It has always bothered me to see how, in the pursuit of health and wellness, the majority of us consider the mind and the body to be separate entities that exist independently of each other. This mind-body dualism has greatly coloured our beliefs on health and illness.
When I say mind, I refer to the thoughts, belief systems and emotions we carry within us. In her book, Switch on Your Brain, cognitive scientist Dr Caroline Leaf states that our minds are designed to control the body and not the other way around. “Matter doesn’t control us, we control matter, ” she explains.
A revolutionary idea? Well, not according to Dr Gabor Maté, a physician specialising in the treatment of stress, trauma, addiction and childhood development. He says that “in myriad unconscious ways, we help generate the illnesses that plague us”.
While sceptics may scoff at such ideas, claiming that illnesses are caused by a poor lifestyle and the multitudes of pathogens waiting to invade our bodies, a new field of medicine has developed as a result of scientists’ interest in the mind-body connection.
University of Calgary clinical professor of medicine Dr Noel B. Hershfield points out that this new discipline, unimaginatively labelled psychoneuroimmunology, offers compelling evidence, advanced from scientists in many fields, that an intimate relationship exists between the mind and the immune system.
He adds that an individual’s emotional makeup, and the response to continued stress, may indeed be causative in the many diseases that medicine treats but whose origin is not yet known.
My interest in the connection between the mind and the body was sparked when I attended a course years ago. It led me to read books on the subject, written by the likes of Leaf, Maté, Dr Bruce Lipton, David Hamilton and Deb Shapiro, amongst others.
During the course of studying their work, I realised that these were not hocus-pocus practitioners, but professionals who offered a body of knowledge gathered from study and experience that, although independently derived, collectively pointed in the same direction.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said, “It’s far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has”, alluding to the fact that it is what goes on in a person’s mind that could be a crucial factor in the healing process.
I have seen the truth of this time and again in my coaching practice, where I’ve observed how thoughts, emotions, beliefs and words can impact our health, or rather, ill-health.
The role emotions play in our health was demonstrated some years ago through a colleague of mine who had suffered from prolonged back pain for over ten years. She had sought all manner of treatment, short of surgery, to alleviate her suffering. She had gone through some challenging experiences in her life, including an abusive marriage, and had repressed the memories of her hurt and anger.
One day, on seeing her doubled up in pain, I decided to do a process called the Pain Paradigm, which required her to access the emotions she was feeling and measuring that against the level of pain she was experiencing. After almost two hours, the pain disappeared. “The lump in my back has disappeared. It’s a miracle, ” she cried.
“No, it’s not, ” I replied. “It’s simply your body letting go of all that pent-up emotion that was suppressed in your mind.” That was one of my earliest, and most profound, experiences of seeing the mind-body connection at work and it convinced me to study it further.
In the course of wanting to learn more, I discovered that aside from emotions, the beliefs we hold can also have a profound impact on health and healing. Let me illustrate with another story.
On a visit to a foreign country some years ago, I met a couple awaiting the birth of their first child through a surrogate mother. I asked them if they had tried having children on their own.
“I have conceived 13 times and lost the babies each time, Sheila. I carried one of the babies for six months and then miscarried. It was absolutely heart-breaking, not being able to carry a single baby to full term. We didn’t want to go through the pain of that anymore, so we opted for surrogacy, ” the wife replied.
Thirteen miscarriages? I surmised straightaway that she was holding on to a limiting belief and I blurted out: “When did you get that belief that you cannot carry a child to full term?”
She looked at me, taken aback at the question. She pondered for a while, then replied, “You know, I never realised I had that belief until today. It all makes sense now.”
“What does?” I asked.
She narrated how, when she was in her early twenties, she had gone for surgery to remove fibroids from her womb. In retrospect, she realised that she should not have opted for the surgery because the older women in her family were prone to the same problem, yet none had gone for surgery to remove them and they had all borne many children.
“When I went for my post-operative check-up, the surgeon told me that the fibroids would very likely recur and that he would be amazed if I could carry a child to full term, ” she said.
This story is a clear example of how we form limiting beliefs that can have a profound impact on our lives. Limiting beliefs are often not understood and can sometimes be quite irrational. Why then, do we take them on?
Well, truth be told, many of our beliefs about disease and healing have been acquired from authority figures such as medical experts or from the things we read or watch. We thus have to be careful not to take on every proclamation that we encounter as the gospel truth.
Bruce Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief, states unapologetically that “beliefs control biology.”
“Your beliefs act like filters on a camera, changing how you see the world. And your biology adapts those beliefs. You can choose what you see. You can filter your life with rose-coloured beliefs that will help your body or you can use a dark filter that turns everything black and makes your body/mind more susceptible to disease.
“If you choose to see a world full of love, your body will respond by growing in health. If you choose to believe that you live in a dark world full of fear, your body’s health will be compromised, ” he says.
To me, this is all the more relevant now, when we face the prolonged effects of a pandemic where the infection rate appears to be increasing and another austere lockdown has been imposed. The question that arises is whether we are going to look at the situation through a lens of fear, or a lens of opportunity and learning.
Mental health issues are on the rise as a result of the pandemic and its plethora of uncertainty. Where the mind is troubled, the body soon gets affected, if Maté and Lipton are to be believed.
During the course of my study on the mind-body connection, I have noticed that there is often a correlation between certain ailments and the thoughts, emotions or beliefs held by the sufferer.
A useful resource that I use to help me identify the psycho-emotional root cause for some of the physical conditions exhibited by people is Your Body Speaks Your Mind by Deb Shapiro. Illness, she suggests, could be a metaphor for something going on in our thoughts and emotions resulting in a disruption to the natural balance of the body’s functions.
“The symptoms and illnesses that manifest in your body are intricately linked to your mind and emotions, ” she writes.
When I myself faced a recurring health condition, for which three specialists told me there was no pathological reason, I decided to adopt a psycho-emotional approach to address it. Shapiro’s book helped me identify possible root causes related to unresolved emotions and a limiting belief about the condition that had lodged in my mind from something I had read. I dealt with them and the condition disappeared. It rears its head now and again when I am greatly irritated. I’ve now begun to recognise that the physical symptoms are my mind and body’s way of telling me to calm down!
Now, I’m in no way advocating that you take matters in your own hands and eschew sound medical advice if you’re unwell. Please, for goodness’ sake, see a doctor and get all the necessary tests done. However, in addition to that, do some introspection and ask yourself if there are repressed feelings or limiting beliefs that you need to eradicate, especially if there is no medical basis for your condition.
There really is no place for dualism when it comes to health. Your mind and your body make up a complete being – so your health has to be approached holistically to get the best results. If there are psycho-emotional factors you have not dealt with in your life, please do so as soon as you can, because allowing them to percolate within is going to present a road-block to your health and wellness journey.
Sheila Singam is the founder of Human Equation, a development consultancy specialising in mindset change and innovation. She believes in seeing doctors as well as talking to her mind and body to resolve health issues. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.