The Mind-Body Connection: Our Mind Can be Healer or Slayer
Dec 02, 2015 02:23AM
● By Angela Pascopella
A migraine headache. A feeling of complete exhaustion even when well-rested. Obesity. According to experts and a growing body of scientific evidence, these physical conditions could all be related to emotions from disturbing childhood negative events or outright trauma that became stuck in our cells and are slowly releasing into our bloodstream.
The mind-body connection has been considered by modern scientists for decades, starting as early as the 1920s, with Harvard scientist Walter Cannon when he identified the fight-or-flight response through which the body secretes hormones such as epinephrine. These hormones produce changes in the body—such as a quickened heart or increased breathing rate—that allow a person to run fast and escape danger, according to the Bravewell Collaborative website.
Today, the mind-body connection is more accepted in the Western world, and not just among the natural healing community comprised of yogis, Buddhists, naturopathic doctors, Chinese medicine practitioners and homeopaths. Just look at public school districts, where in New York City students this year are being taught how to meditate to relieve stress and help them focus on learning.
“The stress in our lives is not just the stress of today,” says Paul Epstein, a naturopathic physician, mind-body therapist and mindfulness meditation teacher in Westport. He has specialized in mind-body medicine for more than 30 years and treats patients with ailments ranging from obesity to heart disease to chronic fatigue syndrome and cancer.
The physical ailments can also be expressions and patterns of stresses that likely started from trauma or negative experiences in childhood. “Disease tells a story, not just of your cells and a diagnosis, but of yourself and your life. Your biography can become your biology,” he adds.
Epstein uses the story of his father as an example of stress and the mind-body connection. A World War II veteran who stormed the beaches of Normandy, his father also had the job of clearing the battlefields of bodies and weapons. Epstein’s father suffered from PTSD—called shell shock in those days—and developed heart disease in his 50s. He died on the operating table having heart bypass surgery. Doctors were not just bypassing the blocked artery, but the truth of the stress and trauma of his life, Epstein says. With that history, his desire is to help people heal from within. “Years ago, in my work, I became aware that even as I gave patients vitamins, herbs, Chinese medicine, etc., there was always something missing. Something wasn’t really shifting in them so they could be healthy,” Epstein says.
Body is Doorway to Healing
At the recently opened MindBodySpirit Center in Ridgefield, three holistic practitioners provide an integrated mind-body approach to well-being. Alex Boianghu, a Tibetan Buddhist yogi and counselor, Urgyan, a Western Buddhist lama and yogi in the same tradition, and Kim Hai Doan, an acupuncturist, massage therapist and meditator, treat patients who seek relief from conditions ranging from migraine headaches to Parkinson’s disease. They offer various modalities to help others and use physical, emotional, energetic and spiritual elements.
“I use a therapeutic approach to counseling in which body patterns are seen to reveal underlying, habitual contraction and distress. The body is the doorway to healing,” Boianghu says. “We have to start with relieving stress in the physical body with such techniques as conscious breathing and progressive relaxation. This vitalizes the energetic body and nourishes consciousness, so the mental and emotional grasping is released in what is known as emotional regulation.”
Boianghu and Urgyan explain the full healing cycle includes both energetic activation and calmness in something like a “dynamic relaxation”, in which former conflicts can be reprocessed and integrated into a flexible way of life. Such integration introduces holistic experiences that have been ascribed to meditation, such as peace, clarity and a profound appreciation for life.
Hai Doan notes that all acupuncture is rooted in shen, or the interdependence of physical, emotional and mental well-being. Using her therapies she aims to regulate chi, or life force, and balance the yin and yang expression. “Life depends on the restoration and maintenance of homeostasis,” she says. “Stress responses create a cascade of biochemical and physiological processes that are positively affected by acupuncture’s therapeutic effects.”
Urgyan leads groups in pranic-based meditation, which employs breath techniques (pranayama) to steady the body and the senses, revitalize the body with full yogic breathing, and infuse the system with life force (prana).
Danielle Joffe Hampton, owner of SoulCentered Healing in Fairfield, is an intuitive counselor, energy worker and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner. She explains that cancer, for example, may be a physical symptom of the imbalance between mind and body. She might treat the patient with emotional freedom technique, or EFT, which is an emotional version of acupuncture without the use of needles. A patient can be taught stimulate certain meridian points on the body by tapping on them with fingertips, aiding in the release of stagnant energy or emotion. “We are electrical beings and everything we think manifests in our emotional body,” Hampton explains. “So when we get caught up in a negative response, tapping teaches the body to revert back to default, which is harmony.”
Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine
Using such techniques as meditation, acupuncture, yoga and any other Western-based medication or therapy may not really work until we integrate and address what’s already inside our bodies and our cells, minds and hearts, where much pain and disappointment and fear still live. The body bears the burden, Epstein says. For example, a weakened immune system can be attributed to various psychological factors that were born, conditioned and bred in childhood or any period in life, Epstein explains. Three sciences have evolved over time and now form the scientific foundation of and inquiry into mind-body medicine:
1. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), also referred to as psychoendoneuroimmunology (PENI), is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the body. PNI takes an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating psychology, neuroscience, immunology, physiology, genetics, pharmacology, molecular biology, psychiatry, behavioral medicine, infectious diseases, endocrinology and rheumatology, according to the PsychoNumeroImmunotherapy Research Society. The main interests of PNI are the interactions between the nervous and immune systems and the relationships between mental processes and health and disease. “You can condition the immune system,” Epstein says.
2. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. “It was once thought the brain was unchangeable,” Epstein explains. “But it changes based on experience. The patterns of thoughts about worrying, reactivity have been learned and reinforced in our brains. And now we know we can change the brain by changing the mind. It’s powerful understanding that mindfulness and awareness come into play.”
3. As an organism grows and develops, carefully orchestrated chemical reactions activate and deactivate parts of the genome at strategic times and in specific locations. Epigenetics is the study of these chemical reactions and the factors that influence them. The body’s cells “recall” the pain from a childhood that might have been riddled with neglect or hurt and anxiety; to know people can change their thinking that will, in turn, rewire the makeup of the DNA in their cells is revolutionary, Epstein says. “What’s exciting is that science shows that psychoneurons can change when you are meditating; you can change the genetic expression at the cellular level. What’s key in that is that it helps turn off pro-inflammatory genes. You can treat them with meditation.”
Mind-Body Treatments That Work
Psychoneuroimmunology, neuroplasticity and epigenetics prove that it is important to integrate mind-body therapies in the healing process, Epstein says. “It’s important to integrate and engage in both efforts and treatments to cure and efforts to heal,” he says. “We need both. The mind is a healer or the mind is a slayer. Mind-body medicine seeks to engage and use the mind as a healer.”
Using the new three ‘R’s—reflection, relationship and resilience—Epstein digs deep into an individual’s memories and background to understand how his patients came to be who they are today. He asks for their past medical diagnoses and for a brief history of their lives, including their family and home life, and their painful memories to finally let go of them. “Face your pain,” he adds. “That’s your teacher. Listen to it. Embrace it. And you might find a scared little boy or girl underneath that feels helpless and needs love.
All healing is self-healing. We’ve conditioned ourselves to survive and to not let go. And how we have choices and resources we didn’t have before. The stresses we carry are living in the body and we can learn to change and heal and unburden and let them go.”
Boianghu, Urgyan and Hai Doan points to additional research on the positive outcomes of an integrated mind-body-spirit approach:
With emotional dysregulation, the amygdala—the primal region of the brain associated with emotional fear, fight and flight—actually shrinks during meditation. In turn, this allows the prefrontal cortex of the brain, associated with concentration and decision making, to become activated. With cognitive-emotional steadiness, the brain can function more creatively.
Meditation reduces stress so relationships become less reactive and more proactive. With emotional resiliency, people become more attuned themselves and more understanding of others, so they can become more empathetic and communicative.
Angela Pascopella is a 26-year veteran of journalism who resides in Danbury. She is also an editor for a national, monthly trade publication.
Center for Investigating Healthy Minds • InvestigatingHealthyMinds.org
EMDR • EMDRIA.org
Emotional Freedom Technique • EmoFree.com
Epigenetics • Learn.Genetics.Utah.edu/Content/Epigenetic
Freedom to Choose • FreedomtoChooseFoundation.org
HeartMath • HeartMath.org
Relaxation Response • RelaxationResponse.org
Neuroplasticity • MedicineNet.com
PsychoNumeroImmunotherapy Research Society
Paul Epstein, ND
Westport • 203-226-3923
Gary Gruber, ND
New Canaan • 203-966-6360
Stamford • 203-539-1149
Danielle Joffe Hampton, MA, LAc
Fairfield • 413-429-1278
Alex Boianghu • 203-994-7295
Kim Hai Doan • 203-648-3333
Urgyan • 203-770-2329