Each and every day, we are exposed to many pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, germs, and viruses that are responsible for a wide variety of illnesses. Fortunately, not every person exposed to these infectious agents will become ill. There are healthy people who tend to catch colds, get the flu, or get sick more frequently than similarly healthy people who share the same environment and are exposed to the same pathogens. Our level of resistance to illness depends, in part, on our attitude and emotional well-being. Our minds exert a powerful influence over our bodies. Emotional states can impact immune system function, by either improving immune function or reducing it.
In order to gain an awareness of the power that the mind holds over the body, read this simple visualization.
Take a deep breath in and imagine in a way that is right for you, that it is a hot summer day and you are standing in your kitchen near the refrigerator. Take a plump yellow lemon out of the refrigerator and hold it in front of you. Notice the texture of the lemon’s waxy yellow skin and how good the weight of the cold fruit feels in your hands. Raise the lemon to your nose and picture it in your mind’s eye until you can smell its lemony fragrance.
Now, place the lemon on a cutting board. Pick up a knife and slice the lemon in four pieces. As you hear the knife slice the fruit, you see the juices run and strengthen the smell of the lemon’s fresh scent. Pick up a thick slice of the lemon. Feel the juice trickle down your fingers as you slowly bring the lemon towards your mouth and take a deep bite of it. Imagine the taste the tart juice as it bursts in your mouth.
As you were imagining this scene, did you experience a physical reaction? Did your lips pucker? Did your mouth water? For most people, the visualization causes significant salivation because the autonomic nervous system promptly responds to our mental imagery. This simple exercise demonstrates that our thoughts can produce physiological changes within our bodies.
It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it. ~Hans Selye
Stress is the human response to the challenges of life. The body’s response to acute stress, known as fight or flight response, has evolved over time as an adaptive response allowing us to obtain the energy necessary to work through potentially threatening situations. A stressful situation engages our sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is intended to provide the bodily energy and resources needed to respond effectively to the threat, either real or perceived. The sympathetic nervous system was not intended to be engaged continually, as in chronic stress, because prolonged states of stress can create poor psychological and/or physical health. Psychological stress increases our susceptibility to viral infections, such as the flu. One early study investigating the connection between stress and respiratory illness, found that after exposing healthy subjects to one of five respiratory viruses, the rates of infection were positively correlated with exposure to psychological stress. Subjects exposed to stress displayed increases in infection rates from 74% to 90%, and clinical colds rose from 27% to 47%. (Cohen, Tyrrell, & Smith, 1991).
Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop. ~Ovid
The relaxation response, a term coined by cardiologist Herbert Benson, elicits a biological state opposite that of the stress response as it causes physiological changes including a decreased respiratory rate, decreased heart rate, and decreased muscular tension by acting on the autonomic nervous system which regulates our respiratory, cardiovascular and immune systems. The relaxation response can be achieved through meditation, chanting, praying, physical activity, breathing exercises, and even through the performance of mindless repetitious tasks such as knitting and crocheting. Of course, relaxation is generally an integral component of hypnotherapy.
Hypnosis helps immune function in several ways. First, most people find hypnosis to be relaxing. Relaxation turns off the stress response hormones that are detrimental to the immune system. Secondly, any positive statements and suggestions given while in hypnosis usually creates a positive responses within the body. The placebo effect is proof that the body generally responds to positive expectations in a positive manner and can help a person alter limiting beliefs into more resourceful thoughts.
The simple truth is that happy people generally don’t get sick. ~Bernie Siegal
Every day, we experience various reactions based on our perceptions of events, expectations, and people within our world. Our reactions form the basis of our emotions, which combined with and our thoughts and behaviors, can have a substantial impact on that our level of stress. Stress evokes hormonal changes within the body that can decrease immune system function over a long period of time which, in turn, makes us more susceptible to illness. Hypnosis enlists the aid of the subconscious mind in the journey towards wellness. Hypnosis can not only help us learn to relax and manage their emotions, it can easily teach via imagined experience and alter personal expectations to increase the odds of positive outcomes. What we expect tends to be realized. To be sure, our personal perceptions can influence our psychological and physical health, for better or worse. Our beliefs really do become our biology!
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Benson, H. (1996). Timeless healing: the power & biology of belief . Rockland, MA: Wheeler Publishing, Inc.
Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D.A., & Smith, A.P. (1991, August 29). Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. The New England Journal of Medicine 325(9), 606-612