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Examining the Faith Factor

by Dr. Herbert Benson, M.D., Mind/Body Medical Institute, Beth Israel-Deaconess Hospital, Boston

Dr. Benson began working with people with high blood pressure, helping them through biofeedback to lower their own blood pressures without medication. What he discovered was that people could not only lower their blood pressure, they could reverse heart disease and generally increase their levels of health and well-being through a relaxation technique he calls the Relaxation Response. Once the mind reaches a state of deep relaxation, the body is able to relax and repair some of its important self-protective elements. The field of understanding the intimate connections between the mind and the body, which Dr. Benson pioneered, is gaining importance in understanding how we can optimize the body’s natural defenses and deal with life’s twists, turns, and challenges.

The causes of VHL tumors are quite physical. One copy of the VHL gene does not build the right protein. But what causes the second copy to be deactivated? What can we do to keep it healthy? Does the body have natural defenses to repair it when it is threatened? Dr. Steven Lott of M.D. Anderson once likened the change in the gene to a spelling mistake. "So what we need," I replied jokingly, "is a spell-checker." Actually, he said, we have a spell-checker mechanism in our bodies, to go around and verify that the DNA in each cell is in order. If not, it will fix it, or order the mutant cell to self-destruct. However if our stamina is low, the spell-checker mechanism doesn’t work as well.

While we do not yet have full understanding of this process, we do know that keeping our bodies and minds strong is important to preparing them to deal with and fight against all stresses, disease, infections, and other threats to our well-being. The Relaxation Response, laughter, and focusing on remembering times of wellness can have a beneficial effect on enhancing our stamina.

-- Joyce Graff, Editor

When the film Lawrence of Arabia, the desert classic starring Peter O’Toole, came out a number of years ago, there were reports that concession stands were inundated at intermissions with demands for drinks -- despite the fact that many of the theaters were air-conditioned or in cool climates. A veritable epidemic of thirst hit many moviegoers as they became immersed in the hot, sandy story they were viewing on the screen.

The moral of this incident is that the influential and even life-changing forces we encounter are often not those things that are externally real. In the case of Lawrence, of course, people weren’t really deprived of water, but they identified with those waterless conditions so thoroughly that their bodies became "convinced" they were on the Arabian dunes. The result: an overwhelming sense of thirst.

Medical and scientific research is demonstrating ever more clearly that the things we can touch, taste, and measure may frequently have to take a backseat to what we perceive or believe to be real. It’s how we interpret reality or how our body "sees" the concrete world around us, that is important. To put this another way, our personal power and potential for well-being are shaped by the negative or positive ways we think. The first-century Roman philosopher Epictetus recognized this fact in this statement attributed to him: "Man is disturbed not by things, but by his opinion of things." In a similar vein, Proverbs 23:7 says of the person with an "evil eye," "...as he thinketh in his heart, so is he."

This principle of the importance of a person’s personal beliefs has been one of the focal points of my own research during the years since the publication of The Relaxation Response in 1975 and The Mind/Body Effect in 1979. I’ve concluded after scientific observations conducted in the United States, the Indian Himilayas, and elsewhere that it’s difficult to place definite limits on the physical and mental powers of those who hold profound beliefs.

My research has convinced me that there are many additional possibilities for the Relaxation Response -- especially as it operates with a person’s deepest religious or philosophical convictions -- which were not apparent when my first two books were published. In my experience, those who discover the exciting and powerful forces of the mind do so by eliciting the Relaxation Response in conjunction with their personal belief system.

The term Relaxation Response, for those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, refers to the inborn capacity of the body to enter a special state characterized by lowered heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, lowered blood pressure, slower brain waves, and an overall reduction of speed of metabolism. In addition, the changes produced by this Response counteract the harmful effects and uncomfortable feelings of stress.

In this relatively peaceful condition, the individual’s mental patterns change so that he or she breaks free of what I call "worry cycles." These are unproductive grooves or circuits that cause the mind to "play" over and over again, almost involuntarily, the same anxieties or uncreative, health-impairing thoughts.

A simple technique I use to bring out, or elicit, the Relaxation Response consists of four steps: (1) finding a quiet environment; (2) consciously relaxing the body’s muscles; (3) focusing for ten to twenty minutes on a mental device, such as the word one or a brief prayer; and (4) assuming a passive attitude toward intrusive thoughts.

A number of years ago, I thought that this approach was all that was required to elicit benefits from the Relaxation Response. And it’s true that the basic procedure is as valid as it ever was for helping individuals reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and otherwise enhance their physical and mental well-being. But now I’ve come to understand that the effects of this simple technique, combined with a person’s deepest personal beliefs, can create other internal environments that can help the individual reach enhanced states of health and well-being.

