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Thinking Yourself Well

by Dr Josephine Odber(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 169 - April 2010

Mind and Body Interaction

The concept that the mind can heal the body has fascinated us for centuries. Does psychological therapy or your psychological outlook affect your physical health or help prevent or alleviate physical illness? Probably the oldest and most dramatic cases of psychological interplay with physical health are those of voodoo death, where an apparently healthy person dies because they believe that a spell has destined them to die. The famous physiologist Walter Canon in his studies of voodoo death tells of a woman who ate fruit from a tree that she later discovered grew in a taboo area. Although there was nothing wrong with the fruit she died within hours of the discovery. If a belief is able to adversely affect your health, is it also true that a belief can have a positive effect on health? If so, how does your psychological outlook influence your physical health?

The Stress Response Cycle
The Stress Response Cycle


What is the Underlying Cause of Physical Illness?

Our ancestors believed that illness was caused by mystical forces such as evil spirits, and that the treatment for many illnesses was to bore a whole in the skull (trephination) to allow the illness-causing demons to leave the possessed person's head.  The later biomedical model of disease, on the other hand, argues that any disease of the body or the mind is a disorder of physical processes only. These physical processes, according to this biomedical model of illness, are separate from the psychological and social functions of the brain, and therefore any illness is the result of physical circumstances such as injury, biochemical imbalances or bacterial and viral infection. The modern balanced scientific view of illness, however, is not so biologically rigid and suggests that the mind can influence the body as well as the body influencing the mind. Although scientific disagreement exists regarding the substance of the mind and body (that is thoughts or chemicals), it is now generally agreed that your mind influences your body and vice versa. 

What Type of Interactions Exists Between the Mind and the Body?

In a similar manner to voodoo death, in our culture one hears of someone dying from 'a broken heart' after the death of a loved one. Stress and heartbreak are modern day voodoo, and all of us have experienced the adverse effects of stress on both our physical and psychological health. Stress causes physical changes such as elevated heart rate, increased breathing, in addition to psychological changes such as disruption of your logical thought processes and the perception of things happening in slow motion. However, voodoo death and stress are only one side of the coin. A very strong belief in the benefit of something can be beneficial to both your mind and body. A very spectacular case recorded by Bruno Klopfer in his 1957 research paper Psychological Variables in Human Cancer tells of a patient with advanced cancer treated with, what was unknown to the patient, a useless drug. After only a few days of treatment, the man made a dramatic recovery, his tumours shrinking to half their original size. The patient, who had been bedridden only a few days before, was now up walking around and talking cheerfully. Other patients taking the same medication made no improvement. This was not surprising as the drug had no scientifically proven effect whatsoever. The difference in this man's case was his desire to recover and his belief that the medication was a wonder drug. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon, where sugar pills have produced remarkable recovery in patients who believed that they were taking medication. There is no doubt, therefore, that your brain interacts with the body, for good and bad.

How does your Mind Affect your Body?

Your body is an outstanding instrument and functions extremely effectively to keep you alive and well. It does this by the mutual interactions of many systems such as your nervous system, your blood system, your immune system, your digestive system and many more.

When something happens in your life, your central nervous system (brain) evaluates whether this event is stressful, although such judgments are not necessarily conscious. If appraised as harmful, your brain activates three other systems in your body to help cope with this stress. These systems are the autonomic nervous system, which acts automatically to maintain everyday bodily functions such as digestion, heart beat and blood pressure; your hormonal system, which controls events in your body by chemicals released into your blood; and your immune system, which is the system which helps your body cope with infection. These three systems work in a finely balanced way to cope with stress.

If a situation is assessed by your brain as threatening it sends messages, via nerves, to the autonomic nervous system preparing it for a state of 'flight or fight'. This system releases adrenaline and its related chemical messenger noradrenaline, which cause an increase in your heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose levels. These actions improve the delivery of glucose (your body's fuel) to your muscles so that you can run away or fight. This system is the first to kick in when you are subjected to a stressful situation. In the short term this is beneficial, but if your heart rate and blood pressure are raised for too long, cardiovascular disease such as hypertension or even cardiac arrest can result. If your blood glucose levels are too high for long periods it can cause diabetes.

Nerves from your brain also send messages to a small area on the boundary between your brain and body situated just above and behind your eyes. This small and very important part of the body/brain divide is the Pituitary gland, often called the Master Gland because of its importance to your body's hormonal system. The nerve messages (in the form of electrical impulses) from your brain are converted into chemical messages in the pituitary gland which in turn are sent to the adrenal glands which lie just above your kidneys. As its name implies, this gland also produces the chemical adrenaline, which augments the adrenaline already being released by your autonomic nervous system.

