mayo Clinic found evidence “intentional deep breathing can actually calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system, a system which regulates involuntary body functions like temperature and can lower blood pressure and provide an almost-immediate sense of calm.” The Journal of Pain (the official journal of the American Pain Society) has published similar studies.
Sensory Splitting: This mental pain management technique has the person focus on the specific and separate painful sensations and feelings as separate parts of the pain experience by putting focus on the parts of the pain and not the whole.
Distraction: Another study found that when subjects were given a specific task to focus on they felt less pain while concentrating on the task at hand. Researchers used brain scans to determine that the distraction actually helped block pain messages from being sent to the brain while also triggering the production of natural opioids in the body.
FOLLOW THIS BLOG SERIES TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF HOLISTIC HEALTH.
In the next article, we’ll explore the importance of fostering a connection to self and the practices I employ to create and nurture my own connection to self.
To watch the video of this talk, visit my YouTube channel.