Over the past 20 years, research has provided conclusive evidence that psychological factors play a major role in many illnesses and that mind-body techniques can aid both in the treatment and recovery process. Clinical trials have indicated that mind-body therapies such as hypnotherapy are helpful in managing arthritis and other chronic pain conditions. There is also evidence they can improve psychological functioning and quality of life, and may even help to ease symptoms of degenerative diseases.
The idea that our minds and emotions play a critical role in our health is far from new. Many indigenous cultures throughout the world have had an intuitive understanding of this phenomenon. The premise that a patient’s mental state influences health and healing reinforces beliefs that physicians have held for many centuries, perhaps well before the time of the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates himself, the father of Western medicine, emphasised the interconnection between mind and body in healing. He taught that good health depends upon a balanced mind, body, and environment.
Modern scientific research supports this age-old tenet of medical wisdom, and there’s an impressive lineage of medical and scientific researchers who’ve expanded our understanding of the mind-body connection. It began in the 1920s, when Harvard scientist Walter Cannon, MD identified ‘the fight or flight response’ in which the body secretes hormones called catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. When these stress hormones enter the bloodstream, they produce changes in the body, i.e. a quickened heart rate and an increased respiration which provide the optimum physical state to either confront or escape danger. In the following decade, Hungarian-born scientist Hans Selye MD pioneered the field of stress research by describing how the wear and tear of constant stress negatively affects our biology.
Since then, scores of scientific breakthroughs have reinforced the connection between mind-body and health. Experimental psychologist Neal Miller, PhD discovered that we can be trained to control physical responses such as our blood pressure and respiratory rate that were previously considered to be involuntary. Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD identified the flip side of the stress response, which he called ‘the relaxation response’. Benson demonstrated that meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques can bring about physiological changes including lowered heart rate, a decrease in respiration, relieved muscle tension, and positive changes in brain waves. Techniques and treatments that elicit this relaxation response, including hypnotherapy, have been enormously successful in treating a variety of stress-related disorders.