Using Your Mind to Manage Symtoms
There is a strong link between our thoughts, attitudes and emotions, and our mental and physical health. The expression “mind over matter” is often used to suggest that we can “rise above” physical sensations and situations if only we were strong enough. This makes the relationship between mind and body sound like a battle, which it is not, but the connection between the two is so close that we waste a powerful resource if we don’t use our minds as part of our strategy to manage the physical experience of your lives.
Thoughts and emotions may not directly cause our chronic conditions, but they can influence the symptoms we experience. Hormones or other chemicals that carry messages affect how our body functions; for example, thoughts and emotions can change our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, blood sugar levels, muscle responses, concentration, the ability to get pregnant, and our immune response to infection. What has been measured in laboratories is known to all of us from experience in our daily lives.
We have all experienced the power of the mind and its effects on the body. Pleasant and unpleasant thoughts create a bodily reaction. Our heart rate and breathing can increase or slow down; we may get cold sweats, hot sweats, blushing, tears, and so on. Crucially, just a memory or an image can create these physiological responses. When you really suck a lemon, your body reacts in certain ways, but the important point, for understanding and using the techniques outlined in this chapter, is that the same physical reaction can subsequently be prompted by the thought of sucking a lemon.
Take a moment now and try this simple exercise...
Imagine you are holding a big, bright yellow lemon. You hold it close to your nose and smell its strong citrus aroma. Now, you bite in to the lemon. It’s juicy! The juice fills your mouth and dribbles down your chin. Now you suck on the lemon and its tart juice.
What happens while this imaginary scene takes place? The body responds. Your mouth puckers and starts to water. You may even smell the scent of the lemon. All these clearly physical reactions are triggered by the mind and its memory of your experience with a real lemon.
We often take our imagination for granted. You may only now become aware of the mental control you have just exercised to imagine sucking the lemon. This builds on our mental capacity to create images, to visualise pictures or scenes, and through those “imaginary” scenes, deliberately change our physiological state.
Your mind has the power to affect your body so you can work on a mental level to manage physical symptoms associated with chronic conditions. With training and practice, you can use the mind to relax the body, to reduce stress and anxiety, and to ease physical and emotional discomfort. You may even be able to rely less on medication for symptom relief.
There are several ways of using your mind to manage symptoms. These are known as cognitive techniques. Cognition is the mental process of knowing, which includes such mental aspects as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment. So these techniques are usually referred to as cognitive techniques because they involve the use of thinking to make changes to the body.