Just before I was diagnosed with the first of many autoimmune diseases, I was the most unhappy I had ever been in my entire life (read more about my story here). On the outside, I had everything I always wanted: a top job in one of the most exciting metropoles in Europe, a good income, and excellent career opportunities. But on the inside, I felt exhausted, lonely, and never good enough. It did not surprise me that this was the moment my body picked to fall ill.
Years later, during one of my more interesting medical appointments, my doctor casually remarked that it was no coincidence for a young, driven woman with perfectionist tendencies to suddenly develop autoimmune diseases. This tidbit on the mind-body connection forever changed the way I looked at my disease. Could there actually be characteristics we all have in common, beyond our autoimmune diseases?
What is the Mind-Body Connection?
Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, explains that our physical and emotional responses are deeply interconnected. Bodily functions, such as the immune, nervous, and hormonal systems, constantly communicate with our mind through chemical messengers (neurotransmitters). The state of our mind, as determined by the nature of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes, quite literally impacts the health of our physical body. This relationship is bi-directional, and the health of our physical body equally influences our mental state.
The mind-body connection is not a new discovery. Up until the 17th century, the mind and body were treated as a unit in every medical system in the world. During the period that followed, Western medicine started to regard mind and body as two separate functions that are entirely independent of each other. In recent years, research around the mind-body connection flourished and scientists were able to prove complex links between our mental and physical capacity, emphasizing our innate ability to heal.
Autoimmune Disease and the Mind-Body Connection
Research shows that every thought, emotion, and experience we experience sends a message to the immune system that either enhances or impairs its ability to function. In 1990, a study investigated the relationship between autoimmune diseases and personality traits in women, suggesting that patients with autoimmune diseases are “psychologically fragile”. The paper specifically states “unobtrusiveness, self-depreciation, hyper-conformability, and excessive kindness” as characteristics that differentiate patients with autoimmune disease from their control group without autoimmune disease.
The reason why these kinds of personality traits are associated with autoimmune disease lies in their power to activate our sympathetic nervous system, also known as our fight, flight, or freeze response. Feelings of self-depreciation and of pleasing others while disregarding our own needs put us in a tense and alert state. This state signals the body that we are unsafe, resulting in stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine rushing through our bodies. When these feelings are constant, they provoke a chronic stress response which leads to inflammation. And inflammation has been shown countless times to be a driving force of autoimmune disease.
Mind-Body Medicine and Patient Blame
A common misconception about mind-body medicine is that it opens the door to placing blame on the patient. While mind-body medicine helps to understand contributing factors to the onset of autoimmunity, it intends to empower patients to use their minds to heal their bodies. Thought patterns, mindset, or emotional trauma do not determine who will develop autoimmune disease, but rather they contribute to a perfect storm of complex interconnections within our body that either support or hinder us to thrive. Shifting awareness to the powerful connection between our minds and our bodies enables us to be more purposeful with our thoughts, to break patterns, and to influence our emotions in a way that encourages healing.
Altering Our Genes with Mind-Body Medicine
When it comes to autoimmune disease, people tend to overestimate the role played by genetics and underestimate the power they themselves hold over their physical health. This is one of the groundbreaking discoveries in the fast-growing field of epigenetics, an area of research proving that our life circumstances heavily influence our genes. In fact, our genes form a type of feedback loop with our lifestyle, which switches them on and off depending on our experiences. This does not mean that the genes we are born with change, but rather it is their expression and their level of activity that we can regulate.
Research has shown that 95 percent of genes linked to disease are influencers rather than predictors of health issues. During optimal conditions, these genes are inactive and not causing any harm. However, disadvantageous conditions can activate these genes, subsequently leading to the onset of disease.
When it comes to autoimmune disease, factors that impact the expression of genes are generally related to the environment and the lifestyle we are exposed to. While environmental factors (such as childhood events or emotional trauma) are difficult and sometimes even impossible to control, lifestyle factors (such as stress management and mindset) are directly impacted by our everyday choices. Using the principles of mind-body medicine, we can create perfect conditions for our mind and body to thrive, thus expressing our genes in the most favorable way possible.
How to Use Mind-Body Medicine to Heal Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune diseases are life-long conditions and there is no known cure, but it is very much possible to heal our bodies and reach remission. Common treatments rely on decreasing inflammation throughout the body, and studies show that mind-body therapies do just that. They also offer the potential to reduce disease symptoms, improve coping with illness, support regulation of behavior, as well as improve quality of life and overall well-being.
Mind-body medicine is the science of using our mental health to influence our physical health. In other words, learning to control our own thoughts and emotions holds the power to heal our bodies. More than 2,000 years later, we finally understood what Hippocrates meant when he said: “The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.”
