It was late in the afternoon and I was tired. A knock on my office door. One of my students came in and started to read to me from a card. “I want to thank you for all your help in my self-healing project…I didn’t know the improvements were possible for me in a span of 5 weeks…. I thank you so much for encouraging and supporting me…. I have taken back control of myself and continue to make new discoveries about my identity and find my own happiness and fulfillment… Thank you so much.”
I was deeply touched and my eyes started to fill with tears. At that moment, I felt so appreciated. We hugged. My tiredness disappeared and I felt at peace.
In a world where we are constantly bombarded by negative, fearful stories and images, we forget that our response to these stories impacts our health. When people watch fear eliciting videos, their heart rate increases and their whole body responds with a defense reaction as if they are personally being threatened (Kreibig, Wilhelm, Roth, & Gross, 2007). Afterwards, we may continue to interpret and react to new stimuli as if they are the same as what happened in the video. For example, while watching a horror movie, we may hold our breath, perspire and feel our heart racing; however, when we leave the theatre and walk down the street by ourselves, we continue to be afraid and react to stimuli as if what happened in video will now happen to us.
When we feel threatened, our body responds to defend itself. It reduces the blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract where digestion is taking place and sends it to large muscles so that we can run and fight. When threatened, most of our resources shifted to the processes that promote survival while withdrawing it from processes that do not lead to immediate survival such as digestion or regeneration (Sapolsky, 2004). From an evolutionary perspective, why spent resources to heal yourself, enhance your immune system or digest your food when you will become someone else’s lunch!
The more we feel threatened, the more we will interpret the events around us negatively. We become more stressed, defensive, and pessimistic. If this response occurs frequently, it contributes to increased morbidity and mortality. We may not be in control of external or personal event; however, we may be able to learn how to change our reactions to these events. It is our reactions and interpretations of the event that contributes to our ongoing stress responses. The stressor can be labeled as crisis or opportunity.
Mobilize your own healing when you take charge. When 92 students as part of a class at San Francisco State University practiced self-healing skill, most reported significant improvements in their health as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Average self-reported improvement after practicing self-healing skills for at least four weeks. (Reproduced with permission from Tseng, Abili, Peper, & Harvey, 2016).
A strategy that many students used was to interrupt their cascading automatic negative reactions. The moment they became aware of their negative thought and body slumping, they interrupted the process and practiced a very short relaxation or meditation technique.
Implement what the students have done by taking charge of your stress responses and depressive thoughts by 1) beginning the day with a relaxation technique, Relax Body-Mind, 2) interrupting the automatic response to stressors with a rapid stress reduction technique, Breathe and be a Tree, and 3) increasing vitality by the practice, Share Gratitude (Gorter & Peper, 2011).
Relax Body-Mind to start the day*
- Lie down or sit and close your eyes. During the practice if your attention wanders, just bring it back to that part of the body you are asked to tighten or let go.
- Wrinkle your face for ten seconds while continuing to breathe. Let go and relax for ten seconds.
- Bring your hands to your face with the fingers touching the forehead while continuing to breathe. While exhaling, pull your fingers down your face so that you feel your jaw being pulled down and relaxing. Drop your hands to your lap. Feel the sensations in your face and your fingers for ten seconds.
- Make a fist with your hands and lift them slightly up from your lap while continuing to breathe. Feel the sensations of tension in your hands, arms and shoulders for ten seconds. Let go and relax by allowing the arms to drop to your lap and relax. Feel the sensations change in your hands, arms and shoulders for ten seconds.
- Tighten your buttocks and flex your ankles so that the toes are reaching upwards to your knees. Hold for ten seconds while continuing to breathe. Let go and relax for ten seconds.
- Take a big breath while slightly arching your back away from the bed ore chair and expand your stomach while keeping your arms, neck, buttocks and legs relaxed. Hold the breath for twenty seconds. Exhale and let your back relax while allowing the breathing to continue evenly while sensing your body’s contact with the bed or chair for twenty seconds. Repeat three times.
- Gently shake your arms and legs for ten seconds while continuing to breathe. Let go and relax. Feel the tingling sensations in your arms and legs for 20 seconds.
