Fear and Disease: the Mind’s Role in Health

fear is the mindkillerWhen I first read Angelina Jolie’s account of her preventative double mastectomy,  family history of breast and ovarian cancer, and why she decided to remove her breasts after a positive genetic test, I freaked out a little bit.

I began to worry about my own chances of contracting cancer as breast and ovarian cancer appear on both on my mother and father’s sides of my family tree.

My paternal grandmother was in her early 40s when breast cancer claimed her life after a long and painful struggle and my maternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer when she was in her mid 60s.

Does that mean I’m genetically doomed?

Fear is the Mind Killer

In one of my favorite science fiction books Dune, the main character Paul recites a mantra to dispel fear throughout the book. I often find myself thinking these words when I’m scared of something:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing…Only I will remain.”

One of the greatest disservices we can do to our health is to act out of fear. Though Dune is a fictional book, the power of the mind on our health has been proven time and again in real life. The mind has both the power to heal or destroy.

In 1989, David Spiegel, M.D. of Stanford University’s School of Medicine ran a clinical study on the power of the mind to heal. Participating in the study were 86 women with late stage breast cancer, half of whom received standard medical care. The other half of the women, in addition to receiving standard care, took part in weekly support sessions where they could talk about struggles and triumphs. Dr. Spiegel found that the women who participated in the social support group lived twice as long as the women who did not.

That’s just one example of the mind’s role in healing. There are many others, like David Seidler’s cancer story. He won an Oscar for best screenplay (The King’s Speech) and said he “imagined away his bladder cancer.”

Treating the Entire Human Being

A genetic test cannot predict with 100% accuracy whether someone will contract a disease, it’s a matter of odds. “If you’re a healthy person, a positive result from genetic testing doesn’t always mean you will develop a disease,” says the Mayo Clinic.

But could the stress of finding out that you are predisposed to a disease actually lead to disease?

In Western medicine, doctors have discovered that the mind is powerful enough to cause the “nocebo effect” — when health can be impacted by negative test results or information.

“When we hear about epidemiological studies about how optimism is common in those populations who live longer, it further reinforces the idea that positivity — whether it’s delivered in the form of information or whether it’s only in our thoughts — generally leads to positive outcomes, whether in health, therapies or relationships,” said Dr. Julie Chen in her article on the Huffington post.

Worry and stress cause the heart rate to increase, respiration to get shallow, our eyes to glaze over, stress hormones to be released from the adrenal glands. This worry and stress over long periods can lead to disease — heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, to name a few.

Focus on Prevention, Not Disease

In Ayurveda and many other holistic healing modalities, the goal is to treat the entire being, not just one part, and prevent disease (of course we treat disease, too, but we work diligently to keep the body healthy).

Fear, as far as Ayurveda is concerned, never plays a role in promoting health nor healing. Instead, Ayurveda promotes mind-body practices like yoga, pranayama, and meditation to reduce stress and fear. These practices work at very subtle levels of the mind and body to heal diseases that do occur, prevent disease from happening, and keep our doshas balanced. Along with a customized diet and longevity herbs, called rasayanas, this system is one of the best ways to promote health and prevent disease.

I’m not judging Angelina. I truly respect her willingness to share a very personal story and I admire her activism. What she does with her body is completely her choice, however I believe she was led astray by Western medicine. With diet and lifestyle counseling, she very well could have avoided surgery, kept her tissues healthy, and dramatically reduced or eliminated her risk of cancer.

But by sharing her story, Angelina is fostering a nationwide discussion about health, disease, and will ultimately help others in making informed decisions about their own health. Hopefully more people will choose the path of holistic medicine to prevent disease.

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