Optimism may affect health as much as diet, exercise

Enhance healing by improving the emotional state

Your presurgery instructions probably don’t include a booklet on breathing techniques a patient might use to relax before surgery or a videotape on relaxation exercises such as guided imagery. Yet experts on the mind/body connection say it would be a good idea to include such information.

Although there is a need for more research in this area, a person’s attitude can make a difference in his or her recovery and overall health status, says Sharon Stout-Shaffer, RN, MS, a doctoral candidate at The Ohio State University in Columbus and an expert on relaxation therapy with certification in guided imagery. "If people believe they are going to do well, they are more likely to do well. If people believe they are going to be able to manage their pain, they will do better," she explains.

The emotional states created through music, imagery, massage, and various other forms of relaxation techniques provide the energy for healing. "Feelings are physiological. Using various forms of relaxation helps people get in touch with deep feelings. When feelings are positive, people can allow them in, and when feelings are hurtful, they can begin to release them. That is the key to healing," says Stout-Shaffer.

A person’s belief system plays a large role in the state of their health. Eating well, getting plenty of rest, and exercising are only part of maintaining good health. Positive mental thinking and relaxation also should be parts of a positive mental health strategy, says Stout-Shaffer.

When creating educational programs, patient education managers should attempt to incorporate the whole person, which includes the mind and spirit as well as the body, says Barry Bittman, MD, chief executive officer for the Mind Body Wellness Center in Meadville, PA, and host of the public radio show Mind-Body Matters. "The only approach that really makes sense is a mind/ body approach because it is the most logical way to maintain our health in the first place," he says.

Thoughts turn into chemistry

The mind/body connection is the relationship between a person’s thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and the person’s nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. What a person thinks and believes turns into the chemistry, the biology, and the immunity of his or her body, explains Bittman.

"In a similar vein, when the body is stressed in the form of an accident, injury, development of an infection or tumor, the mind is also affected in that there are direct chemical messengers that communicate between the body and the central nervous system," says Bittman.

Many complementary therapies are referred to as mind/body interventions. For example, Tai Chi and yoga have a solid exercise foundation, yet both develop an awareness, a sense of mental balance, a calm and inner peace that goes hand in hand with the exercise component.

There are also therapies that focus on using a mental or emotional component to produce a specific biology that promotes a sense of relaxation and increases the potential for either maintaining or regaining a healthy life, says Bittman. These include such therapies as guided imagery and meditation.

Incorporating the whole person in a health care strategy does not mean abandoning the traditional approach to medicine. "I don’t believe that alternative medicine is any more logical than the traditional approach. They should be integrated using a knowledge base established in traditional medi cine," says Bittman. For example, if a battered woman is taught yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation, she is still a battered woman who has simply learned these complementary forms of therapy.

Integrate counseling with lifestyle change

A better approach is to give counseling to help the woman deal with the underlying issues that are causing the problem while at the same time giving her tools to improve her current outlook.

"When you integrate strategies to augment meaning and purpose, help the person establish control, or make healthy choices, you are then accomplishing something which can improve the quality of a person’s life and perhaps their longevity or survival," says Bittman.

Any treatment involving lifestyle change must achieve patient compliance. Offering only one method is not the best way to get a patient to make changes. In a mind/body model, patients are given options so they can choose what works for them.

"If you give a person one tool to go out and fix your parking lot, chances are it won’t get done, but if you give them a tool box full of instruments and teach them how to use them, it is likely they will find the correct instrument to use for the specific purpose," explains Bittman.

Choice is important, agrees Stout-Shaffer. Just as some people like to bicycle while others like to walk, not all therapies that make the mind/body connection are suitable for everyone. "People respond at different times to different things. It may be massage at one time and imagery at another. They may have different needs at different points in time," she says.

Compliance also increases if you give patients a chance to build on their knowledge. "A good educational program has checks and balances, so that rather than providing a single session or a group of sessions, the educational program has some sort of follow-up, reunion, or ability for people to come back and to continue to build on their strengths and acquire new skills so they can make lifestyle changes that are lasting and meaningful," says Bittman.