Physician, heal thyself,” is an old proverb that resonates today as we seek context and meaning in healing as newer, more vicious, illnesses invade our bodies.


Is it possible that our minds can heal what ails us? When our bodies break down, it is because our minds fail us
first?
This wondering about how we self-heal our ills is currently called
“mind-body medicine” and it is taking on a renewed fervor in the light
of the synthetic genome, creating new hearts in the laboratory and recent FDA approval that “cloned cows” are fit for human consumption.
The closer we get to touching the reality of miracles, the quicker we seem to want to take cover in the mythical and the moral homily instead of the antiseptic and the medical certainty.

Mind-body medicine
is always living alongside and in the cracks of the dominant approach to disease and healing that we have in our culture. Mainstream medicine says leave your mind out of it, you’ve got a bodily disorder, and we’re going to cure it with some kind of physical intervention. And mainstream medicine is often pretty good at this. So as long as it’s doing its job very well, a lot of us are very happy to embrace it. When do we find ourselves being tempted by or drawn to the other understandings of mind-body medicine? It’s often when mainstream medicine lets us down or can’t provide therapies.

Often around chronic disorders, it doesn’t seem to do justice to all the complex ways in which our diseases are more than just diseases, [in that] they’re part of who we are. And we need to make sense of them as part of who we are. There is a sensibility of discontent that runs through mind-body medicine, a sensibility of being a rebellious alternative, and therefore it attracts patients who are discontented and inclined, perhaps, to feeling rebellious.

Is there ever sensibility in rebellion?
What creates common understanding and core healing: Expectation or scientific proving?
The National Institutes of Health weighs in this way on the mind-body medicine phenomenon:

There is considerable evidence that emotional traits, both negative and positive, influence people’s susceptibility to infection. Following systematic exposure to a respiratory virus in the laboratory, individuals who report higher levels of stress or negative moods have been shown to develop more severe illness than those who report less stress or more positive moods. Recent studies suggest that the tendency to report positive, as opposed to negative, emotions may be associated with greater resistance to objectively verified colds. These laboratory studies are supported by longitudinal studies pointing to associations between psychological or emotional traits and the incidence of respiratory infections.

Are our diseases our own invention?
Do we create illness because we deserve to be sick?
How is it humanly possible for a thought to heal a cell, cure the
common cold, or lift the heart from damage?
Is “mind-body medicine” the last refuge for salvation when mainstream
medicine fails us — or has mind-body medicine really, always, been the
first resort of action?

30 Comments

  1. That’s an excellent visualization method for self-healing, arin. Do you think it a more intensive version would work for something like ADIS or MRSA or cancer?
    The image in today’s article is from the Hubble telescope. What is it? The eye of God? The universe as a giant, self-contained, cell? You tell me! 😉

  2. I wonder if some people have self-willed AIDS and other deadly illnesses out of their bodies without the intervention of traditional medicine?
    It is an interesting image. What you see it as tells us a lot about your view of the universe and your role in it.

  3. Stress, anxiety, and depression have all been highly correlated risk factors for heart attack and cardiovascular disease . As I understand it, stress hormones can cause inflammation of the heart and in turn heart attack. So the mind-body connection has been very well established in this branch of medicine, but not always integrated into practice.
    Positive outlook and strong social supports are protective and preventative in nature for this particular disease. Chronic pain is another one that shows evidence for mind-body connection.
    Unfortunately, I don’t know of any cases in our clinic where AIDS has been “willed” away. This sexually transmitted virus is a “tough little bugger” that replicates quickly and is highly resistant. Patients have to be 97% compliant with medications or the virus mutates, meaning the medication regimen prescribed will no longer work.
    But certainly a positive attitude and social support can help in the management of this disease and many others.
    Who could forget Patch Adams? Actually, I think there is alot of research connected to laughter and healing.

  4. Hiya dmtessi!
    Here’s what the first article in my post says about stress:

    People suffered from exhaustion, they didn’t suffer from stress. And becoming exhausted, what was widely called neurasthenia, was not the same as suffering from a disease of stress. Instead of becoming all wound up and at risk of cracking, people would take to their beds. They wouldn’t be able to bear any bright lights or surprises. They suffered from various kinds of stomach ailments and skin rashes, but it didn’t look like our stress.
    The language of stress and the whole understanding of how you’re supposed to feel when you’re stressed emerge only after the Second World War, out of new ideas coming out of the laboratory of what happens to animals’ bodies when they’re faced with a threat — the “fight-or-flight response,” which was a product of the ’20s and ’30s. It gets married in the context of the Second World War with concerns about the intense challenges that were being faced by the soldiers, particularly bomber pilots. Out of military anxieties and laboratory data and a general sense in the postwar era that the world was becoming very fast-paced and that American men, in particular, were suffering from the capitalist grind, stress was born.