This combination of a Relaxation-Response technique with the individual’s belief system is what I call the Faith Factor. It’s by no means an entirely original concept; rather it’s a new kind of "package" that contains two powerful but familiar spiritual vehicles: (1) prayer or meditation; and (2) a deeply held set of philosophical or religious convictions. My function in exploring and describing this Faith Factor is to serve as a bridge between two disciplines: traditional faith and meditative practices, and scientific observation.

I am not interested in promoting one religious or philosophical system over another. Nor do I intend to comment in any way on the truth or falsity of any religious system. Rather, I’m most concerned with the scientifically observable phenomena and forces that accompany faith. Also, I plan to concentrate on the techniques and attitudes that can be used by those of any faith to tap those forces.

Not only did my research -- and that of my colleagues -- reveal that 25% of people feel more spiritual as the result of the Relaxation Response, but it showed that those same people have fewer medical symptoms than do those who reported no increase in spirituality. It became clear that a person’s religious convictions or life philosophy enhanced the average effects of the Relaxation Response in three ways: (1) People who chose an appropriate focus, that which drew upon their deepest philosophic or religious convictions, were more apt to adhere to the Relaxation Response routine, looking forward to it and enjoying it; (2) affirmative beliefs of any kind brought forth remembered wellness, reviving top-down, nerve-cell-firing patterns in the brain that were associated with wellness; (3) when present, faith in an eternal or life-transcending force seemed to make the fullest use of remembered wellness because it is a supremely soothing belief, disconnecting unhealthy logic and worries. Dr. Benson's Relaxation routine:

1. Find a quiet environment.

2. Consciously relax the body's muscles

3. Focus for 10-20 minutes on the word "one" or a brief prayer.

4. Assume a passive attitude toward intrusive thoughts (don't worry about them, keep focused on your word or phrase).

I already knew that the Relaxation Response could "disconnect" everyday thoughts and worries, calming people’s bodies and minds more quickly and to a degree otherwise unachievable. It appeared that beliefs added to the response transported the mind/body even more dramatically, quieting worries and fears significantly better than the Relaxation Response alone. And I speculated that religious faith was more influential than other affirmative beliefs.

These are some of the principles and practical lessons I’ve drawn from my long medical quest for lasting truths. I hope they prove helpful to you:

Let faith, the ultimate belief, heal you. According to medical research, faith in God is good for us, and this benefit is not exclusive to one denomination or theology. You can believe in God, in a quiet, introspective way or declare your convictions out loud to the world -- either way, you’ll still reap the physiologic rewards.

For many reasons, religious activity and churchgoing are also healthy. Religious groups encourage all kinds of health-affirming activities -- fellowship and socializing perhaps first among them, but also prayer, volunteerism, familiar rituals and music. Prayer, in particular, appears to be therapeutic, the specifics of which science will continue to explore.

Trust your instincts more often. People describe the process of finding out what is important to them, of tapping into their beliefs, in very different ways, sometimes calling it "soul-searching," "mulling it over," "listening to one’s heart," "going inside of one’s self," "praying," or "sleeping on it." Some people act on instincts or common sense; others find a truth or intuition emerges slowly. But most people know when something "feels right." Most people have a kind of internal radar that occasionally calls out to them.

The next time you’re faced with a major decision, medical or otherwise, ask yourself, "What feels like the right thing to do?" or "What would I do if the choice were entirely up to me?" I’m not suggesting that you make decisions based on this factor alone, but at least let belief be a player. Honor your convictions and perceptions enough to make them a part of a hearty intellectual argument.

Let your instincts guide you. Follow them up with research. Put your health in good, trustworthy hands. Let your health have time to correct itself. Invest remembered wellness and a reasonable application of self-care, medications and surgery for maximum health returns.

Practice and apply self-care regularly. Work with your doctor, and with the unconventional practitioners if you so choose, to learn self-care habits. I consider self-care anything an individual can do, independent of doctors or healers, to enhance his or her health. This includes mind/body reactions such as remembered wellness, the Relaxation Response and the Faith Factor. It also embraces good nutrition, exercise and other means of stress management.

I use the term "self-care" because it puts the burden on you, it shifts the emphasis from your role as passive patient to active participant -- a shift that medicine has not always encouraged. However, I caution against becoming self-absorbed in self-care. Don’t become fixated on your health or on the avoidance of aging, illness or death. Make your daily Relaxation Response session, your jog or your salad at lunch a "no-brainer" -- something you do without analysis. Simply delight in the event itself.

