The philosopher-psychologist Henry James observed almost a century ago:
"The most profound discovery of my generation is that, by changing one's thinking, one can change one's life."
Increasingly, science is finding that, by engendering positive and uplifting thoughts, we can not only improve the quality of our emotional and spiritual lives, but we may be also able to influence the quality of our physical health.
In the last twenty-five years a new field has emerged called psycho-neuroimmunology. This field explores the relationship between the mind and the immune system with the nervous system serving as the mediator. Initially viewed with much skepticism, the influence of emotions on health has earned a respected niche in the medical community.
A review of past civilizations can be helpful in understanding our present evolution. Hippocrates, the father of Medicine, would often place his patients in the Chapel of Aescalapius for the night. Sick people would be placed on cots and told to recall in the morning all their dreams and memories from the previous night. This "dream psychology" told the good doctor the secret attitudes harbored by the patient, and these beliefs were often at the root of many illnesses.
In Healing, the Divine Art, Manly Hall says,
"Health was not merely the dosing of the sick. It was the cultivating of a proper relationship between the individual, the world, and the divine power which governs it. Hippocrates was one of the first to point out that all healing comes from God. The physician is merely a servant of deity."
In the second century A.D., another Greek physician, named Galen, observed a higher incidence of breast cancer among melancholic women than those who were not depressed. These ancient Mediterranean physician-philosophers perceived a unity of mind, body and spirit that was supported by all the natural forces of nature.
"Attitude" has been defined as a state of mind or feeling with regard to a person. Most of us experience states of mind that fluctuate from happiness to depression, and these emotions come and go in our lives. Emotions can generally be viewed as signposts for self-awareness rather than necessarily as feelings we need to suppress. However, strong emotional states that persist may, in fact, become destructive to the body. The strongest of these are worry, fear, anger, grief and pretense. Anger can be a powerful motivator for change in one's life, but left to stagnate, it can deplete the physical body and mind of vital reserves. Depression can slow the heart rate while excitement can increase it. Unabated, these strong feelings will adversely affect the heart.
The Chinese found that every emotion has a physical correlation. Anger affects all organs, but specifically stresses the liver. Fear affects the kidneys; grief, the lungs; worry, the spleen-pancreas; and pretense or excitement, the heart. This means that various attitudes affect organs and structures of the body according to the type of emotion stimulated. Keep in mind that these emotions are not "bad" in and of themselves; in fact, suppressing emotions creates its own stress on the body. But when sustained over a long period of time, the aforementioned states of mind can become toxic.
Manly Hall expresses it clearly when he states:
"Most ailments begin with tension, and wherever there is negative thinking or negative emotion, there will be tension. It makes no difference whether our indignation is righteous or otherwise. We pay for the pressures that we permit to develop within us."
This persistent emotional tension results in overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Such a response is similar to driving the car with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator; we wear the car out and, likewise, the human machine.
It is, therefore, necessary to our well-being that we attend to our emotional health with as much attention as we give to our bodies. When we experience strong negative states, we must activate the reset button immediately afterwards with such tension-reducing methods as exercise, yoga, visualization, meditation or any natural relaxation method. We may also need to replenish certain vitamins and minerals lost during prolonged stress and examine the body for physical weaknesses such as hypoglycemia or adrenal exhaustion that could contribute to a negative outlook and diminished health.
The dream temple of Hippocrates is no longer available to us to investigate the long-held negative beliefs or attitudes that feed our strong emotional states, but the means can and should be found today to pursue this avenue to well-being. Hippocrates was searching for sub-conscious attitudes that were making his patients ill. Similarly, we must bring buried resentments, fears, and griefs to conscious awareness. Perhaps there was a specific time in our lives when a situation warranted fear, but circumstances do change as we mature, and we may still be reacting with fear when no such alarm is required.
This is the first step in emotional healing. Once we are aware of destructive attitudes we harbor, we have the option of replacing them with more positive, health-promoting states such as love, trust, faith and forgiveness. We are the managers of our physical and mental health.
Henry Thoreau recommended the same approach when he advised:
Now is the time for us to build our own temple of health within our bodies and minds with the tools we have at our disposal in this age.
The famous Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung stated:
Let our destiny be a fuller, freer and more harmonius life.
For more information about the ways that Body-Mind issues can affect health, see the following articles in this website: "A Philosophy of Health" and "The Healing Crisis as a Welcome Sign"
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