    How do you explain Magic Johnson and the “disappearance” of his HIV infection? It seems to have basically become undetectable in his body. Did science or his mind heal him?

  5. Very interesting, David. Our culture tells us to keep going, going and going . . . Can you imagine if we ever said we needed to take to our beds to calm our nerves like some of the ladies in Jane Austen’s novels? May be something to that strategy!
    As to Magic–I can tell you that his virus may be suppressed by the medication but he still tests positive for the HIV virus and must continue to take medicine. I think that is a huge misconception among the public. That he no longer has HIV. It’s simply not possible, David.
    He will have to take anti-retroviral medication for the rest of his life. I can assure you.
    I can try and locate a recent interview with him that better explains this.

  6. dmtessi —
    Right! The American Way of a Work Ethic is killing us! We get 2 weeks off a year for vacation and if we don’t call the office every day or check our email, we’re slackers.
    In France, 8-12 weeks of mandatory vacation is the norm:
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/06/27/60II/main704571.shtml
    I hope you can find an answer for us concerning Magic Johnson. The current rumor staking the internet is that he’s in remission/cured/clean and off his medication and his blood shows no signs of HIV now.

  7. There is a very nice interview dating back to September 2004, All Things Considered, NPR.
    In the interview Magic makes it clear that he will “always have HIV” and will “always have to take medication.” He states, “We all know I’m not cured. ”
    The interviewer confronts him by saying that AIDS activists and physicians believe he sends a very confusing message out to the public because he is a “healthy positive” and does not accurately represent what it is like to live with HIV/AIDS.
    Magic counterpoints that he is “very real” when speaking with young people. That unprotected sex means putting your life on the line. And just because he does well on medication does not mean others will.
    David, I hope this helps clear up any misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. There is no cure or vaccine available. And while the drugs do help suppress the viral load, prevent complications, and extend life; the infected individual must continue taking anti-retroviral medication for the rest of his life to remain healthy.
    Here’s the link:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=3935839

  8. By the way, I am a clinical social worker and have had the privilege of working in an HIV clinic for the last five years and so I have learned a great deal about this disease through the literature, the doctors I work with, and through my amazing patients.
    My wish is that one day I will be “out of a job” and HIV/AIDS will be a disease of the past.

  9. Thanks for that link, dmtessi.
    I know Magic has done a lot to serve AIDS awareness and the life-sized poster he made when he was first diagnosed with HIV that said something like — “I”m Magic Johnson and I am HIV positive. Are you?” — was a big reason those in the urban core lined up to get tested. It was a direct, and verifiable, cause and effect that stunned the public health community.

  10. I’m with you on the eradication of AIDS, dmtessi. I know a lot of young kids who are still riding bareback and trying to do the math: “I ride bare now, I get infected, it’ll stew in me for 11 years before I’m full-blown and then there’ll be a cure.” It’s sad. Even sadder still are those bug chasers who actively seek the HIV infected so they can get infected so they can “feel life in their own death.”
    Here’s one of my articles on AIDS:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2006/08/14/to-live-is-to-remember-a-brief-history-of-aids/

  11. That may be some of the best piece of writing I’ve read of yours, David!
    I’m afraid I wasn’t involved at all in the early days of AIDS. I lived in New York at the time but was so self-absorbed in my own life and concerns. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. How wrong I was!
    In 1993, I moved to North Carolina and ironically found the conservative South a most liberating place; the next ten years a time of profound spiritual and intellectual growth .
    I find it most impressive that you reached out to that man in the early days of the disease when so little was known. I cannot say I would have done the same at the time . And who can fault you about the drop of sweat . . .

  12. I am not a believer in “alternative” medicines. They are alternative for a reason – they are unproven, and most of them have been around for long enough to gather significant evidence in their favour – if there was any.
    That being said I do think there is a positive influence to be had on the body by positive thinking. If you believe you’re going to get better there is a better chance that it will happen.
    I’m not sure what the reason is but I believe we will find there is a medical reason for it in the end.
    “Is there ever sensibility in rebellion?”
    No!!
    But true believers have the benefit of _knowing_ that their god(s) will help them out, thus creating the effect above. So religion could help in this way, but there is no need for it and the same effect can be achieved by other means.
    Cheers
    Mike

  13. dmtessi —
    Your reflection in finding yourself in the South sounds fascinating!
    Thanks for the good words about the article.
    It is astonishing that we live in the time of an Active Plague — but so few of us lift our eyes enough to even acknowledge its devastation across the sciences, the arts, and the human sciences.

