Michael Byrne, ND, MA
Psychotherapist, Naturopathic Physician
Seattle Healing Arts Center
6300 9th Ave. NE, Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98115 [map]
(206) 428-2067
Imagination, part 3

Imagination, part 3

Can the mind heal the body? Can the mind heal the mind? Yes and yes. How? Let’s see….

I realize that I’ve been citing a lot of studies in these posts. Hopefully that is helpful, or inspiring, or legitimizing. I like studies because they can expand your perspective, and they can point the way to further possibilities. But imagination is not bound by what has already been done. So please do not let the lack of studies in a certain area limit you. I am sharing only a small taste of the many studies demonstrating the power of the mind. I am hoping they inspire you to go beyond them.

So, let’s look at some of the evidence for “mind over matter” in terms of healing the body. And I’d rather think of it as “mind with matter.” This isn’t about domination. To begin with, I’d like to share a book that I just discovered – How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body, by David Hamilton, Ph.D. Here is his website. I share this book because he has done such a great job in compiling research on the mind-body connection. He also shares a number of stories from people who have healed from cancer, heart disease, injury, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, infections, autoimmune diseases and allergies. He has a very inspirational and easy style to his writing. I highly recommend it. Here are a few studies he sites, as well as others. When I could find it, I’ve included a link to the original study online:

First, it should be noted that attitude and stress levels themselves effect the bodies ability to heal. A study from 2005 demonstrated that hostility effects wound healing rates. 42 couples were observed and those who were rated as more hostile had wound healing occur at only 60 percent of the speed of those couples who were observed to be less hostile with each other.

Numerous studies have shown increased speed of wound healing in people with optimistic attitudes and a more relaxed demeanor. Stress and negative attitudes are linked again and again to slower or inhibited healing. Just this month, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry highlighted the detrimental effects of the stress involved in making insurance claims for injury compensation. It demonstrated that 6 years after an accident, people who had had a more stressful experience with managing the insurance claim process had poorer recovery from that accident.

Guided imagery was shown to help asthma sufferers breathe more easily in this 2005 study. “Biologically targeted imagery” was used in which participants visualized reductions in bronchospasms and inflammation. So simply by imagining their bronchi (airway tubes to the lungs) staying open rather than constricting, they made that happen. Note also that they were able to decrease inflammation, which means they were also directly influencing the composition of chemicals released in their body.

Many studies have shown the usefulness in using various mind-body therapies as adjunct treatment for cancer. This study actually demonstrated measurable, positive changes in the immune system:

O. Eremin, M. B. Walker, E. Simpson et al., “Immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery in women with locally advanced breast cancer undergoing multimodality therapy: a randomised controlled trial,” Breast, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 17–25, 2009.

Another study demonstrated increases in patients’ white blood cell (WBC) count. These were patients with cancer, AIDS and other problems associated with depressed WBC counts:

Donaldson, V.W. (2000). A clinical study of visualization on depressed white blood cell count in medical patients. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback 25, (2):117-128

This study demonstrated that preoperative guided imagery reduced post-operative pain, anxiety, and reduced the need for analgesics.

Tusek DL, Church JM, Strong SA, Grass JA, Fazio VW. Preoperative rehearsal of active coping imagery influences subjective and hormonal responses to abdominal surgery. Dis Colon Rectum. 1997 Feb; 40(2):172-8.

It is my belief that there is not a function of the body that can not be enhanced through the use of your imagination. Studies have shown increases in muscle strength, increases in immune system cells, changes in hormone levels, reductions in pain, constricting and dilating blood vessels, and changes in glucose levels. And to do this we do not even need to have a knowledge of how the body works from a scientific perspective. You can visualize physiological processes if you know them and like that imagery. However, you can also use metaphors and symbols to represent what it is that you’d like to have the body do.

In the last post on imagination (2), I described how we could use imagination to effect changes in conscious processes like movements in an athletic endeavor. In this post I have aimed to show that our imagination can be used to effect unconscious processes in the body, like wound healing and immune system stimulation. In the next post I’ll go into the specifics on how to use visualizations for healing and for creating a life you love.


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