Mind-body interventions are practices based on the belief that mind, body, and spirit are connected with one another and environmental influences. Mind-body medicine aims to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being. According to Dr. Pelletier, the other guiding principles of mind-body medicine are as follows:
- Stress and depression contribute to the development of, and hinder recovery from, chronic diseases because they create measurable hormonal imbalances.
- Psychoneuroimmunology explains how mental functioning provokes physical and biochemical changes that weaken immunity, lowering resistance to disease.
- Overall health improves when people are optimistic and have positive outlooks on life. Health and wellness are harmed by anger, depression, and chronic stress.
- The placebo effect—improved health and favorable physical changes in response to inactive medication such as a sugar pill—confirms the importance of mind–body medicine and is a valuable intervention.
- Social support from family, friends, coworkers, classmates, or organized self-help groups boosts the effectiveness of traditional and CAM therapies.
This section looks at three types of mind-body interventions—meditation; the Alexander Technique, a movement therapy; and biofeedback. Other commonly used mind-body interventions include music and dance therapies, cognitive–behavioral therapy, hypnosis, guided imagery and visualization, and a Chinese exercise discipline called Tai Chi Chuan.
Historically, meditation has been used in religious training and practices and to enhance spiritual growth, but it also is a powerful self-care measure that may be used to relieve stress and promote relaxation. Transcendental meditation, an Indian practice that involves sitting and silently chanting a "mantra" (a word repeated to quiet the mind), aims to produce a healthy state of relaxation.
During the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson studied meditation, and he and his colleagues at Harvard University Medical School showed that people who meditate could reduce heart and respiration rates, lower blood levels of the hormone cortisol, and increase alpha waves in the brain. Dr. Benson developed a relaxation technique loosely based on transcendental meditation that he dubbed the "relaxation response," and this technique quickly gained recognition in the United States and Europe.
There have been many studies performed to evaluate the physical responses to meditation, and its benefits are universally accepted in the CAM and conventional medical communities. Examples of the favorable effects of meditation include the following:
- Reduced blood pressure—meditation consistently has demonstrated the ability to lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings (both the top and bottom numbers of a blood pressure measurement)
- Reduced stress, anxiety, and pain
- Reduced use of health care services—patients enrolled in meditation programs tend to make fewer visits to health care practitioners
- Improved circulation and ability to exercise—studies of patients with coronary artery disease found that after 8 months of meditation, circulation and exercise tolerance increased
The Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique is hands-on teaching to retrain the mind and body to stand, sit, lift, and move correctly. It is not an exercise program, nor is it traditional touch therapy. During lessons intended to improve posture, body mechanics, and alignment, the teacher's hands gently direct movements that are light, organic, and fluid.
Lessons involve practice performing everyday activities such as sitting at a keyboard, carrying groceries, lifting a child, and reaching the top shelf of a bookcase; they aim to change the way people think about moving. By avoiding habitual muscle tightening and poor posture, injuries may be prevented or allowed to heal. Mindful movement, correct breathing, balance, and poise result from training in the Alexander Technique.
Although the Alexander Technique encourages students to let go of unhealthy habits, the objective is release rather than relaxation. The body that has mastered the Alexander Technique is at once flexible, easy, flowing, and energized. The process of giving up old habits is gradual and respectful. It involves acknowledging and accepting responsibility for misuses and bad habits before attempting to change them.
PERFORMERS USE THE TECHNIQUE.
Although the Alexander Technique often is used as a form of treatment, its true strength lies in prevention. It is simpler to learn to move calmly and correctly than to unlearn years of bad habits. Nearly anyone can benefit from the Alexander Technique, but historically it has been favored by people who rely on physical agility and ability to perform work—actors, athletes, dancers, dentists, hairdressers, musicians, computer users, etc.
Taught at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, the Alexander Technique has attracted a celebrity following. Musicians Yehudi Menuhin, James Galway, Paul McCartney, and Sting, along with actors Julie Andrews, John Cleese, James Earl Jones, John Houseman, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Ben Kingsley, Paul Newman, Keanu Reeves, Patrick Stewart, and Joanne Woodward have publicly endorsed the Alexander Technique.
The popularity of the Alexander Technique in the entertainment industry may be because its founder, Frederick Matthias Alexander, was an actor in Australia at the end of the nineteenth century. Alexander began his career performing works by William Shakespeare, but he began to suffer from chronic laryngitis. After hours of self-observation, he determined that his problem was caused
by muscular tension in his neck. He was his own first patient, successfully releasing the tension in his neck by changing the way he thought about his breathing, movements, and actions.
Frederick Alexander attributed some chronic health problems to accelerated technologic and societal changes. He believed that the pace and stress of modern life, especially mindless rushing to the market or toward a career objective, can render people virtually unconscious and unaware of their bodies. The adage he coined, "use affects functioning," affirms that the way people use their bodies affects their health and well-being. He also decried "endgaining"—rushing toward a goal without any attention to the manner of achieving it.
Biofeedback training is designed to help people learn to regulate body functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. Generally, sensitive monitoring devices are attached to the individual to measure and record a variety of physical responses such as skin temperature and electrical resistance, brain-wave activity, and respiration rate. There are also devices to monitor other functions such as bladder activity and acid in the stomach. By observing their own responses and following instructions given by highly trained technicians, most people are able to exert some degree of conscious control over these body functions.
Biofeedback is especially effective for helping people learn to manage stress, and it has become mainstream medical treatment for conditions such as high blood pressure, asthma, migraine headaches, and some types of urinary and fecal incontinence (inability to control bladder or bowel functions). Although it has been used only for about thirty years, biofeedback therapy has been applied to more than 150 medical conditions.