  14. There is an interesting issue in all of this.
    At what point does “complementary” or “alternative” medicine cease to be merely ineffective and start to be plain evil – offering false hope to terminally ill people?
    2 completely different examples:
    1. My girlfriend’s uncle is in a terminal phase of bladder cancer. Should we offer him any false hope with homeopathic treatments and mistletoe extract? (Actually, this is a non-issue as he’s a non-believer in this area, but it illustrates the point).
    2. I have recently been diagnosed with gallstones and the doctor’s won’t even consider any treatment other than removal of the gallbladder. I feel I would try anything, even if there is only a tiny percentage chance of it working, to avoid that.
    The difference, of course, is that in my case I have a fallback position in conventional medicine so it doesn’t matter if nothing else works.

  15. urbanspaceman —
    I think the idea of alternate medicine is to give a non-medical way of dealing with some illnesses.
    Dr. Ben Kligler is a bright light in the medical world for his work on using different ways of healing the sick:
    http://www.healthandhealingny.org/center/staff_kligler.asp
    Instead of giving a patient a pill to lower cholesterol or control blood pressure or Diabetes — he prefers — when those levels are not critical, to work with the patient to use meditation to lower blood pressure, diet changes to lower cholesterol and exercise to contain radical blood sugars…
    Traditional medicine scoffs at that kind of thinking in the medical community because it doesn’t prescribe a pill or demand an injection.
    MDs like Kligler prefer to use the mind and body together to heal the body when possible and then turn to “traditional” medicine later for harsher intervention when necessary.
    Something like a hernia or gallstones — that requires a physical body invasion to fix — and that sort of surgery is always beyond the realm of alternate medicine… but the healing methods afterward can include a lot of complementary memes…

  16. I think there is an overlap here …
    I would not consider diet management to be “alternative” medicine. Changes in diet have proven, measurable effects.
    Of course there are some “nutritionists” in this area that probably do more harm than good.
    Meditation is probably a better example, although I think it is becoming more mainstream these days. I was listening to a good podcast from Australia ABC’s ‘All in the mind’ show the other week on this subject, and how it’s so hard to run clinical trials to test the benfits of meditation.
    To me it seems common sense that slowing down a little and trying to regain focus is a good way to manage stress, and therefore blood pressure.
    For alternative treatments I’m thinking more of crystal healing, aromatherapy, homeopathy and the like. I think the practitioners in these areas are simply con men, taking advantage of the gullible during difficult times.
    But I do agree that “traditional” medicine can be far too driven by big pharma, and whether or not they can prescribe something that will generate a profit somewhere, for somebody.

  17. urbanspaceman–
    Diet management is part of the formal alternative medicine movement. “You are what you eat” yet many people fill their lives with junk food.
    http://www.google.com/search?q=alternative+medicine+diet
    I think it’s pretty well established in the medical community that meditation lowers blood pressure in measurable, scientific ways:
    http://www.dukemednews.org/av/medminute.php?id=6332
    The sort of alternative/complementary healing I’m discussing is that which is linked with major medical programs. That doesn’t include aroma therapy or crystals. It does include yoga and other exercise routines. Johns Hopkins is doing some really interesting stuff:
    http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/CAM

  18. I believe that the mind, body and spirit ALL need to be in balance, otherwise there will be disease or dis-ease. And yes, a spiritual or mental imbalance can very much cause a physical ailment and vice versa. I also don’t think it’s an argument of western vs eastern or complimentary vs alternative. It’s a truthful and honest look at what each are best at and using whatever is appropriate for the ailment. I think traditional western medicine is best at emergency care and surgery, whilst it sucks at preventative care. Eastern (Acupuncture, Yoga etc) is best for preventative and chronic care and some of the complimentary or alternative medicines (for eg. meditation) are very effective for treating the spiritual ailments. I’m a holistic kind of gal 🙂
    And for all the doubting Thomas’ out there, I practice Reiki (a Japanese Energy Modality). It has been very effective for me personally on all levels; spiritual, emotional and physical. I have many anecdotal stories of its effectiveness as a supportive strategy, in conjunction with western medicine, for my friends and family. Even on a basketball injury from my very skeptical father-in-law (his expression when he realized it was actually helping him was most comical to see)!
    And to the person who said:

    They are alternative for a reason – they are unproven, and most of them have been around for long enough to gather significant evidence in their favour – if there was any.