An equally important hormone released by the adrenal gland is cortisol, which is of paramount importance in dealing with stress. Cortisol is similar to cortisone, a medicinally used anti-inflammatory. Cortisol is, therefore, your body's natural anti-inflammatory. So why do we need a natural anti-inflammatory? Can you imagine being mugged in the street? You fall and injure your leg. Your body assesses what is most important – getting out of danger as soon as possible or healing your injured leg. Such an injury often causes swelling and stiffness in the damaged region. This is because your immune system is sending cells and fluid to the injured area to heal it. However, in this dangerous situation of the mugging, the greater danger is from your predator and the most valuable immediate line of action is to escape, not to repair an injured leg, which is not life-threatening. Your body now assesses this correctly, taking into account the fact that your brain has already appraised the situation as very dangerous. Your body therefore postpones the repair to your leg to give you time to escape. Cortisol suppresses your immune system at many levels, including destroying cells called Natural Killer Cells, which play a major role in your body's surveillance mechanism against the development of cancer. This immune suppression prevents your body from repairing itself. In the short term this is good, as you can escape from the imminent danger and repair your leg later when you are safe from the mugger.

However, as you can imagine, if you are under prolonged stress, your immune system is under constant suppression. This leads to your body being more susceptible to infection and the spread of diseases such as cancer. Not only does cortisol suppress you immune system, it also has many other actions on your body. Many of cortisol's actions are beneficial in the short term but very dangerous if prolonged. Like adrenaline, cortisol also increases blood glucose levels, with the subsequent danger of diabetes. It also adversely affects brain cells; prolonged exposure can lead to brain cell destruction and possible dementia. Stress and the over activation of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, therefore, have a role to play in disorders such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and diseases influenced by the immune system such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Therefore a reduction in the effects of stress by psychological interventions such as stress management, positive thinking, psychotherapy or hypnosis could be very useful supplementary treatments for many physical disorders.

How do Therapeutic Psychological Interventions Work?

There are many psychological interventions which can help the body's physiological systems to function in a less damaging way. These range from Behavioural Therapy to Cognitive Therapy, and from relaxation to the mere belief that something is helping you. Although not always specified, one of the major aims of a therapy is to weaken the stress messages being sent from your brain. If successful, this decrease in stress causes a reduction of cortisol, blood glucose and adrenalin levels which are damaging to the body if they are high for too long. The belief that something is good for you is called the Placebo Effect. The Placebo Effect is often dismissed as no effect. However this belief is incorrect. The Placebo Effect is a real phenomenon where your brain acts to help your body operate more effectively. In fact, major scientific studies, including a large study in 1998 into the effects of anti-depressant medication found that the Placebo Effect can account for around half of a medicine's positive therapeutic action. However, researchers such as Dwight Evans, professor of Psychiatry at Penn State University, consider that the benefits of psychological interventions are different from Placebo Effects, although some argue that they may work through the same eventual mechanisms as the Placebo Effect. In this way, psychological intervention can augment the efficacy of the Placebo Effect, and vice versa.

A good outlook on life is, therefore, of paramount importance for both your physical and mental health and can complement the impact of both medical and psychological intervention. For this reason, it is important for us all to work on building a positive outlook on life to augment our health and well-being.


Cannon W. Voodoo death. American Anthropologist  44: 169-181. 1942.
Klopfer B. Psychological variables in human cancer. Journal of Projective Techniques 21: 331 – 340. 1957.
Evans DL, Leserman J, Perkins DO, et al. Severe life stress as a predictor of early disease progression in HIV infection. American Journal of Psychiatry 154: 630-634. 1997.


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About Dr Josephine Odber

Dr Josephine Odber BSc M Litt PhD C Psychol has trained as a Pharmacologist and Psychologist, obtaining a Joint BSc in Physiology and Psychology, a Masters degree in Psychology and a PhD from the Faculty of Medicine at Glasgow University. She has worked in a variety of research areas including depression, premenstrual syndrome, drug tolerance, hormones and aggression. She has also trained in Counselling, Hypnotherapy, Aromatherapy and Reflexology having an interest in alternative therapies and herbal medicines. Dr Odber is a Chartered Health Psychologist and registered with the Health Professions Council. With a background in writing for academic journals, she also writes for health and medical magazines. Dr Odber may be contacted on  

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