For more than a decade, researchers have studied how quickly wounds heal in people who are relaxed compared with people who are stressed. Their results have generally shown that the calmer and more supported you feel, the faster you will recover. A recent study from New Zealand offers further evidence that inner peace can speed recovery.
Elizabeth Broadbent of the University of Auckland co-authored the study, which appeared in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity. Her team evaluated a relaxation intervention designed to reduce stress in patients scheduled for surgery. Beginning three days before their procedure, participants in one group saw a psychologist who guided them through sessions of deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and imagery. A second, control group did not undergo the sessions.
The patients who had the intervention not only experienced a reduction in perceived stress both before and after surgery, but also higher levels of collagen, the main component of connective tissue, at the wound site. "A brief relaxation intervention prior to surgery," Broadbent's team wrote, "can reduce stress and improve the wound healing response in surgical patients."
There is clearly a connection between our emotions and our bodies. We know that our thoughts and feelings evoke physiological responses, and that strategies to decrease stress and negativity can strengthen our immune system and help prevent illness and boost recovery. Of course, most of us do have stress in our lives, especially when we are ill, and not all of our personal relationships are as supportive and loving as they could be.
In my book, You Can Heal Yourself: A Guide to Physical and Emotional Recovery After Injury or Illness, I detail how important it is for those who are healing to avoid fixating on stress and instead to focus on self-care and recovery. You can do this even when external factors, such as a difficult relationship, contribute to your stress. Sometimes troubled relationships will die a natural death when faced with the additional stress of an illness. In other cases, problems in a relationship are put on the back burner so the patient can deal with the more pressing medical issues. And some strained relationships improve with illness as people set aside their differences and unite during a difficult time.
While you are recovering, you should try to gravitate towards positive people — there is no doubt that compassion and encouragement from family, friends and caregivers can lower your stress level, which will help you heal. But independent of the state of your relationships, and regardless of the level of support you receive from a partner or others in your life, there are things you can do on your own to calm your mind and experience the contentment you need as you recover.
Begin by focusing on the things you enjoy doing that you can still do easily. These may be activities as simple as listening to music, working on a jigsaw puzzle, taking a walk or praying. Make these things part of your day, every day, as you recover. This will relax you and take your mind off of your problems, even for a short time, and help you feel better both physically and emotionally.
Adding some mind-body healing strategies — such as meditation, guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation — may also be helpful. These are all relatively easy things to learn to do, though at first they may feel unfamiliar. Even beginners achieve the benefits of relaxation. To encourage your mind to heal your body, try one or more of the following techniques:
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Visualization and Imagery. With this technique, you concentrate on a specific meaningful vision or event, the theory being that the mind is better able to cure the body when it visualizes images that evoke specific calming sensory memories; strong, positive emotions; or even fantasies. For example, you may visualize medicine flowing into your body and pain flowing out. Or you may visualize your body working perfectly in concert toward a goal such as winning a race. There are a variety of ways to use visualization; to get started, think of events that are especially meaningful to you and use those scenes as your initial visions.
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Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Lie down or sit in a comfortable place and then tense and relax muscles throughout your body. Start the exercise at the top, by grimacing and clenching your teeth. After counting to 10, relax, inhale and exhale, and then let your face become as lax as if you were asleep. Next, tense your neck and shoulders, again counting to 10; then relax again. Repeat this process with your chest, abdomen, buttocks, arms, hands, legs and feet.
When you take the time to implement one or more of these strategies to reduce your stress, you'll support your mind, body and soul and advance the healing process.
Dr. Julie Silver, author of You Can Heal Yourself (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), is an assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. She is also the founder of Oncology Rehab Partners, a company bringing cancer rehabilitation services to hospitals and cancer centers across the country to help survivors recover from the side effects of treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieSilverMD.
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