The healing power of service
By Edward V. Brown
Apr 10, 2000
A few years ago in a small
rural town in Oregon, USA, a teenage boy died in a drowning accident. In all likelihood his death could have been prevented
if an ambulance & trained medical personnel had been available. However, this small town was too poor to afford these
The boy’s mother grieved for the loss of her son, but she also transformed
her grief into a service to her community. While she couldn't regain her son, she worked to prevent a similar tragedy. This
woman trained & became an Emergency Medical Technician.
After completing her training
she raised money to purchase an ambulance & trained volunteers to help her. It's estimated that this volunteer ambulance
service has saved the lives of over 100 people that might have died, as her son did, due to a lack of emergency care.
When interviewed, this woman
said, "It’s easier to forget your own loss when you're busy helping others."
scientists are beginning to discover what this woman already knows: that there's healing power in helping others.
This new field of specialization,
psychoneuroimmunology or PNI for short, researches the power of the mind to influence health & healing. This research
has produced some startling results.
IgA is an antibody that helps
the body defend itself from infection. Harvard psychologist David McClelland measured this antibody in students before &
after watching a film on Mother Teresa, the Nobel Prize laureate, for her work helping the homeless.
Dr. McClelland found that
merely watching a film on selfless service strengthened the immune response in the students.
Chinese & Indian medicine have long considered the mind & the body as inseparable, Western science since the
time of Descartes has viewed the mind & body as separate unrelated entities.
The PNI research is providing
concrete evidence that this separation is artificial & erroneous. Studies have traced direct neurological pathways between
the brain & the immune system. This research shows that the immune system, consisting primarily of several types of white
blood cells, is controlled by the nervous system & that the white blood cells in turn are capable of transmitting chemical
messages back to the brain.
Many health statistics demonstrate that the mind can
influence the body. Stressful life events such as the death of a spouse, divorce, or loss of employment greatly increase your
risk of becoming ill. In the words of Hans Selye MD, "What we call ageing is nothing more than the sum total of all the scars
left by the stress of life".
The so-called Type A personality is an example of how
the way we think & act affects our health. Type A individuals tend to move & react quickly. They may do two things
at the same time & find it difficult to relax. These hard driving, hurried & competitive individuals have increased
risk of heart attack & stroke.
Newer research suggests that
the tendency to become angry or irritated is the most damaging aspect of Type A behavior.
Events that are perceived as stressful evoke what is referred to
as the "fight or flight" response. In response to danger, the body secretes hormones that cause the heart & lungs to work
faster, blood pressure goes up, skeletal muscles tighten & digestive processes slow down.
All of these changes are to
prepare the body for physical exertion. In today’s high stress society, most of our threats don't involve physical danger.
However, the mind’s imagination is so powerful that a perceived stress elicits the same fight or flight response that
a physical stress evokes.
When our body is primed for
physical activity by the stress response & we continue with our sedentary activity, this imposes an added burden on the
body, somewhat like stepping on the accelerator in your automobile while at the same time holding down the brake pedal.
Cancer is a disease that is influenced by the stress response. One researcher found that the majority
of cancer patients had a severe emotional trauma early in life, such as the loss of a parent. Other research suggests that
cancer patients have difficulty expressing their emotions.
One can speculate that pent-up
emotional energy finds its outlet in the manifestation of cancer.
of cancer-prone personalities is their rigid way of looking at the world. They perceive self-imposed ‘rules’ by
which they must live. When life situations develop that don't conform to the rules, there is a feeling of helplessness.
They see themselves as victims
of circumstances beyond their control & give up. This mental surrender leads to a weakening of immune function. Considering
the direct links between the brain & the immune system, this isn't surprising.
It appears that mentally giving
up doesn't cause cancer so much as it allows cancer to develop.
While the mind-body connection
has been known for years, modern medicine has had difficulty translating this information into viable treatment alternatives.
What are the medical implications of these new discoveries & how can we use this information to facilitate health &
If mental & emotional states
influence our susceptibility to disease, can we not also use the power of the mind to strengthen our healing response?
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University, author of The Relaxation Response teaches his patients
a form of meditation. He finds that the use of this technique for 20 minutes twice a day aids a whole host of measurable clinical
factors, such as lowered blood pressure, lowered heart & breathing rate, decreased oxygen consumption & profound muscle
Dr. Benson has further refined
the technique by adding the element of prayer to the meditative technique. He has the person pick a word or phrase that has
religious or philosophical meaning in their personal belief system.
He finds that adding the ‘faith
factor’ to the relaxation response increases its effectiveness.
Dr. Carl Simonton,
a cancer specialist, in his book Getting Well Again, outlines visualization techniques to strengthen the healing response.
He has the patient mentally image the white blood cells fighting & destroying the cancer cells.
He finds that the ability
to image a positive outcome is essential if the disease process is to reverse. When patients have difficulty with the visualization
& has a negative expectation about their treatment, invariably the outcome is poor.
However, when patients are
successful in turning around a negative self-attitude with creative visualization the results can be remarkable.
Dr. Bernie Siegel in Love, Medicine & Miracles urges the person to become an "exceptional
patient". By exceptional he means for the patients to become an active partner in their recovery. Exceptional patients are
sometimes viewed as being difficult by traditional medicine.
They may question their doctor’s
advice or even defy their recommendations rather than being a passive recipient of treatment. However, it's precisely this
active interest in the course of treatment & outcome that's required to marshal the enhanced immune response.
The power of the mind to influence the body is beyond question; a negative mental attitude can
threaten one’s health & a positive mental attitude will trigger changes within the body that promote health &
Thus, while research shows
that social isolation is a major health risk factor, it also shows that people who do volunteer work are much less likely
to suffer illness. The close interpersonal relationships & community involvement that occur with volunteer service are
tailor-made to enhance the healing process.
Dr Albert Schweitzer, the medical missionary,
commented: "The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought & found how to serve".
Considering the implications
of the PNI research, we might extend this to include altruistic service of some kind as
an essential element of becoming truly healthy.