The old philosophy that mind over matter has a few different connotations but in regards to modern life we should start taking it a little more seriously. For a long time this philosophy was a practice of self control over ones pain or the idea that humans were becoming more intelligent and inventive with their abilities to manipulate their surroundings. Today, that same saying should be looked at as a stress-disease model where negative thoughts and emotions are actually capable of changing one’s physiology for the worse. This concept has been explored from many different paradigms of thought but they all lead to the same result: negative emotions lead to negative physical outcomes.
Dr. Masaru Emoto studied water crystals for years. With intentions of just studying the crystal structures that water forms he actually landed on a beautiful piece of evidence of how negativity impacts the structures. He would play the crystals different kinds of music and would also expose the crystals to different emotions. What Dr. Emoto found was that positivity led to beautiful crystal forms whereas hate and negativity led to the dissipation and irregularity of the crystal form. This has implications for the health of the human body as we are composed of 50-70% water!
Cristobal Jodorowsky stars in a documentary called Quantum Men that explores the realms of psychomagic and shamanism. The main belief in psychomagic is that the subconscious counts symbolic actions as real actions. One example in the film are the “phantom surgeries”that take place. In these surgeries, where the patient is never actually operated on, the doctor does a fake procedure and acts out the entire process. They will pretend to cut, pretend to remove, pretend to stitch back up, etc. Many of the patients after these mock-surgeries are actually healed from their ailment. The implications of these examples are that the mind is a powerful force over what is happening physiologically.
Those are beautiful example of how negativity alters the physical state but many doctors have researched the topic in other ways. Dr. Gabor Maté a renowned physician in Vancouver has done extensive research on the link between stress and disease much of which was done in a family practice and palliative care. Maté is currently the staff physician at the Portland Hotel, ran a private family practice in East Vancouver for over 20 years, and was the medical co-ordinator of the palliative care unit at Vancouver Hospital for 7 years. Concluding from these many years of work, Maté tells in a lecture:
“I learned that illness wasn’t random and wasn’t genetic for the most part… In fact most illnesses can be traced to certain emotional patterns.”
He goes on to say that actually, most all chronic illnesses can be traced back to emotional patterns. For example, the suppression of healthy anger is a risk factor for disease just like the expression of unhealthy anger is. He discusses how many of these emotional patterns are unconscious and are implicitly engrained from our childhood experiences and relationships. Gabor goes on to say “This rigid and compulsive identification with duty, with role, and responsibility rather than the needs of the self are, again, a major risk factor for all kinds of illness.” This is powerful advice for our modern struggles within a capitalist society. We need to step back and remember that we are not just defined by our careers and how much we have to offer but just being human, we are implicitly important and deserving of care.
Maté also explores a study surrounding telomeres. He says,
“Telomeres are the structures at the end of the chromosomes and they are like the glue on the shoe lace – my shoelaces have glue on it to keep the threads together. If the glue were to wear off the shoelace would unravel. So, to keep the chromosones from unraveling, there’s the telomeres to keep them together… A few years ago there was a study with telomeres. Now when you are born the telomeres are a certain length as you get older they naturally get worn off and they get shorter and shorter and at the end of life they unravel at which point so do you. Now, in this particular study they looked at the telomere length of mothers with chronically ill children and these mothers had telomeres that were ten years shorter than their chronological age.”
NPR wrote an article titled ‘Healthful Living may Lengethen Telomeres and Lifespan’. The study author, Dean Ornish of the University of California, San Francisco, said that things that are bad for us shorten telomere length, including emotional stress which can lead to chronic diseases. Ornish has shown that heart disease can be revered by drastic changes in health, including stress reduction.
“These included a whole foods, low-fat, plant-based diet that’s also low in refined carbohydrates. Walking for a half an hour a day. Doing various stress management techniques, including yoga and meditation, for an hour a day. And spending more time with their loved ones, including friends and family.”
Dr. Ornish studied groups of men, and the men who followed his strict lifestyle changes and after 5 years their telomeres had lengthened by 10% whereas the group that hadn’t, had a reduction in telomere length by 3%.
Cortisol, produced by the adrenal cortex, has also been linked with physical and mental disease. Cortisol is meant to be produced during times of stress or when the blood sugar is low to assist with functioning as it communicates with the limbic system to flee or fight. However, emotional stress can lead to imbalances in cortisol production. This is important because cortisol inhibits the immune system as well as many other processes like causing damage to the hippocampus which makes learning and memorizing very difficult. Over a a period of time this can lead to disease. One longitudinal study published in Child Development, followed 1,292 children from birth to 3 years old who had environmental stressors in the form of poverty which has been shown time and time again to bring about a host of risk factors for disease. Heightened levels of salivary cortisol was shown to be related to lower IQ’s by the age of three as well as less executive functioning. Another study in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology showed that cortisol inhibited the proliferation of t-cells which drastically effects your immune system.
Many studies have also revealed the placebo effect, when something that will have absolutely no way of altering the disorder is administered in an experiment and results in the patient actually getting better. This is similar to Jodorowsky’s mock-surgeries. It is believed that just by having positive faith in the doctor and in one’s ability to heal that the mind actually heals the individual. Now, this is also important because the placebo effect has a lesser known half called the Nocebo Effect. This is when the same inert substance or procedure is administered, which has no way of making the patient worse or sicker, and it does. This is the minds ability to think negatively and produce negative responses in the body. Just like positive thinking can create positive results, negative thinking can create negative results.
It’s pretty clear that stress and negative emotions create illness but how do we keep this in check especially if so much of it is on an unconscious level? Dr. Maté suggests that we learn to say No or the body will say it for us. Dr. Ornish recommends a healthy plant based diet and meditation and other forms of stress reduction. We must also learn to look at the roles that individuals are playing in society and how different policies intrinsically place stresses on them. Different sections of the city are going to have higher disease rates just like they will crime rates – that is policy driven. We must realize the struggles many mothers and father are going through not only as caretakers but also as the money makers. We must realize how isolated individuals are with the current demands of our culture and how this too is a risk factor for disease. We must understand that while success in this culture is important, it should not be more important than health.
In an article by Collective Evolution the author quotes Hippocrates,“If someone wishes for good health, one must first ask oneself if he is ready to do away with the reasons for his illness. Only then is it possible to help him.” They explain this as, “Whatever it may be, instead of simply reacting, slow things down and observe. You will find you have the tools to process emotions and illness quickly when you see them for what they are and explore why they came up. If you believe you will get sick all the time, and believe you have pain because it’s all out of your control, you will continue to have it all in an uncontrollable manner until you realize the control you have over much of what we attract within the body.”
Mind over matter is real. The mind has the power to make our matter sickly. We must learn to harmonize with the stress in our lives and take a step back to put everything into perspective; whether it is a real stress that we are dealing with or whether it is just our perspective that we must work on.We must learn to be mindful, when we have negative attitudes and negative thoughts we are not only poisoning ourselves but we are also poisoning others.