Mind over matter, can thinking kill you?

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Having just read this Guardian article, ‘The nocebo effect’, I’m reminded of how powerful the human brain is. Neurology is my special interest, and the ways that our psychology can interact with our physiology. We all know that stress does not just affect our minds, the way we think or act, but can physically manifest and even shorten your life (good old telomeres!). “Chill out, you’ll live longer” springs to mind. But can a patient affect the course of their treatment just with their mind?

I’m not talking about magic or supernatural powers. I’m referring to the way emotions and attitudes can affect the chemicals released by the brain, emotions after all are just that. A person with depression can be suffering a simple chemical imbalance; perhaps they are not releasing enough serotonin and can be given a tangible remedy. But a person with a state of mind leading to physical symptoms, this is perhaps more difficult to solve, and highlights the need for positivity and better mental health care in the UK.

Take the scenario of a woman suffering a ‘phantom pregnancy’ whereby the abdomen swells, appetite increases, breasts are tender or even lactating. Or an injured solider who still feels pain or an itch which cannot be scratched in the legs he no longer has. These cases exist in no small number, and phantom symptoms are no less real to the patient than those which are visibly proven, yet they are induced solely by the power of the mind. The mind exists only in the brain, and the brain communicates all vital messages to the rest of the body, even the slightest brain damage can have a huge impact on motion, speech, and personality.

Consider what your mind can do when applied to an actual physical condition, can thinking positively really aid your recovery and is thinking negatively detrimental? I believe so to an extent. For example placebos, be they ethically sound or not, undeniably have a positive effect for some people (be it an illusion or not). Countless studies back this up. But can you create your own placebo; can you trick your body into healing faster?

A very interesting topic relating to neurology is pain, which exists in the brain (ironic considering the brain itself feels no pain!). An interesting study I read a while back by the University of Nottingham is discussed in this video: Mind tricks may help arthritic pain


4 responses

  1. If thinking positively could improve physical or mental conditions, everyone would be doing it. Where clinical depression is concerned, the idea that positive thinking could significantly reduce symptoms is perhaps no better than the idea that positive thinking could reduce the auditory hallucinations of the schizophrenic, the tremors of the Parkinson’s patient, or improve the memory of the person with Alzheimer’s disease.

    It’s definitely true, however, that stress can have a very damaging impact on physical health – there is large amount of research on the effects on the immune system and endocrine system in the fields of psychoneuroimmunology and psychoneuroendocrinology.

    • Absolutely I agree, but I never argued that positive thinking can cure anyone of anything, I posed the question of whether it can aid or detriment recovery. I would never say that all conditions can be improved by mental attitude. Besides, not everyone can think positively, particularly with depression, as I mentioned sometimes the only suggested solution is medication to induce happy chemicals (I made no comment on whether this was the right approach). The researchers are not arguing that thinking positively can ‘cure’ all conditions, rather that thinking negatively can be detrimental, for many reasons: a patient who is thinking negatively or allowing for a build-up of extra stress to affect their bodies, can sometimes not aid with their own recovery e.g. stress as you said can affect the immune system, and a patient must be willing for physiotherapy or rehabilitation. There was a good study I read about why injured soldiers are often the fastest recovering patients; because of their positivity in the form of determination to get back into duty, pushing themselves to work hard towards their recovery not just relying on Doctors and Nurses. A patient has more power over themselves than they think, but this is not to say you can will away a tumour or that a prayer will rid you of a painful rash.

      There are conditions with no known cure be it tangible or in the mind. I have never heard of any research that claims thinking positively can cure mental conditions, only the physical, and not for all people or conditions. As for placebos, arguably they do not aid the condition even in patients who claim their symptoms are alleviated, perhaps they just induce the illusion of such. I have mixed feelings about placebos, I don’t feel they’re totally ethically sound, yet they have been necessary and helpful in medical trials and research.

      But the fact placebos can make some patients FEEL better, and deep meditation can block out pain (not eradicate it) or increase tolerance, does demonstrate the power of the mind. But can the mind actually heal the body in any way? I’m not sure, but I definitely believe a patient can empower themselves and take some control of their own recovery, and that thinking positively is more helpful that giving up and allowing negative stress to lead to deterioration or longer recovery times.

    • Thanks very much! And I accept as humbly and bumbly as a bee. Apologies if this is late response I haven’t been on WordPress over weekend, but I’m updating tomorrow about my new pet bunny, and look forward to seeing what you’ve posted too, as I happen to think you’re a very good and versatile blogger also =) Ruthbug xx

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