Mind-body medicine and stress management

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By Marcia Murphy, LCSW

What is Mind-Body Medicine?  Mind-Body Medicine explores the influence of the mind and emotions on the body and immune system, and vice versa. Mind-body specialists are typically therapists or other mental health professionals who examine the effects of the mind – thoughts, attitudes and beliefs – on physical health and well-being. Specialists use a variety of techniques to promote health, such as talk therapy, deep breathing, guided imagery, relaxation therapy, meditation and yoga. Using these techniques, mind-body medicine helps direct energies toward healing and health.

 Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), according to Dr. Kenneth Pelletier, is “the study of the intricate interaction of consciousness (psycho), brain and central nervous system (neuro), and the body’s defenses against external infection and internal aberrant cell division (immunology).”  Dr. Pelletier serves as a medical and business consultant to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization and major corporations, such as IBM and Disney.

When we are under stress, our immune system becomes suppressed and our natural ability to fight disease is compromised unless we take steps to manage the stress in our lives. Mental strength and physical strength are interconnected. Dr. Candace Pert, the author of Molecules of Emotion and a research professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., expressed it well when she wrote, “The body isn’t there simply to carry the head.” Her research has shown that “when emotions are expressed, that is to say, when the biochemicals that are the substrate of emotion are flowing freely, all systems are united and made whole. When emotions are repressed, denied or not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital, “feel-good,” unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behavior.”

“Stress makes you physically sick,” explains Steven Maier, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. Researchers know that behavioral and psychological events can influence the immune system. The immune system sends signals to the brain “that potently alter neural activity and, thereby, alter everything that flows from neural activity, mainly behavior, thought and mood,” said Maier. The immune system also activates a classic stress response, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol. Not only does stress produce the expected biochemical stress response, it also produces predictable behavioral changes, including decreased food and water intake.

Ancient wellness traditions have understood the mind-body interaction for centuries and have incorporated it into their approaches and therapies. In India for example, the yogic philosophy teaches that the body, breath, emotion and mind are inextricably linked. The Chinese systems of Qi Gong and Tai Chi have also taught this principle for centuries.  

Mind-body medicine can benefit a cancer patient by ensuring that the patient understands that he/she is not defined by the illness. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® patients are treated as whole persons, and are surrounded by a multi-disciplinary team of experts, including a medical oncologist, registered dietician, naturopathic physician, chiropractor and mind-body therapist. We encourage our patients who participate in our mind-body therapies to take advantage of the stress management techniques we offer. Some of those techniques include:

Talk therapy:  

Allowing an objective third party to listen to a patient’s feelings can be life changing. A therapist may be able to point out distorted thinking and re-orient the patient toward a more positive and helpful direction. 

Deep breathing:  

Dr. Andrew Weil said, “Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health.  If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and well-being than breath work.”


This is one of the greatest and quickest activities for reducing stress. Laughter works because it gets your brain thinking and working in a different way. It distracts you from having a stressed mindset. As you start to smile and chuckle, the stress begins to dissipate. Keep taking the laughter medicine until you feel relaxed and recharged.


Rest is essential for a healthy life-balance. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Only in very recent times have modern heating, lighting, and communication and entertainment technologies enabled and encouraged us to keep unnatural waking and working hours. This behavior is at odds with our biological preferences.


This strategy builds on deep breathing, and takes it a step further. When you meditate, your brain initiates a sort of functioning that is similar to sleep, but carries some added benefits that aren’t achieved in any other state, such as the release of certain hormones.

Guided imagery:  

The practice of guided imagery is somewhat more time-consuming, but is a great way to reduce stress and relax the body. Some people find it easier to practice guided imagery than meditation, because it is easier to focus on something rather than on nothing. Playing natural sounds in the background during guided imagery promotes a more immersive experience.

Progressive muscle relaxation:  

Tensing, then releasing, all the muscle groups in the body can produce feelings of increased relaxation in minutes, with no special training or equipment. Start by tensing all the muscles of the face, hold a tight grimace for ten seconds, then completely relax for ten seconds. Repeat this procedure in the neck area, then the shoulder area, and so on, throughout the rest of the body.


Listening to music results in numerous health benefits for people with a range of conditions, both mild and severe. Studies have shown that listening to certain classical music can help lower blood pressure, relieve muscle tension and promote deep breathing.

The array of  stress management techniques – from acupuncture to walking – is extensive enough to provide something that will appeal to, and work for, just about everyone.

Marcia Murphy, LCSW, is a mind-body therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) at Western Regional Medical Center. Murphy joined the Mind-Body Medicine Department at CTCA in 2010 after a deeply personal experience with cancer.

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