It’s not a myth: Stress can negatively impact your physical health. But this also means you can use mind-body techniques to reduce chronic illness, especially those involving your immune system. I explain in my book, The Immune System Recovery Plan.
For a long time we believed that our autonomic nervous system was automatic. Then, beginning in the 1930s, Hans Selye studied mice and detailed the mechanisms of the stress response, and we found out that the response to stress and the effect on your autonomic nervous system can be influenced by aspects of the environment, including food and living conditions. His studies helped us understand what we already knew about monks living in caves in the Himalayan Mountains who could regulate their body temperature with meditation. They were able to do so because meditation causes blood vessels to relax and dilate; as a result, more blood could flow through their bodies, making them feel warm. The fact that you can actually control body functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, and your immune system is a shocking realization for many people, but it’s true.
This is part of mind-body medicine, a branch of integrative medicine (functional medicine is also a branch of integrative medicine). It looks at how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions affect your physical health and how your physical health affects your spiritual and emotional well-being. When practiced regularly, mind-body techniques such as meditation, guided relaxation, and guided imagery can have a powerful positive effect on you and your health. There are two main benefits you will gain by beginning a mind-body practice.
First, your body can actually learn to have a different kind of response to a situation so that you don’t turn on the damaging hormones and instead maintain a balanced inner world that will help you prevent and reverse any chronic illness you may have, especially one involving the immune system. But equally as important, these techniques will help you begin to understand the amount of stress that is coming into your body, and this awareness will help you see what changes need to be made in how you are living your life and how certain things you are doing may be hurting you. Mind-body medicine offers the tools for this sort of exploration and for regaining balance.