The Healing Power of the Mind
Written by: Michael Forrester is a spiritual counselor and is a practicing motivational speaker for corporations in Japan, Canada and the United States.
With evidence growing that training the mind or inducing certain modes of consciousness can have positive health effects, researchers have sought to understand how these practices physically affect the body. A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of intensive mindfulness practice.
The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.
The study was published in the Journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies and are endorsed by the American Heart Association as a preventative intervention. The new results provide a possible biological mechanism for therapeutic effects.
Gene Activity Can Change According To Perception
According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, gene activity can change on a daily basis. If the perception in your mind is reflected in the chemistry of your body, and if your nervous system reads and interprets the environment and then controls the blood’s chemistry, then you can literally change the fate of your cells by altering your thoughts.
In fact, Dr. Lipton’s research illustrates that by changing your perception, your mind can alter the activity of your genes and create over thirty thousand variations of products from each gene. He gives more detail by saying that the gene programs are contained within the nucleus of the cell, and you can rewrite those genetic programs through changing your blood chemistry.
In the simplest terms, this means that we need to change the way we think if we are to heal cancer. “The function of the mind is to create coherence between our beliefs and the reality we experience,” Dr. Lipton said. “What that means is that your mind will adjust the body’s biology and behavior to fit with your beliefs. If you’ve been told you’ll die in six months and your mind believes it, you most likely will die in six months. That’s called the nocebo effect, the result of a negative thought, which is the opposite of the placebo effect, where healing is mediated by a positive thought.”
That dynamic points to a three-party system: there’s the part of you that swears it doesn’t want to die (the conscious mind), trumped by the part that believes you will (the doctor’s prognosis mediated by the subconscious mind), which then throws into gear the chemical reaction (mediated by the brain’s chemistry) to make sure the body conforms to the dominant belief. (Neuroscience has recognized that the subconscious controls 95 percent of our lives.)
Now what about the part that doesn’t want to die–the conscious mind? Isn’t it impacting the body’s chemistry as well? Dr. Lipton said that it comes down to how the subconscious mind, which contains our deepest beliefs, has been programmed. It is these beliefs that ultimately cast the deciding vote.
“It’s a complex situation,” said Dr. Lipton. People have been programmed to believe that they’re victims and that they have no control. We’re programmed from the start with our mother and father’s beliefs. So, for instance, when we got sick, we were told by our parents that we had to go to the doctor because the doctor is the authority concerning our health. We all got the message throughout childhood that doctors were the authority on health and that we were victims of bodily forces beyond our ability to control. The joke, however, is that people often get better while on the way to the doctor. That’s when the innate ability for self-healing kicks in, another example of the placebo effect.
Mindfulness Practice Specifically Affects Regulatory Pathways
The results of Davidson’s study show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.
Biologists have suspected for years that some kind of epigenetic inheritance occurs at the cellular level. The different kinds of cells in our bodies provide an example. Skin cells and brain cells have different forms and functions, despite having exactly the same DNA. There must be mechanisms–other than DNA–that make sure skin cells stay skin cells when they divide.
Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers say, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.
The key result is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness practice that were not seen in the non-meditating group after other quiet activities — an outcome providing proof of principle that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.
Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic epigenetic responses to physical stimuli such as stress, diet, or exercise within just a few hours.
“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” Davidson says.
“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions,” Kaliman says. “Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”
Subconscious Beliefs Are Key
Too many positive thinkers know that thinking good thoughts–and reciting affirmations for hours on end–doesn’t always bring about the results that feel-good books promise.
Dr. Lipton didn’t argue this point, because positive thoughts come from the conscious mind, while contradictory negative thoughts are usually programmed in the more powerful subconscious mind.
“The major problem is that people are aware of their conscious beliefs and behaviors, but not of subconscious beliefs and behaviors. Most people don’t even acknowledge that their subconscious mind is at play, when the fact is that the subconscious mind is a million times more powerful than the conscious mind and that we operate 95 to 99 percent of our lives from subconscious programs.
“Your subconscious beliefs are working either for you or against you, but the truth is that you are not controlling your life, because your subconscious mind supersedes all conscious control. So when you are trying to heal from a conscious level–citing affirmations and telling yourself you’re healthy–there may be an invisible subconscious program that’s sabotaging you.”
The power of the subconscious mind is elegantly revealed in people expressing multiple personalities. While occupying the mind-set of one personality, the individual may be severely allergic to strawberries. Then, in experiencing the mind-set of another personality, he or she eats them without consequence.
The new science of epigenetics promises that every person on the planet has the opportunity to become who they really are, complete with unimaginable power and the ability to operate from, and go for, the highest possibilities, including healing our bodies and our culture and living in peace.
Ahhhh, hot stone massage
Cool, crisp mornings and fresh snow on the peaks... Fall has arrived. Change is in the air. For me in massage, it's time to bring out the stones. These beautiful, smooth, heavy Mexican river rocks are a sublime addition to a "regular" massage session. Incorporating hot stones helps amplify the benefits of massage such as allowing the tissues to relax more easily, improving circulation, opening energetic pathways in the body, and creating an opportunity to drop a bit more deeply into the body.