- Evoke a past positive memory where you felt at peace and nurtured.
- Stretch and get up. Know you have done the first self-healing step of the day.
*Be gentle to yourself and stop the tightening or breath holding if it feels uncomfortable.
Breathe and be a Tree to dissipate stress and focus on growth
- Look at a tall tree and realize that you are like a tree that is rooted in the ground and reaching upward to the light. It continues to grow even though it has been buffeted by storms.
- When you become aware of being stressed, exhale slowly and inhale so that your stomach expands, the while slowly exhaling, look upward to the top of a real or imagined tree, admire the upper branches and leaves that are reaching towards the light and smile.
- Remember that even though you started to respond to a stressor, the stressor will pass just like storms battering the tree. By breathing and looking upward, accept what happened and know you are growing just like the tree.
- Think of someone who did something for you that impacted your life in a positive direction and whom you never properly thanked. This could be a neighbor, teacher, friend, parent, or other family members.
- Write a 300-word testimonial describing specifically what the person did and how it positively impacted you and changed the course of your life.
- Arrange an actual face-to-face meeting with the person. Tell them you would like to see him/her. If they are far away, arrange a Skype call where you can actually see and hear him/her. Do not do it by email or texting.
- Meet with the person and read the testimonial to her/him.
- It may seem awkward to read the testimonial, after you have done it, you will feel closer and more deeply connected to the person. Moreover, the person to whom you read the testimonial, will usually feel deeply touched. Both your hearts will open.
Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting cancer: A nontoxic approach to treatment. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 205-207.
Kreibig, S. D., Wilhelm, F. H., Roth, W. T., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Cardiovascular, electrodermal, and respiratory response patterns to fear‐and sadness‐inducing films. Psychophysiology, 44(5), 787-806.Kreibig, Sylvia D., Frank H. Wilhelm, Walton T. Roth, and James J. Gross. “Cardiovascular, electrodermal, and respiratory response patterns to fear‐and sadness‐inducing films.” Psychophysiology 44, no. 5 (2007): 787-806.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Owl Books
Seligman, M. (2014). The new era of positive psychology. Ted Talk. Retrieved, December 10, 2016. https://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology
Tseng, C., Abili, R., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2016). Reducing Acne-Stress and an integrated self-healing approach. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback, 4(4), 445.)
My arm did not move and yet the muscle tension from my forearm increased when I mentally rehearsed playing the piano. I did not notice anything. It really made me aware how my thoughts affect my body. –25 year old woman psychologist
Therapists and educators can demonstrate the mind/body interaction with physiological monitoring to change their clients’ illness beliefs and demonstrate how ruminating thoughts may affect mental and physical health (Peper, Shumay, Moss, & Sztembis, 2013). When clients see how their body’s physiological responses are affected by thoughts and emotions, they gain a perspective that allows them to KNOW that thoughts affect body—the objective physiological evidence is indisputable.
The concept that thoughts affect the body has been described by many researchers. For example, Whatmore and Kohli (1975) used the term “Representing efforts,” which are the efforts we bring forth within our self during thinking, remembering, anticipating, daydreaming and worrying. Similarly, Green, Green and Walters (1970, p.3) described a process of thoughts influencing human physiological reactions as the Psycho-physiological principle, where “every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and conversely, every change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.”
The mind/body connection can be demonstrated through recording physiological signals. For example, when a volunteer had her skin conductance (SC) level monitored, and then another person was asked in the group to give the volunteer a kiss, there was an increase in skin conductance response just after the instruction was given even though the person did not actually kiss the volunteer. The volunteer was responding to the instructions that a kiss might occur, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The effect on SC level of hearing the instruction that someone will give her a kiss
For educators and psychotherapists, biofeedback can be used to demonstrate the connection between positive or negative mental rehearsal, thoughts or visualization or recalling memories and physiological responses. This process can be demonstrated with surface electromyography (SEMG) recorded from muscles that become activated when the person mentally rehearses a task as illustrated in the following case example.
