Now, it is important to make the point here that what has been written above must be kept the proverbial “million miles” away from the utterly mistaken and indeed, at times absurd belief that whatever the nature of disease being suffered, patients can be cured via a cocktail of so-called “positive thoughts”, relaxing images and – as at times it would seem – almost soporific and contrived withdrawal from the harsh realities of daily life, all of which, in the end, almost invariably ‘boil down’ to little more than a painful, unhelpful and – not infrequently – harmful pretence. To invest in this kind of approach by way of response to the challenge that illness unquestionable poses is surely as futile and as wrong-headed as it is to believe that patients have, somehow or other, brought their illness upon themselves and are therefore personally responsible for it.
Yet it is important – to the point of being crucial – for all to adequately understand that emotional health and bodily disease/illness are inextricably linked. The truth is – as recent exciting research findings have established beyond peradventure – that the body’s nervous system is not only fully and powerfully connected to the immune system but that each is essential to the others (and to their joint) optimal functioning. In addition to the immune system’s ‘talking’ relationship with the body’s nervous system, there is a group of physiologically important substances known as catecholamines· which are active during arousal by stress and which can, where chronically and perniciously released, alter immune functioning by suppressing it. Somewhat simplistically but nevertheless fairly accurately put, cells of the immune system travel to every part of the body.
Other cells which are recognised by them are left alone, whereas any that are unrecognised are treated as hostile and attacked. This, of course, forms much of our front line defence against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens/ carcinogens. (The basis of autoimmune diseases, e.g. pernicious anaemia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus erythematosus, certain forms of thyroid disease etc., is where cells of the immune system mistake native cells as impostors and attack them).
All of the above needs to be stated and taken into account with an important caveat in mind, to the affect that the evidence for a major role played by emotion in physical disease is inordinately complex. However, we did – you may recall – touch upon the role of the leading and best-known emotions, i.e. anxiety depression, anger and guilt in earlier blogs, i.e. pre Sept. 2015. As we hinted there and have freely stated since, we know from leading and up-to-the-moment research that all of them are heavily implicated as risk factors in, for example, major diseases, such as heart disease, in which it has been shown that proneness to anger is a more potent predictor of early death than is smoking, high BP and high cholesterol.
Similarly, anxiety – often taking the form of devastating panic attacks and crippling phobias, has been shown via a welter of ‘hard’ scientific data to impact heavily and adversely on health, especially in illness. Furthermore, psychological depression is well-known to worsen almost every known malady, once established. Sickness and health are, of course, merely two forms of human response to given stimuli influencing behaviour and from which we perceive the phenomenon of mind at work on the survival and continuance of the species.
In this particular blog, we have therefore caught no more than a glimpse of the complexity of inter-connections and relationships between body, brain and mind. Moreover, we have witnessed how such recent insights into brain function and its microstructure of detailed complex functioning have increasingly provided good cause to abandon altogether the old dualistic concepts of brain-body and body-mind. Without one – that is in any functional sense – the other simply has no role to play. Even the merest form of meaningful response anywhere in the body depends utterly for its interpretation upon brain and – in some form or another – bears on mind.
We are then throughout the whole of life, quite simply ‘awash’ with evidence of mind; most especially but by no means solely via its most common manifestation, i.e. consciousness. Clearly it is the closest and most familiar phenomenon known to man, whilst also remaining the most mysterious. Mind – as we are about to see – is a miracle, wrought in part by nature’s most sophisticated and complex array of physical/physiological, biological/biochemical assets and outcomes. Yet there is so much more to it than that, as we daily reveal without perhaps so much as giving so much as a thought to it, that is up until now perhaps.