LOS ALTOS, CA, February 14, 2013 – Ask Dr. Eric Willmarth, a pain management specialist and instructor at San Francisco-based Saybrook University, what it’s going to take for mind-body medicine to gain a credible and lasting foothold and he’ll tell you that it’s us. Not insurance companies. Not hospitals. Not even doctors, but us.
“It’s going to come from more of the grassroots demand from the patients,” he says.
His colleague, Dr. Donald Moss, would agree.
Some years ago the psychologist and head of Saybrook’s School of Mind-Body Medicine was asked to treat a young girl suffering from anxiety attacks. Her parents weren’t keen on giving her medication, so they asked Dr. Moss to teach her a few thought-based coping skills.
“She learned to do diaphragmatic breathing. We did some biofeedback. She did wonderfully. She regained control over her body,” said Dr. Moss during a conversation I had with him recently, along with Dr. Willmarth and Saybrook faculty member, Dr. Darlene Viggiano. “She could bring on an anxiety attack by breathing fast. That really made her excited, that she could cause it and then she could stop it. This little girl felt like she could be the boss of her body and that she wouldn’t suffer.”
Of course, the girl’s parents were delighted to know that they didn’t need chemicals to control their 7-year old. But then, during an office visit two or three years later, the girl said something that really bothered Dr. Moss.
“She said, ‘I think I might need something this time.’ It was an expression she’d heard. I don’t know if it was a television advertisement or an adult conversation.”
“A Xanax commercial,” suggested Dr. Willmarth wryly.
“I said, maybe you will, but I don’t think you will. You are such a good relaxer. I think you’re going to be able to manage this yourself again.”
Despite this encouragement, the young girl eventually ended up on medication.
Dr. Moss looks at this as further evidence of a culture that too often rejects a thought-based approach to health in favor of a pharmaceutical fix, pointing out that even the most popular forms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) require us to ingest something – nutritional supplements, vitamins, herbs – in order to improve our bodies.
“It strikes me that there are so many ways you can tap your body’s healing resources without putting something in your mouth,” he says.
Dr. Viggiano, noting that the act of taking a pill is often just an external trigger to what she describes as an internal or “central” healing response, wonders what this tells us about our thoughts in terms of their effect on health and healing.
“What other triggers can we have from without besides a pill?” she asks.
Dr. Moss offers up an interesting example and answer.
“This guy had a heart attack, but his ejection fraction was still good so it meant that he was probably not going to be impaired. He could fully rehabilitate,” said Dr. Moss. “The doctor just said, ‘your ejection fraction is 60 percent,’ and left.”
(The ejection fraction (EF) is a measurement of how efficiently the heart is pumping. Sixty percent is normal, excellent for someone who just had a heart attack).
The man returned home assuming that a 60% ejection fraction meant that he could only operate at 60% of his previous physical capacity. This triggered a pronounced decline in his mental and physical health.
“Every time he felt weaker he interpreted this as the result of his 60% EF,” writes Dr. Moss in a soon-to-be-published article he co-wrote with Dr. Erik Peper of the Institute for Holistic Studies at San Francisco State University and Dr. Rafal Sztembis, a cardiologist in Poland who provided the example.
“Every time he was tired or exhausted, he interpreted that to be an effect of the 60% EF. The 60% EF was now his rationale for restricting his activities in business, and his reduced efforts were producing serious financial consequences. Very quickly his prevailing cognitions came to focus on limitations; all of [his] interpretations of self and world became tied to the 60% EF concept.”
The good news is that once the man was re-educated as to what it meant to be at a 60% ejection fraction, he experienced a full recovery. This would seem to indicate that what a doctor says to a patient – and how the patient interprets these words – can have a significant impact on the patient’s well-being.
Although in both instances – that of the anxious young girl and the man recovering from a heart attack – it would appear that prevailing public opinion or the misconstrued words of a physician were responsible for the individual’s declining health, ultimately it came down to what that individual believed was true.
Recognizing the importance of keeping an eye on what we believe, nineteenth century religious leader and medical reformer, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote in her seminal work, Science and Health, “It is as necessary for a health-illusion, as for an illusion of sickness, to be instructed out of itself into the understanding of what constitutes health; for a change in either a health-belief or a belief in sickness affects the physical condition.”
Eddy believed, based on her own experience, that “what constitutes health” is the thought or mind that is willing enough – and humble enough – to concede to the inspirations or spiritual truths imparted by a singular divine Mind.
Perhaps, then, the next step forward in our acceptance of a medicine that is less matter- and more thought-based won’t be impelled solely by the collective demand envisioned by Dr. Willmarth, but also by an individual willingness to adopt a higher, more inspired view of health.
Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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