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Mind/Body Connection - Coming of Age?

By Consuelo Reyes

There's an old saying that goes, "If the people start the parade, the politicians will volunteer to lead it" A more timely variation on the theme might be: "If the people start the parade, the insurance companies will volunteer to le,ad it and the medical establishment may not be too far behind!"

Since its inception 25 years ago, FACT has emphasized the role of the psyche in healing, such that any biologically-sound comprehensive program to restore health - whether for the cancer patient or any other chronic condition - must address the issue of stress management, and should, ideally, include some form of psychological counseling. For the most part, however, the medical establishment has dismissed the psychological aspect of healing as something in between voodoo and "trivial pursuit"

Ruth Sackman, president of FACT, has also been saying (for as long as I've been associated with the organization, which is going on 9 years now) that the impetus to changing the orthodox mindset will most likely come from the insurance companies because it is in their self interest to keep people living longer at lower costs.

Well, it seems that now at last in these deficit conscious times some sort of convergence is occurring between "far out" mind/body techniques and the medical powers that be and the health care industry is, in fact, leading the parade.

Case in point: Philip J. Hilts writes in a New York Times article ("Health Maintenance Organizations Turn to Spiritual Healing," Dec. 27, 1995) that H.M.O.'s are increasingly making referrals to practitioners who use relaxation and other nontraditional treatments. Why? According to Herbert Bensen, M.D., president of Harvard Medical School's Mind/ Body Medical Institute and author of the best-selling book The Relaxation Response, who spoke at a Boston behavioral medicine conference which Hilts attended, such methods can reliably reduce workload and are, therefore, "just plain money in the bank for the H.M.O.'s."

According to the article, the change in the last decade has been dramatic. Mr. Hilts talks about stress management programs developed 110 years ago by large managed care organizations that received only 60 or 70 referrals a year from doctors and are now getting 1-2,000 per year. The demand has sparked these companies to institute nationwide programs to train doctors in a range of mind/body techniques.

None of the methods being taught are new to medicine. Indeed, it was Hans Selye, M.D. in his classic work, The Stress of Life, first printed in 1956, whose research detailed the incredible havoc that stress can bring upon the human body, as well as the power of Me conscious mind to reverse the disease process. Dr. Selye addressed his own cancer problem with stress-reducing techniques, living many healthy years beyond his original prognosis. He died of heart failure in 1982.

In the early 1970's, following the great '60's focus on personal evolution, the popularity, of transcendental meditation or TM, etc., studies were begun which revealed that Indian holy men in the meditative state could consistently lower their heart rates, breathing rates, blood pressure, oxygen consumption and shift their brain waves to a semi-dream-like state. These findings were replicated in less esoteric laboratory surroundings using techniques such as biofeedback and muscle relaxation exercises.

Dr. Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard neuroscientist specializing in visualization technique that uses positive imagery to facilitate healing, has conducted studies recently with Positron Emission Topography (P.E.T.) brain scans using 7 subjects who were asked to visualize a number of emotionally neutral objects, such as a sofa, as well as negative images like the badly bruised face of a battered woman. The scans showed that one particular area of the brain was more activated by the negative images than by the neutral ones. This was the insula, a section of the brain between the temples, just forward of the middle of the brain. Animal studies earlier had shown that physical stimulation of the insula can raise or lower heart rate and blood pressure. Mental stimulation apparently has the same effect.

Moreover, this area seems to have strong connections to the limbic part of the brain, long recognized as a center of strong emotion. The insula has a bundle of connections with the stomach and intestines via the vagus nerve. Not surprisingly, research utilizing meditation and other stress-management techniques has been shown to lower ulcer pain, stomach contractions and acid secretion.

Dr. Kesslyn's work shows that images real or imagined can stimulate areas of the brain which regulate vital bodily functions - certainly a validation of the visualization technique.

These "spiritual" methods have proven to be particularly effective for illnesses that have psychological components--depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, cardiac pain, insomnia, diabetes, ulcers, cold, fever, asthma, arthritis, alcoholism, and cancer. In the Times article, Dr. Bensen, who has been involved with the investigation of relaxation, meditation and prayer for many years, cited one study where a clinic tried different approaches to treating high blood pressure: one using only drugs and another using reduced drug levels plus stress-reduction techniques. Over half the patients in the behavioral group were able to completely eliminate their need for drugs while achieving significant lowering of their blood pressure. The cost savings for this group was about $1,300 per patient over the five-year course of the trial.

So now that the parade has begun, is the medical establishment ready to warmly welcome these mind/ body methods into their standard healing protocols? When reporter Hilts put the question to Dr. Richard Friedman, from the State University of New York at Stony Brook who was at the Boston conference, the doctor said, "Of course, the medical establishment is conservative," and he quoted an old medical school refrain: "As a doctor, you don't want to be either the first or the last to try something new." Then he added, "But it is now catching on fast"

The acceptance of these techniques into mainstream medicine would, indeed, be a great step toward a truly wholistic health care system. And, hopefully, this embrace would open the way for other non-conventional concepts such as detoxification, nutritional healing, fasting, cellular therapy, etc. Already this year the New York Times had a prominent story on a new publicly-funded Natural Medicine Clinic in Kings County, Washington ("Seattle Officials Seeking to Establish a Subsidized Natural Medicine Clinic," Jan. 3, 1996), offering a wide array of therapies such as acupuncture, botanicals, massage, etc. Of course, that same day the paper's OpEd page featured a stinging indictment of the whole idea ("Buying Snake Oil with Tax Dollars'). So I wouldn't hold my breath for this...

...But I might meditate on it!

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