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Mind-body medicine acknowledges that the body and the brain are interconnected rather than existing as separate components. As such, it recognizes the roles that emotion, personality, spirituality, and even social status plays in the overall well being of every individual. Rather than viewing the treatment of disease as a responsibility placed in the hands of medical caretakers, the field embraces proactive involvement on the part of the patient in order to influence outcome. This promotion of awareness and self-growth is achieved through various modalities that place power in thoughts as well as in actions.
Many techniques used in mind-body medicine were once considered "alternative," but are now commonplace in mainstream medicine. However, many are also deeply rooted in ancient systems. For example, the principles of mind-body medicine are very much a component of Eastern practices, such as Ayurvedic Medicine and traditional Chinese Medicine. However, in the Western world, the pathogenic theory of medicine, or germ theory, promoted by Louis Pasteur led to the belief that the disease of the body is unrelated to the mind.
A shift in thinking began to take place in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. One potential trigger for this movement was the observation of the physician Herbert Benson who noted how meditation could lower blood pressure in what he later coined as the “relaxation response.” As the medical community witnessed similar events, new fields of study began to emerge that illustrated a marriage between mind and body. For example, psychoneuroimmunology incorporates “psycho” and “neuro” to represent the mind, and “immunology,” or the immune system of the body. However, the incident that may have had the most profound influence on mind-body medicine being accepted by Western practitioners occurred decades earlier.
Most people have heard of the term “placebo effect.” The origin of this phrase is attributed to Dr. Henry Beecher, who was left in the position of treating wounded World War II soldiers in the field with nothing more than saline injections once the supply of morphine was depleted. Puzzled by the unexpected level of comfort the soldiers experienced, the physician later studied the impact of placebo more thoroughly. He eventually concluded that belief on the part of the patient that healing will take place has a direct bearing on the physical therapeutic response.
Today, training in mind-body medicine is standard curriculum in many medical schools across the globe, including the United States. As the result of standardized methodology and validation from numerous controlled studies, mind-body medicine techniques have proven effective on several levels. For instance, research confirms that heart rate and blood pressure can be modified through the use of biofeedback. Meditation and guided imagery can promote physiological changes, such as increased production of certain brain chemicals that reduce depression, improve immunity, and suppress the relay of pain signals. Stress management, substance addiction, and behavioral disorders can also be influenced by physiological intervention.
Mind-body medicine utilizes many different tools to achieve these effects, including hypnosis, body movement (i.e., yoga and Tai Chi), and many more. However, there is another aspect to mind-body medicine that eludes testing or measurement—spirituality. In fact, it appears from numerous long-term studies that positive outlook, faith in a “higher power,” prayer, and the capacity to forgive, have a notable influence on healing and quality of life.
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