The Mind/Body Connection – How Thoughts Can Affect Health
Can you think of a time you were so excited you couldn’t sleep? What about feeling sweaty or queasy just thinking about a presentation you had to make?
These are examples of the powerful mind-body connection. Our physical and emotional states of wellness are intimately intertwined and, as a result, can have a dramatic impact on our health.
Is it possible that our thoughts can affect our physical health and well-being?
Let’s see what the science says:
Part 1: The Placebo Effect
In basic terms, the placebo effect occurs when a patient feels real benefits from a “placebo” (i.e., fake or dummy) treatment, simply because they believed said treatment would work.
In more scientific terms, the placebo effect is an incredible phenomenon with legitimate powers to manipulate the brain/body connection and bring tangible relief to “physical symptoms modulated by the brain.”
Let’s explore some examples of this awe-inspiring treatment in action:
The Exercise & Placebo Effect Study
In a National Institute of Health (NIH) study, hotel employees who were told their work counted as exercise and hotel employees who were told their work did not count as exercise were compared to test the validity of the placebo effect.
After four weeks, researchers found that the first group, who truly believed their profession offered them beneficial exercise, “showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index” that exceeded the second group, who believed the opposite.
Open-Label Placebo Treatment for Cancer-Related Fatigue
In a 2018 study of treatments for fatigue in former cancer patients, researchers found that placebo-based remedies “may reduce fatigue symptom severity and fatigue-related quality of life disruption in cancer survivors.”
As detailed in Scientific Reports, this finding originated in experimental data showing patients who took placebo pills for their cancer-related fatigue reported, on average, a “29% improvement in fatigue severity… and a 39% improvement in fatigue-disrupted quality of life” compared to those who only used traditional treatments.
Altered Placebo and Drug-Labeling Changes Outcomes of Episodic Migraine Attacks
In a 2014 NIH study of episodic migraines, data showed placebo-based treatment plans to be far more effective than plans featuring no treatment and tangibly more effective than treatment plans featuring only migraine medication.
These findings suggest “the information provided to patients and the ritual of pill taking are important components of care” and emphasize the capacity of placebos to aid traditional medication.
Part 2: The Nocebo Effect
On the other side of the coin, the nocebo effect occurs when the expectation of a treatment to cause adverse outcomes actually increases the likelihood that the patient experiences negative side effects or worsening of their condition.
Statin Side Effect Could be Due to the “Nocebo” Effect
In the study, patients that previously stopped taking statins due to side effects began a new regimen in which statins, placebos or no pills were taken in a monthly rotation for 12 months.
According to the findings, “90% of the symptoms people recorded when taking statins were also present when they took the placebo,” suggesting that the expectation of adverse side effects overwhelmed the actual impact of what was taken.
Framework for the COVID-19 Pandemic?
An NIH study from the fall of 2020 revealed that media coverage of the pandemic and the stress/isolation caused by quarantine could worsen one’s mental, physical and emotional health.
While more research is absolutely needed, the study goes on to suggest these negative influences surrounding COVID-19 provide a “nocebo framework” for the pandemic.
Taking inspiration from nocebo phenomena of past societal traumas (like the Spanish flu) and current research, NIH researchers suggest that the nocebos surrounding COVID-19 can worsen the effects of the disease on sufferers and those around them.
Nocebo and Pain: Overview of the Psychoneurobiological Mechanisms
In a National Institute of Health study on the correlation between nocebos and pain, researchers found that “negative expectations are formed through verbal suggestions of heightened pain, prior nociceptive and painful experiences and observation of pain in others.”
These findings indicate healthcare providers can actively reduce their patients' pain levels by minimizing the behavioral and environmental stimuli that trigger nocebo effects.
Part 3: The Link between Stress and Health
Physical, mental and emotional stress can dramatically impact many aspects of our wellbeing.
Let’s explore a few notable examples:
Stress & Physical Health
Stress can dramatically impact our physical health in ways so numerous they could fill a book, let alone a section of a blog.
With that said, here’s what you need to know:
Stress triggers a hormone release that puts a great deal of pressure on our vital biological systems, making it more difficult for them to perform their primary duties.
While this is tolerable - - even ideal - - during hyper-stressful, fight-or-flight situations (like a car crash), it’s not sustainable indefinitely.
If left unchecked, chronic stress can have harmful effects on our physical health, including increased likelihoods of:
- High Blood Pressure
- Heart Disease
- Chronic Fatigue
Stress & Cancer
Research also suggests a troubling link between stress and cancer recurrence among survivors.
According to preliminary studies on mice featured in the National Cancer Institute, “stress hormones may wake up dormant cancer cells that remain in the body after treatment.”
This concerning finding emphasizes the need for cancer survivors to take excellent care of their physical, mental and emotional health - - even long after they finish their courses of treatment.
On a more positive note, however, a study from Scientific American also suggests that stress treatments can lengthen telomeres, “stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and help prevent chromosomal deterioration,” in a process that may reduce one’s likelihood for cancer.
Stress & Immunity
Stress can damage our immune system and make it more difficult for our body to fight off harmful, unwanted pathogens.
By prioritizing stress-busting habits, like regular meditation, adequate diet and exercise, proper sleep and more, we can support our immune system and improve our natural defenses.
If we choose to ignore these lifestyle choices, we risk weakening our immune system, increasing our susceptibility to infections caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites.
Part 4: Benefits of Meditation on the Mind/Body Connection
Before we conclude our look at the mind/body connection, let’s explore one of the best ways to help it: meditation.
As discussed by myriad reputable sources, meditation offers many benefits to our physical, mental and emotional health that work harmoniously to improve our collective wellbeing.
Of the many options from which to choose, here are some of the most positive potential impacts of meditation on the mind/body connection:
- Added Resilience
- Relief from Emotional Suppression
- Enhanced Immune Function
- Strengthened Central Nervous System
- Improved Heart Rate and Breathing
As you can see, the mind/body connection is essential and highly responsive to your lifestyle. By taking positive steps each day to address your physical, mental and emotional health, you can allow the three to work in unison to benefit one another and contribute to a stronger, happier and healthier you.