Here are 5 ways to use mind-body medicine to heal your autoimmune disease:
1. Mindfulness and Calming Our Bodies
The key to mind-body techniques is teaching the mind to focus solely on the body. It relies on mindfulness as the ability to be fully present and aware of our thoughts and feelings surrounding a particular moment. As we shift our attention inside and away from distractions, we are signaling to our bodies that we are safe and away from danger. Our brains respond by transitioning from fight-or-flight mode (activation of the sympathetic nervous system) to rest-and-digest mode (activation of the parasympathetic nervous system), a calm state in which we can heal and inflammation can be reduced.
There are many well-known mind-body techniques that serve the same purpose of relaxation, such as meditation, yoga, or spiritual practice. However, there are virtually no boundaries to what can be considered a mind-body technique, as it spans from massage therapy to art and music, to acupuncture and hypnosis, depending entirely on the preference of the patient.
2. Controlling Our Inner Voice
For our bodies to feel safe enough to heal, they need constant support and encouragement from our minds. However, most of us are our own harshest critics and know that voice in our heads to be that of our worst enemy. Understanding that our mindset will influence our physical health, it is imperative that we control our inner voice so it can benefit rather than hinder us.
Jerome Bruner, a psychologist from New York University, found that we become the stories that we construct to tell our lives. We quite literally create our own identities by filtering evidence from our lives to paint the image we have of ourselves. If this image is “I am lazy, I can’t do it, I will never be good enough” this is exactly the type of person we will become because our brain is wired to support this claim.
Compassion is the key to changing our inner voice and constructing a healing narrative in our minds. Every time we notice our inner critic speaking up, we can instead consciously guide it to take a compassionate view: “I can’t do it” becomes “I am doing my best”. Over time, our natural response to an adverse situation will come from a place of love and support that holds the power to change the course of our health.
3. Healing Our Relationship with Autoimmune Disease
Our inner voice does not only hold power when it comes to speaking about ourselves but also about our autoimmune disease as a part of us. When we hate our disease and regard it as something horrible that has happened to us, we are signaling to our body that it is broken and that we are in danger. A compassionate approach can do wonders once we understand that our disease is not the enemy.
Dr. Noel Rose, often called the father of autoimmunity, explained autoimmune disease as our immune system’s attempt to adapt to adverse conditions in our everyday life. He adds that “it’s an unsuccessful adaptation, but it is our body’s way of trying to fight back.” Our body is not the enemy, it is fighting to protect us and our autoimmune disease is a casualty of that fight. By directing our anger and disappointment toward our condition, we are only increasing the damage.
By taking a compassionate approach, we understand that our disease is not our fault and it is not here to make life difficult for us. Rather, it is here to teach us and to provide us with valuable lessons about ourselves. Working with our disease instead of against it, we provide our mind with much-needed comfort and condition it to work towards healing.
4. Shifting Awareness to Our Innate Strengths
We have learned to believe that our bodies are at fault when we fall ill. As a society, we are conditioned to look for flaws and weaknesses and to always strive to improve those. However, exciting new research shows that it may be much more beneficial for our mental health to focus on our strengths and to work towards enhancing what we already do well. This claim is supported by a 2020 study that found that making people aware and encouraging the use of their strengths in their daily lives improves mental health in patients with chronic illness.
One way to find out your innate character strengths is the VIA Character Strengths Survey which also provides respondents with ideas and recommendations for everyday use of their top strengths. Adopting a strengths-based mindset can help to make us more resilient in times of adversity. It also teaches us that we all already have innate resources to help us heal.
5. Providing Our Body with What It Needs
The mind-body link operates in both directions, so giving our bodies what they need is a certain method to help our thinking. When we take care of our bodies, we do it in two ways: by eliminating potential roadblocks and by providing the resources and environment necessary for recovery.
This step will look different for everybody and an individualized approach should always be encouraged. Self-reflection is a great way to go deeper and investigate our wants and needs, so we can take charge of our unique situation. Trained professionals, such as health coaches, can be invaluable resources during this process, as they guide their clients through self-discovery and provide them with the tools to change their circumstances. Working toward recovery takes hard work and commitment, and a health coach can facilitate change by providing accountability, support, and guidance during this special time.
Xenia Brandstetter is an Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) and Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach. At Xenia Brandstetter Health Coaching, she empowers women with autoimmune conditions to make peace with their disease, regain their lost energy, and take back control of their life. She uses learnings from her own autoimmune journey to help her clients feel like themselves again and create the life they dream of.
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