Using hot stones in massage and for healing has been around for thousands of years in almost every culture from the Ancient Chinese to the Egyptians to the Native Americans. The benefits are wide-ranging and the effects long-lasting. Each session might be different and often varies from practitioner to practitioner. Often I will simply place the stones at various points on the back, head, hands, and/or feet while other times I will actually massage with them. I use them to enhance the massage, to allow the body to open in a slightly different way. Some find this to be a deeply relaxing, grounding and healing experience.
If you'd like to experience the gifts of Hot Stone Massage, do let me know. I can include this in any session at no additional cost.
How Often Should I Get a Massage?
As much as possible, right?!?! Sometimes I think I'd love one every day! When I first moved to Westcliffe, I wasn't getting any massage. The reasons varied: I didn't know anyone who did massage. I didn't want to drive to Salida/Canon/Pueblo to get one - or really, I didn't want to drive an hour home after the massage. I chose not to spend money on it. And on and on. Anyway, after about 6 months, I finally got one. And it was wonderful. I had forgotten how good massage felt, how rejuvented I was, and how helpful it was to let go a little bit. (Plus, it inspires my own work in so many ways.) Now, I've found that getting a massage every other week works well to support me physically, mentally and emotionally.
So you've just finished getting a massage, and you are wondering when to come back. It's a frequently asked question... how do we know when it's "time" for another? Ultimately, we know our bodies best and we can ask within to find the answer. How is your body feeling now that you've had a massage? How often do you want/need this type of support? What is best for you? Is regular massage part of your self-care?
Consistency is key here. When studies are done to find the benefits of massage, participants are receiving massages consistently over a period of several weeks or months. People who get "regular" massage come in once a week, every other week, or once a month. If it has been a while since your last massage and you are coming in to address something specific, I recommend starting with 1 massage every week for 2-3 weeks. Then as the body starts to integrate the massage, we can begin tapering off to twice a month, once a month, or as needed. People experiencing chronic pain will benefit from more frequent (1-2 times a week) massage over a period of time. Because each person is different, this is something we'd talk about together so that we can find what best fits for your body!
I'd love to hear from you. What has been most beneficial in your experience receiving massage?
Let's talk about Feet!
The Foot. It is a remarkable structure, really, consising of 26 bones, 33 joints, 19 muscles,107 ligaments and thousands of nerve endings. REALLY?! Whoa. I just looked up those facts and I am amazed. The body just fascinates me. Anyway, the foot. I was walking on a trail the other day and turned my attention to my foot and how it moved. How it flexed and rolled and absorbed the shock of carrying the body. How it teetered on uneven surfaces. How it allowed me to move, stand, balance, jump, and run. How it connected me and my body to the earth.
Massaging the foot has so many benefits. Giving some attention to this part of the body that we rely on every day (mostly without much acknowledgement) is so helpful to our well-being. Studies show foot massage can help reduce pain, alleviate symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, and enhance sleep. It can help decrease stress and restore a natural balance to the body. At the end of the day, I've found giving my feet some attention is a really wonderful way to wind down and care for myself. It is amazing what a little bit of attention and care can do for our bodies, minds, and hearts. I'd like to share some of what I do here.
1. Soak the feet in warm water with a couple tablespoons of epsom salt and several drops of peppermint essential oil.
2. Generously apply lotion or foot salve like shea butter to the entire foot, gently rubbing the sole of the foot from toes to the heel. Using a firm pressure with both thumbs, alternate pushing one thumb and then the other to knead the foot from one side to the other.
3. Gently squeeze each toe up and down the length of the toe. Lightly pull on the end of the toe creating a little space to stretch. Rotate each toe and flex it back and forth.
4. Feel yourself relax as everything begins to soften.
What's that expression... "are your dogs barking?" Chances are they are. (Because come on, we're on our feet a LOT in our day-to-day lives!) Is it time to quiet those barking dogs with a soothing foot massage?
"Do you do deep tissue massage?"
Yes, it's true. I'm kicking off this blog with one of my most favorite subjects... and most asked question. Do you do deep tissue massage? Over the years I have found myself stumbling over the answer. When most people ask this, I think they are asking if I work with deep pressure in a therapeutic manner rather than offering a light touch for relaxation.
Let me offer a differentiation here: Deep tissue massage vs. deep pressure. Deep tissue massage is a series of techniques that are applied to deep layers of soft tissue often used to break up adhesions, re-align connective tissue, and relieve severe muscle tension or musculo-skeletal disorders. Usually it is focused on one particular area of the body and is often a very intense and precise form of bodywork. Deep pressure refers to massage with sustained deep pressure throughout the body.
So yes, I do deep tissue massage and most often, I offer deep pressure. In order to determine what is being called for, I find communication is key! Pressure is subjective. Pain is subjective. One person's "deep" is another person's "I can barely feel the pressure." How a body receives the pressure that I'm giving is uniquely personal, and it is so important to hear from the person on the table.
Melissa Harth massage therapist
Thoughts, comments, and musings about massage therapy, the body, healing, and more. I'd love to hear from you!