While we possess the innate equipment to sustain physical health,
our ability to heal is strongly affected by our emotional outlook.
I recently met a "senior citizen" with a childlike twinkle in his eyes, the mental acuity of a 20-year old and the nimble body of a person at least 35 years younger than his 100 years on earth. When I asked his secret, he replied, "I live right now. I live only in this moment. The past is over, and it is a joy to be on earth."
The positive, self-aware attitude of this centenarian is an inspiring reminder of the role that attitude and emotions play in health and longevity. Researchers and, in particular, health psychologists have studied this role and would describe these positive traits as characteristics of the "self-healing" personality. Research indicates that persons who best sustain health are those who are self-aware and can focus inwardly.
Using Our Emotional Capacities Positively
In nature, health is a state of harmony and balance. All living things are innately equipped to be self-sufficiently healthy. The healing capacity of each organism is contained within that living being itself, just like the processes of respiration, digestion and reproduction. We humans also possess the innate equipment for staying healthy, but we differ from other living creatures in this important respect: Our ability to sustain our health depends in part on our willingness to learn to use our emotional capacities positively.
We've long known that the development of disease is a complex process, and that "disease-causing agents" are only part of the story: Everyone who is exposed to a cold virus does not catch a cold. Although we cannot measure precisely how much the mind can prevent us from getting sick, we know its influence on the body is considerable.
Expressing Emotions Honestly: Good for Your Health
A positive, self-aware outlook can be very powerful in dissipating disease. One aspect of this is to avoid internalizing destructive emotions that lead to mental disorder and physical disease. Health is improved by expressing emotions outwardly in an honest way instead of repressing them. Health also benefits when we are honest with ourselves, even if it means leaving jobs or relationships to make ourselves happier and ultimately more fulfilled.
Attitude and emotions are therefore either the very keys to health or the doorway to disease. Some researchers say that emotional responses actually organize the mind and personality, and that finely tuned emotions may be the basis of all we know. They believe that all thoughts and memories are coded by subtle feeling tones. In other words, thoughts are not purely intellectual, but are embedded in emotional codes. Feeling tones serve to integrate the formation of thoughts and have a huge impact on our perceptions of our experiences and of ourselves -- and also on how positively we remember our experiences.
Stress Is Not The Problem: It's About Attitude
In light of this, it is no surprise that more than 75% of all doctor visits today are related to stress. The most popular prescriptions doctors write these days are for stress-related disorders. Millions are now taking tranquilizers and neurotransmitter-altering drugs to deal with the stresses in their daily lives. Yet stress is not the issue. Our response to it is. When we face long-term stress with an attitude of helplessness and pessimism, our response interferes with our natural physiological restorative capacity.
We respond to sudden, acute stress with a "fight-or-flight" reaction that causes physiological changes from which the body readily recovers. When we are exposed to prolonged or undefined stress, or when several sources exist concurrently, it is much harder for us to recover and return to a normal state. A pattern of negative emotional responses to stress contributes to prolonged physiological stress, which can turn into chronic adrenal stress. But if we face stress with a positive attitude instead of one of helplessness and pessimism, we enhance our natural physiological restorative capacity. In other words, a positive emotional response helps prevent wear and tear on the body and helps avoid serious imbalances that set the stage for illness.
Negative Emotions Suppress Immune Function
Our thoughts and emotions trigger the release of hormones in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that governs the way our entire physiology responds to stress. Negative emotions actually trigger a cascade of physiological responses, including the release of norepinephrine, a chemical messenger known to suppress immune function. Also, the excessive release of stress hormones impacts the immune system by depressing the production of antibodies and interfering with the functions of other components. This renders the body more susceptible to a variety of diseases.
A positive response helps to perpetuate well-being and balance. Neuroscientist Candace Pert, Ph.D., author of Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, has extensively investigated the role emotions have upon the body, in particular the brain's opiate receptors and their vital connection to human wellbeing. Dr. Pert says, "The same chemicals that control mood in the brain control the tissue integrity of the body." She believes that our thoughts have an electrical component that can literally impact the direction of our physiology.
Positive Emotions Increase Immune Response
Scores of studies have found a correlation between emotional states and altered responses of the immune system. A Harvard study of medical students who watched an emotion-filled video about Mother Teresa found that significant increases occurred in immune response. Tests showed higher levels of the antibody IgA, which is the first line of defense against invading microorganisms and is particularly protective in the lining of the intestinal and respiratory tracts.
Many other studies demonstrate the role that personality patterns appear to play in the regulation of the immune system and how negativity can lead to specific disease states. A study as far back as 1937 looked at coping styles that lead to disease. Harvard researchers found that individuals who typically handle stress and strain in an immature way also become ill four times more often.
Surrendering: Accepting Change As Part of Life
Immature coping styles include unconsciously disavowing conflicting thoughts and feelings and also identifying feelings only in the behavior or statements of others. A mature outlook is a positive outlook that accepts change as a part of life. Ancient and contemporary spiritual teachers believe that accepting change requires surrendering to change. Allowing external forces to exist rather than continuously seeking to manipulate them can move us beyond the endless psychological battle of judging good and bad, right and wrong.
Surrendering diminishes our need to control and increases our flexibility. This helps us adapt to the unavoidable and painful aspects of life, and frees us up to make choices that bring peace of mind and harmonious contentment. In turn this strengthens the body and increases resistance to disease.
Healing is About Living Each Moment to the Fullest
It takes time and patience to increase our self-awareness and focus our self-healing powers. But the belief that we can heal will get us there. Stressful times may cause depressed immunity, but self-healing personalities will bounce back. When we believe that we can heal we help activate the mechanisms that foster immunity and healing on every level.
Work on removing old fears and emotional blocks and replacing them with courage and responsiveness to the adventures and challenges of every new day. Build up your determination to be well. Take up daily practices that build emotional strength and supercharge your immune system. Try meditation, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, positive affirmation, relaxed deep breathing and other techniques. And do not forget to take the time to understand and express yourself.
To sustain well-being and a strong immune system, one must accept being in the world and honestly expressing one's feelings. Healing is not about the avoidance of death, which is an inevitable part of life, but about the full exploration of life and living each passing moment to the fullest.
This article is excerpted with permission from the magazine:
Alternative Medicine, Issue 41, May 2001.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
About the Author
Elaine Ferguson, MD, is a holistic physician and author of Healing, Health and Transformation: New Frontiers in Medicine. She is the medical director of Alternative Medicine, Inc., in Highland Park, Ill. Tel: 847-433-9946. Visit her website at http://drelaine.net
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