    That is simply an untrue statement. Granted they are “unproven” in the western traditions, but in the (often misunderstood) other cultures from whence these “alternative” originate, like India, Asia and ancient Tribal Peoples, they are completely proven and time tried and tested. Just because the alternatives are not proven to your western standards, doesn’t make them unproven. It is more likely that the west does not yet have adequate testing methods to prove out such concepts as hands on healing (eg. Reiki). It is my belief that there is no woo-woo in energy modalities (like Reiki) and one day we will be able to scientifically measure and understand the energy phenomenon.
    Additionally, the following quote from an earlier comment is very interesting to me:

    At what point does “complementary” or “alternative” medicine cease to be merely ineffective and start to be plain evil – offering false hope to terminally ill people?

    You want to speak about ‘evil’? I do not believe that complementary or alternative medicine has ever perpetuated the evils that western medicine has. The experimentation that goes on…without people realizing what they’re in for…the pharma drama…the drug testing…and the needless DEATHS…and of course, the false hope. Western medicine will always be my absolute last resort.

  19. natzgal is back! 😀
    Now, in reading your delightful blog I see you were terribly ill with the flu. Was that illness your fault? What was out of whack in your world that provided the virus an opportunity to fell you so hard?
    Are we to blame for the illnesses that strike us or not?
    Is it possible to break the genetic code that presses us to cancer or Alzheimer’s? Can Reiki heal Down Syndrome?
    I am certainly with you on connecting all the dots of the body and mind and spirit — and the problem with Western medicine is, indeed, that we do not honor whole body healing.
    We focus, instead, on chemistry and the provable instead of the maybe of inspiration based in successful previous healings.
    Oh, and we don’t quote Wikipedia as a scholarly source here any longer. 😀
    Here’s why:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/?s=sinbad

  20. Yes, I am back 🙂 I wasn’t gone, just trying to juggle my responsibilities. Your blogs, my dear Mr Boles take up a lot of my time. Your writing is so fascinating, it just sucks me right in and hours go by.
    Anyway, thanks for the Wikipedia pointer. The funny thing was, I hesititated even using that link because last time I looked, the Reiki page was merely a disparaging, very negatively biased look at Reiki. But checking it yesterday, it seemed more objective. I guess that highlights exactly though the problem with Wikipedia. One day it’s bad, the next good, and by the time you click on the link, it’s bad again.
    Back to Reiki….yes, the flu grabbed me and shook me up. And yes, it was my fault. There is lots wrong in my world which causes me to be unbalanced and thus susceptible to nasty bugs. Quite frankly, I am surprised I am not sick more often. I credit my (almost daily) self-Reiki with keeping me going as long as I have. Part of my problem is believing I have to do everything all myself, but I’m beginning to accept that I can’t and need assistance. By sheer coincidence, I have an appointment with a MD who specializes in natural and alternative medicine tomorrow morning. Should be interesting.
    And no, I personally don’t think Reiki can cure disease per se and especially not Downs and other genetic disorders, but you never know, almost anything could be possible ;-). But I do think it an awesome compliment to symptomatic care…medications seem to work more efficiently and often doses are lowered…patients cope with psychological aspects a whole lot better…pain can be reduced…the list goes on.

  21. natzgal!
    Oh, you’re so sweet! You make me want to write more and more and more! 😀
    I LOVE IT that you said your illness was your fault! How refreshing! You could’ve blamed the weather, or a sick kid up the street or the television that kept you from sleeping… but you didn’t! You are responsible for your own world and your health therein and that, to me anyway, immediately heals you! No excuses. No wondering. Just… “I know better.”
    So much illness is due to personal undue diligence and the proof of that is how fresh fruits and vegetables in a diet have now become the center force of “alternative” medicine! How silly and sad!
    It’s so good to see an MD embracing the non-prescription route. It’s harder. It takes more time. Your MD actually has to listen and interact with you… let us know how it goes!
    We hate Wikipedia just for the reason you describe: It is unpredictable and that, when you’re fact-seeking, should never be the case in any circumstance.
    I’m with you on Reiki and I’m so glad it helps focus you, heal you, and make you right inside.