It’s almost always valuable to seek the assistance of your physician to determine the difference between a condition that will benefit from self-care exclusively and one that requires drugs or procedures to treat. Learning about your body is an evolutionary process. You’ll work toward a more independent attitude. Become acquainted with the warning signs of heart attacks, strokes, cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Over time, you’ll develop a sense of what symptoms are important -- those that are extreme or don’t go away.

Beware of people with all the answers. Be careful of any physician, nontraditional healer, spiritual guide, mind/body guru, or any adviser who claims to have all the answers or wants others to think so. Besides love and sex, writers and lecturers today take up few topics with as much evangelistic zeal as health and spirituality. It is no small task shielding these very personal matters from unhealthy speculation and overanalysis, but start tuning out overly confident or all-knowing mentors and guides. Value your emotions and intuitions the same way your brain does; don’t let someone manipulate your wiring for his or her gain.

Mind/body medicine should remind us of the precious nature of our minds, and of the importance of critiquing the messages we allow to become actualized in our brains and bodies.

Remember that the "nocebo" is equally powerful. Unfortunately, remembered wellness has a flip side. It can have negative side effects, called the nocebo (as opposed to placebo.) Our agitated minds may inappropriately trigger the fight-or-flight response in the body. Similarly, automatic negative thoughts, bad moods and compulsive worrying eventually take up physical residence in our bodies. People who dwell on worst-case scenarios, who exaggerate risks, or who project doubt and undue worry keep the nocebo effect busy in their physiologies. They signal their brains to send help when no physical sickness is present, persuading the body to get sick when there is no biological reason sickness should occur.

Remember that immortality is impossible. While it’s healthy to listen to your heart, it’s also harmful to deny or duck the truth. No one lives forever. No matter how well-versed you become in mind/body medicine, no matter how far medical progress may be able to set back the clock, death is, like illness and pain, an unfortunate but natural fact of life.

I must sound as if I’m talking in circles, first telling you not to let a diagnosis define you, then warning you not to fall prey to denial. Nonetheless, some lecturers and New Age entrepreneurs imply that all disease is curable and that we can avoid death and aging if we only believe. These salespeople do great harm to people by fostering guilt, and they damage the field of mind/body medicine, which is legitimately trying to establish its findings and change the way Western medicine is practiced. No evidence exists that death can be denied its eventual toll.

Indeed, fear of death can bring out the worst in people, but the realization that death is an inevitable, natural occurrence can also propel healthy, impassioned living.

Living well, exercising and eating appropriately, seeing doctors when you need to but not over-relying on the medical system -- these are all proven buffers against disease and illness.

Believe in something good. Even though we do not necessarily need all the pills and procedures that conventional medicine and unconventional medicine give us, these medicinal symbols retain an aura of effectiveness and often appease our desire for action. While we must learn to use medicine more appropriately for the conditions it can help, and to wean ourselves from excessive spending on unnecessary therapies, we’ll often need some catalysts for belief, even if belief is really the healer.

So remember the vigor from the time you felt healthiest in your life. Remember the blessing your mother said to you before you left for school, the smell of incense at church, or the tranquility you felt picking up stones from the beach on Cape Cod. Remember the time the penicillin vanquished your ear infection, or the time the surgeon removed the splinter from deep in your foot and your pain immediately ceased. Remember how full-throated you sang in the choir or how long you stayed on the dance floor of a nightclub. Remember the doctor who really cared about you or the chaplain who prayed with you in the hospital. Remember the way you felt when you made love to your husband or wife, and the way you felt when your daughter or son was born.

Then let go, and believe. You’ve read all about your physiology, you’ve surrounded yourself with good caregivers who help you take a moderate, balanced approach to your health and health care. Now it’s time to enjoy your endowment, this wiring for faith that makes the power of remembered wellness so enduring.

Believe in something good if you can. Or even better, believe in something better than anything you can fathom. Because for us mortals, this is very profound medicine.

Excerpts from Herbert Benson, M.D., Beyond the Relaxation Response (1984, Times Books, NY) and Timeless Healing (1996, Simon & Schuster, NY). Reprinted with the kind permission of the author and the publishers. See also http://www.med.harvard.edu/programs/mindbody/ for available books and audio tapes. q

As printed in the VHL Family Forum 5:4, December 1997.  For permission to reprint, please contact VHL Family Alliance, info@vhl.org.

All Glory and Honor are yours Almighty One, forever and ever, Amen!