Two important studies for mind-body dynamics have been recently published showing more evidence for the crucial role of the mind in the healing process.While it might be tempting to think that healing is of a purely physical nature, evidence is surfacing to show us just how integral the mind really is in the process. These current studies just deepen the possibility that the mental is as important as physical when it comes to the body’s recovery, restoration and repair.
The most interesting aspect of these findings, however, are being largely ignored by the researchers, I believe. While I agree with the conclusions on both studies, I think that they are merely touching the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps they feel the necessity to remain conservative in their analysis, so as not to push any paradigmatic parameters, but I think their results reveal something even bigger—and a massive opening for further research. Check it:
The first study, published in the December 2012 issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science, looked at people who had undergone surgery for the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a common and serious knee injury. Participants were split into two groups—one receiving rehab only and one receiving rehab plus guided imagery (a form of visualization). Both groups completed six months of rehab. The guided imagery was carried out with the help of a therapist, and included mentally rehearsing physical therapy exercises, as well as visualizing the physiological healing process—for example, scar tissue breaking up and gentle stretching. The group practicing the guided imagery showed greater improvement in knee stability and decreased levels of stress hormones. Wow!
The second study, conducted at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and published in the February 2012 issue of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, looked at a group of patients scheduled to undergo gallbladder removal. Again the patients were split into two groups—one receiving standard care only, and the other receiving standard care plus relaxation and guided imagery techniques for three days prior and seven days after surgery.
“We used a relaxation intervention to try to reduce stress and therefore get a better inflammatory response to surgery and improve healing.” ~ Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine, University of Auckland, in New Zealand
The first three days of guided imagery were focused on being relaxed and ready for the surgery, while the seven days following the procedure were focused on the body’s healing process (the group visualized oxygen and nutrients travelling to the wound site and helping the body knit the skin back together, easing discomfort, and providing “soothing relief.”) The group practicing the imaging techniques reported a larger reduction in stress than the control group, while their wound showed signs of greater collagen deposition and faster healing. Booyah!
But here is where I feel that both sets of authors might be practicing a bit of conservative caution. They believe that their results showed, most predominantly, a decreased stress response, which is what improved healing. Now there’s no doubt in my mind that this is an essential piece to the puzzle—yet it is merely one piece, I believe, and a small one at that. What these studies say to me is that the mind is a major player in the healing process (and all physiological processes for that matter), and by using it in a focused manner—by visualizing details of the physiological mechanism of healing—we can actually guide the process along. Because, you see, I am certain we ‘create’ physical phenomena all the time. We already know that we can stimulate physiological processes (like heart rate and ventilation) by visualizing physical exertion (like running on a treadmill). So it’s no surprise to me that study participants increased their healing response by visualizing it happening on the cellular and molecular level.
I introduce this concept in my book, The Six Keys to Optimal Health, where I describe the digestive process in detail, and encourage readers to visualize the process as they eat a meal, to enhance digestion (more on this in a future post). Yes I am sure guided imagery also helped the subjects relax, and that the decreased stress response assisted in recovery by creating an environment conducive to healing. But I just can’t ignore the real possibility that by mentally visualizing the physical processes unfolding the entire phenomenon is enhanced in some way. It makes me recall the neurological findings that our bodies already carry out some ‘conscious’ physical actions before we are actually aware of them. So, somehow, we are not as conscious of our actions as we think. Just tells me there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to our physiological processes—obvious when we consider things like daily autonomic functions, but maybe not so much (although equally possible) when considering less rhythmic, yet equally regular, processes like healing.
Now I know at least one criticism to my thoughts on this subject will be: But people heal all the time without visualizing the process, so that can’t be the sole, or even the primary, factor in healing…to which I would reply: Right, because on some level everybody is in-tune with the fact that, as living organisms, we do heal…so that belief, that understanding, that expectation, is already playing a role in the healing process, even if unconsciously. However, by focusing conscious thought on the healing process itself, I believe that it is possible to enhance the outcome, and these studies only seem to add credence to this notion. The real beauty in all of this is that for the open-minded scientist these findings are preliminary data that can and should lead to more detailed studies in the future investigating the mind’s role in the physiological mechanisms that make up the healing process. Pretty cool if you ask me.