The participant was a 25 year old female psychologist who had practiced playing the piano for more than 16 years. Muscle activity was recorded from her right forearm extensor muscles and displayed on a large screen so that other group participants could observe. The physiological data and video recording of the volunteer were simultaneously recorded. The volunteer was asked to relax, imagine playing a musical piece, relax, and again imagine playing a musical piece and relax.
Results. Each time she imagined playing the piano, the forearm extensor muscle tension increased, even though there was no observed finger and forearm movements, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The covert SEMG increase in forearm SEMG as the participant imagined playing the piano.
After the recording, the session was replayed so she could see herself and her movements on the screen simultaneously with the SEMG signal. She reported being totally unaware that she had activated her forearm muscles and, was totally surprised when she saw the recording of the SEMG activity while her forearm appeared to stay in a relaxed position.
Discussion.The physiological monitoring demonstrated that her body responded to here thoughts and imagtes. In the case example, the arm muscle tension increased in tension when she mentally rehearsed playing the piano. This participant like most other people was unaware that her body reacted.If the thought of piano playing increased forearm tension,what would thoughts of anger, resentment, hopelessness, kindness or love do to the body. This concrete physiological demonstration illustrated that changing your thoughts changes your physiology. .
Once the person is aware how thoughts affect their body, it may motivate the person to become aware and change their cognitions. They can now understand that interrupting negative ruminations and behavior patterns and rehearsing new behavior patterns, their health can be improved. We strongly recommend that cognitive behavioral therapists, educators, psychologists, and other therapeutic practitioners include biofeedback monitoring for demonstrating the links between cognitions and physiological reactions.
After such a demonstration, the therapist may point out that what happens in the office setting is likely the identical process that occurs when a person worries, has negative cognitions, continuously reviews personal failures, or makes judgmental statements such as “I should not have done ________.”
When individuals think a negative statement such as “I should not have…………”, they are mentally rehearsing what they should not do and are unintentionally strengthening the negative behavior even more. Instead, whenever people becomes aware of the beginning of the negative cognitions, they can learn to stop and transform their negative cognitions to positive cognitions. In this way they can rehearse what they would want to do instead of what they do not want to do (Peper, Gibney, & Holt, 2002).
The more you rehearse what you want to achieve, the more likely it is to occur. This strategy is useful to change clients’ illness beliefs and motivate them to transform their cognitions from what they do not want to what they want to do. In addition, it offers cognitive behavior therapists documented evidence—the biofeedback recording provides the data which is necessary for evidence based medicine.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
–Victor E. Frankle
* Adapted from: Peper, E., Nemoto, S., Lin, I-M., & Harvey, R. (2015). Seeing is believing: Biofeedback a tool to enhance motivation for cognitive therapy. Biofeedback, 43(4), 168-172. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.03
Green, E.E., Green, A.M., & Walters, E.D. (1970). Voluntary control of internal states: Psychological and physiological. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 11, 1-26.
Peper, E., Gibney, K.H., & Holt. C. (2002). Make health happen: Training yourself to create wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.
Peper, E., Shumay, D. M., Moss, D. & Sztembis, R. (2013). The Power of Words, Biofeedback, and Somatic Feedback to Impact Illness Beliefs. Somatics .XVII(1), 4-8.
Whatmore, G.B., & Kohli, D. R. (1975). The physiopathology and treatment of functional disorders: Including anxiety states and depression and the role of biofeedback training. New York: Grune and Stratton, Inc.
Mind-Guided Body Scans for Awareness and Healing–Youtube Interview of Erik Peper, PhD by Larry Berkelhammer, PhDPosted: December 23, 2013
In this interview psychophysiology expert Dr. Erik Peper explains the ways how a body scan can facilitate awareness and healing. The discussion describes how the mind-guided body scan can be used to improve immune function and hold passive attention (mindfulness) to become centered. It explores the process of passive attentive process that is part of Autogenic Training and self-healing mental imagery. Mind-guided body scanning involves effortlessly observing and attending to body sensations through which we can observe our own physiological processes. Body scanning can be combined with imagery to be in a nonjudgmental state that supports self-healing and improves physiological functioning.