01.08.2009 Yoga

Thumbs Up

Medical researchers, poets and yogis all agree - holding on to hope means holding on to good health. Chandrika Gibson investigates.

Take a moment to get in touch with how you feel when you face a seemingly insurmountable problem. If you can visualise acute hopelessness, you are likely to feel your shoulders slump, your head hangs down, your heart sinks and a wave of exhaustion washes over you. In that state of mind and body there is little vitality, no energy to exercise, to choose healthy foods or to have positive interactions with others. It's a gloomy, ho-hum way to feel.

Consider a health crisis situation, for example, a newly diagnosed tumour. If the message you receive from the medicos is upbeat: "It's early stages, treatment has a good success rate, full recovery is expected," how would you feel? What if the prognosis is hopeless, you are told to get your affairs in order as you may have less than a month to live?

The two possible states of mind here have markedly different affects on the physical body. Hopefulness is processed through the heart chakra and feels like a lifting of the chin and chest, a powering forward through adversity without fear. It is an energetic, proactive approach.

Hopelessness leaves you dragging your feet toward the inevitable, feeling powerless to change your situation and resigned to the predicted outcome.

Holistic health sciences understand clearly how potent the effects of the mind are on biochemical markers in the body. The various schools of Mind Body Medicine have explanations for these effects. In yogic science the heart chakra (anahata) is the home of the Hope vritti. Vrittis are the modifications of the mind stuff or chitta, they are the places of expression for various thought forms and feelings. Perhaps you have felt the hope/hopelessness states in your chest directly. The closely linked vrittis or propensities of misery and repentance are also experienced through the heart centre.

Poets and songsmiths have often expressed eloquently the heartache we humans know so well. For some people there will be other chakras and regions of the body affected as hopelessness descends into fear, anxiety or anger. But the process of losing hope begins in the heart centre.

Cancer research has highlighted the effects of bereavement and grief on physical health. In the US, Dr Lawrence LeShan researched the lives of 400 cancer patients and found there is a typical "cancer personality" profile. His studies illuminated a remarkably similar life path for many patients. The cancer profile describes a person who felt lonely and isolated during childhood and youth, but later finds something that gives his or her life meaning in adulthood; a beloved spouse or stimulating career, for example. Then suddenly they lose the thing they were attached to - their spouse dies or their career is ruined - and they plunge into despair. Within two years they develop cancer.

In a separate study coordinated by LeShan, 31 out of 33 children with leukemia experienced traumatic loss less than two years before the onset of the disease. Given that tumours are frequently undetected until symptoms alert people who then get tested, grief and loss may have a faster acting influence than these studies show. Yogic science would say the attachment vritti in the heart has been broken, leading to hopelessness and loss of prana flow to the heart and related glands.

It is recognised that aberrant cells are a common occurrence, but the immune system normally deals with them before they develop into a tumour. Nutritional medicine research has proven that an antioxidant-rich diet scavenges the free radicals which cause oxidative stress to the cells. Known carcinogens exist in the environment and in many people's diets, and yet not everyone exposed will develop cancer. Oncogenes (genetic markers for cancer) are not "switched on" in every member of a family carrying similar genetic potential. It seems immune function has a great role to play in cancer prevention and healing.

It has now been established that grief suppresses the immune system, and hope stimulates it. This has led to the development of H-tests or Hope Scores for cancer patients. Those who rate highly on their H-test stand a better chance of recovering from cancer.

To explain the powerful link between mind and body we can turn to the yogis, to quantum physics or to the academic field of psychoneuroimmunology. According to yogic science, each chakra processes specific thoughts that have their affect on the related glands. The heart chakra, situated deep in the chest, relates to the thymus gland. The emotion of hope stimulates the thymus hormone thymosin to produce more T-cells (white cells crucial for immune function). When the propensities of depression and misery are activated, they depress the thymus gland and fewer T-cells are produced, allowing the body to succumb to disease.

The case of "Mr Wright" is often quoted in the psychoneuroimmunology literature. The patient had an advanced case of lymph node cancer, with large tumours throughout his lymphatic system. The doctors had pronounced his case terminal and given him a prognosis of a maximum of two weeks to live. Mr Wright heard about a new drug, an experimental treatment he felt convinced was his last hope.

He begged to be given the expensive new medication. Begrudgingly, the doctors administered the drug on a Friday and left the patient untreated in hospital over the weekend. By Monday morning he felt considerably better. Tests revealed the tumours had shrunk by 50 per cent. Within 10 days, the tumours had vanished and the patient had made a full recovery. Some months later, the media reported that the drug had been proven ineffective and withdrawn from the market. Hearing this, Mr Wright lost hope, the cancer returned and he died soon after.

Since the 1960s, biomedical research schools have studied psychosocial influences on health and disease. In 1966, the American Psychosomatic Society linked hopelessness with cervical cancer in a landmark study quoted by mind body researchers ever since. Medical doctor Arthur H Shmale Jr and his PhD colleague Howard P Iker studied 40 women with evidence of cervical dysplasia, a known precursor to cancer. The research team predicted which cases would become malignant carcinomas based on interview criteria defined as a "high hopelessness potential", or recently reported feelings of hopelessness. They identified 14 women as likely to develop cancer based on the hopelessness criteria. Biopsies revealed all 14 of the women had carcinomas, while the remaining 26 cases studied were early stage dysplasia.

Two other significant studies link hopelessness with heart disease. Holistic health experts would say the heart requires hope to function optimally, that the organ derives energy from positive emotions. The Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Study was a longitudinal psychosocial study conducted over six years and published in the Journal of Biobehavioural Medicine. A group of middle aged men was rated as having low, moderate or high levels of hopelessness. The research found a dose response relationship such that moderate and highly hopeless men had an increased risk of mortality from all causes. Highly hopeless men were three times as likely as others to die from violence or injury. The scientists concluded that hopelessness is a strong predictor of adverse health outcomes, independent of depression and traditional risk factors.

Another well designed study of Finnish men (a population with a high incidence of hypertension) studied 616 men with normal blood pressure at the outset of the four year study. Hopelessness was measured by two items assessing negative expectancy about the future and one's goals. Adjusted for age, body mass index (BMI), baseline blood pressure, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption, education, parental history of hypertension and self reported depressive symptoms, it was revealed that men reporting high levels of hopelessness at baseline (start of experiment) were three times more likely to become hypertensive.

What all of this research tells us is that the mind has a dramatic effect on the body. As the many fields within Holistic Medicine have always proclaimed, you really do have the power to control your physiology. Biology turns out not to be destiny.

While we may not be able to control much (if anything) that happens around us, we do have the potential to master our responses to events. Grief and loss are painful, there's no doubt that suffering is part of the human condition. But the extent to which you succumb to hopelessness depends upon your own internal habits and development. It is entirely possible to remain upbeat even after tragedy if you adopt a hopeful, positive perspective.

Crucially, you must actually believe your problems are surmountable and that you can gain wisdom from any situation. That optimism will be processed through the hope vritti in the heart, increasing the production and activity of T-cells from the thymus gland. With the head held high, shoulders back and chest open your immune system functions optimally, defending you from illness. Setbacks become learning opportunities, loss becomes space for new life and hope brings the energy and motivation to progress. Medical researchers and holistic healers agree - happiness, and particularly hopefulness, are accurate predictors of health.

Chandrika Gibson

Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath