Answers to this question vary greatly. On the one extreme is the traditional medical viewpoint, in which illness constitutes a biophysical disorder and is caused by factors such as viruses, trauma, genetic vulnerability or environmental triggers (e. g. toxins). On the other end of the spectrum, people, such as the followers of the New Age movement, see every illness as a lesson, brought upon us because we need to learn something important in order to grow spiritually. In this paradigm, it is the mind alone that causes the illness, and the mind alone can cure it.
Let’s be honest: whatever you believe, you will likely be able to find prove for it. Let’s consider the following scenarios:
- Think of a young child that died of cancer. Could it possibly have contributed to its illness, did it fail to “learn its lesson”? If the answer is no, then it can not have been the mind that caused the illness.
- But then, recent studies proved that people with positive emotions have a later lung cancer onset, higher resistance to viral infections and better immune functioning when compared to people with a rather negative mindset. If all other variables are identical in those studies, wasn’t it the mind that made the difference towards health?
I recently read some books on this topic 1, 2 and would summarize my viewpoint on how we can reconcile these events in three statements:
1. Western Medicine and Psychology: an artificial ditch
Western Medicine started out as a purely physical-level science. Medical practitioners can usually observe or “measure” disease and progress towards healing, for example by quantifying various body functions such as temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, hormone levels etc. In contrast, Psychology became the science of internal processes that require interpretation: psychological disease and growth can only be assessed indirectly, through people’s self-description in questionnaires and conversations. They can however not be measured directly through diagnostic tests.*
In accordance to the above, the classification of an illness can be relatively straight forward. When we break our leg for example, nobody would recommend psychotherapy, just as we would not suggest surgery to a trauma victim.
This western world view however, which defines things as belonging to categories possessing discrete attributes and sharp boundaries to other classes of things, is now being challenged in many fields.
Where, for example, does “orange” end and “red” begin? Where does homosexuality end and bisexuality begin? When does a mammal become a reptile? Where does bipolar disorder end and schizophrenia begin? None of these questions can be answered satisfactorily, and so the Australian Platypus is classified as a mammal although it does lay eggs, and psychologists introduce more disorders such as the schizo-affective disorder for cases that share symptoms of both bipolar depression and schizophrenia.
These challenges however point towards the realisation that things don’t exist in distinct categories, but are inter-connected within a continuum. In the health sector, the separation between “psychological” versus “medical” illness is not only insufficient for explaining reality, but is often counter-productive to those who seek help. In fact, most diseases don’t stem from a single and isolated cause, but are a product of countless uniquely interacting factors (e.g. heredity, occupation, culture, diet, life-style, personality, mindset). None of those factors can be isolated from the others, and it gets more complex as they also manifest on different levels.
Consequently, over the last decades more and more physical troubles have been understood as so called psychosomatic disorders: there is now an acknowledgement that their occurrence and development are influenced by social, psychological and behavioural factors. To name just a few, some of those disorders are chronic pain, tinnitus, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases3.
2. Both body and mind affect healing
Based on the points above, it is impossible to examine or treat the body without affecting the mind and vice versa. “Body” and “mind” are simply two aspects of the same thing, and whatever happens on one level of being affects all the other levels to a greater or lesser degree.
Consider the recent study of Prof. Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin: Two groups of hospital patients were anxious about a forthcoming operation. Both of them received an anti-anxiety drug through a catheter on a regular schedule. However, only one of the the two groups was visited by a doctor by the time the drug was given. The doctor only did some basic checks, after which he reassured them that they should feel better in a moment. Those in the other group received the usual hospital care, but no doctor’s visit. The remarkable discovery was that only those who saw the doctor got any benefit from the drug, while the other group reported no benefit at all. This shows that the reassurance by the doctor caused the effect as it created a positive shift in the patient’s mind, while the effect of the “real treatment”, the drug, was negligible.4
In exactly the same way can physical illness affect the mind. Simply think back to a time when you were severely sick or had chronic pain. Try to remember how it changed the way you felt, or which changes you made after your recovery.
The next question would be how much influence our thoughts have on physical parameters. This is a difficult question to answer and differs from person to person. Consider the Tummo monks who can through meditation alter their body temperature to a point where they can dry wet towels on their uncovered skin in freezing temperatures. We are only at the beginning of an understanding of what is possible.
One of the most successful and rather easy strategies which have been proven beneficial for healing is positive visualisation. Imagery influences our body and immune system directly, be it positively or negatively. The reason for this is that the visual circuit is evolutionary much older than others areas of the brain (like those responsible for language for example), and thus more ingrained in our physiology.
3. The logical fallacy
The above suggests that every healing process is affected by psychology, and every illness has a psychological component. In this regard, every illness could be be called psychosomatic. This is a crucial realisation which was disregarded or underestimated in the history of Western societies.
In some New Age circles however, people seem to have moved to the other extreme, postulating that all illness is created by our own mind (which one would call psychogenic, not psychosomatic). These beliefs seems to be strong especially for very scary diseases about whose causes we still have very little knowledge, like cancer.
This is also due to the reason that people often make significant and profound psychological changes when they suffer from a major illness, and bystanders then conclude that it was the lack of those changes that caused the illness. This is not necessarily true, and in some cases this would be as if someone observed a person taking an aspirin to treat a headache, and then concluded it was a lack of the pill’s active agent acetylsalicylic acid that caused the headache.
Obviously, anyone is free to hold their own beliefs on the questions raised. Yet, it can be perceived as judgemental and patronizing for patients suffering from a major, life threatening illness when outsiders provide a self-made diagnosis which holds them entirely responsible for their pain. This is where I would speak out for cautiousness and sincere interest in the patient’s circumstances instead of judgement. Sometimes we like to believe that someone brought negative circumstances upon themselves because the alternative conclusion, that bad things can randomly happen to good people, threatens us.
From a holistic viewpoint, illness is a product of various physical, emotional and mental factors, and treatment should involve all of these dimensions where applicable. Furthermore, thought processes and beliefs can most definitely be the deciding factor towards health or sickness. I believe we should use the power of our thoughts as much as we can, and newer fields such as Behavioural Medicine acknowledge this by combining medical and psychological treatments.
There are however also factors we cannot influence, and sometimes we might have to surrender and realise that we are not like an almighty being who can order the universe around as we please. To know the difference is real wisdom, as reflected in an old prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
*Although psychiatrists, coming from the medical camp, try to develop tools which can measure objective markers for psychological disorders.
1 Ken Wilber: Grace and Grit, Shambala Publications, 1991. For a deeper discussion of the questions above I highly recommend this book. Read my Amazon review here: amzn.to/RRUIEK
2 Carolyn Myss: Anatomy of the Spirit, Three River’s Press, 1996. This book is based on the assumption that all physical illness is caused by emotional and psychological stressors, and can be healed by the mind. Read my Amazon review of the book here: amzn.to/RRUIEK
3 Ehlert: Verhaltensmedizin (Behavioural Medicine), Textbook, Springer 2003.
4 Reader’s Digest, South Africa, 09/12