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What Causes Disease? – Guest Post By Larry Berkelhammer, PhD

Posted Jun 21 2012 12:00am

Today I have a guest blogger.  I am honored to have Larry Berkelhammer posting on my blog today. 

What Causes Disease?

By Larry Berkelhammer, PhD

Our State of Mind Directly Affects Our Health

The early Greek metaphysicians as well as indigenous healers throughout history have known empirically that chronic emotional distress leads to chronic physiological stress, which eventuates in disease. Even in the days before physicians and indigenous healers could measure emotions and stress, it was obvious to all of them that there was a direct connection between emotional/mental state and state of health.

We now know that disease is the result of physiological stress. However, physiological stress can be triggered by physical trauma; infection with viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites; many prescription drugs; exposure to environmental or endogenously produced toxins; or temperature extremes. Other potential physiological stress factors include genetic predisposition to disease, epigenetic events, unhealthy behavior, and an endless number of idiopathic (unknown) pathophysiological processes. Often, disease is the result of an unfortunate confluence of more than one of these physiological stressors.

One thing all medical conditions have in common is that the healing process is influenced by our state of mind. State of mind is a constant variable that helps explain why exposure to any of the particular physiological stressors mentioned above does not necessarily always confer disease. It is important to know that any reduction of emotional distress can mollify the effects of most forms of physiological stress.  

Our genetics, epigenetics, and other factors can determine the specifics of our future illnesses and the age at which we will be struck down. Those who have exceptional genetics, who get good nutrition, ample sleep, and regular exercise; and who minimize their exposure to environmental toxins will have greater health and longevity, but no one is immune from the deleterious effects of persistent emotional upheaval.

When I was practicing psychotherapy with people living with chronic or life-threatening diseases, I began to wonder if it was possible that over a period of many years, their emotional distress had actually created pathogenic (disease-causing) levels of physiological stress, which could have contributed to their autoimmune diseases, cancer, and other debilitating medical conditions. This led to my review of the published literature from refereed journals and books by experts in the field, the results of which made it patently clear to me that chronic emotional distress is a very significant cause of disease. The good news is that there are many ways to train the mind to calm the body and reverse the damage.

Among the clients with whom I worked, some had done everything right in terms of self-care, but long years of emotional distress were too much for them and they eventually developed some type of debilitating medical condition. Like those individuals, since the early 1970s when I was in my mid-twenties, I have done everything right in terms of nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Despite this, I live with several so-called “co-morbid” chronic conditions. Outwardly, I was very successful, but I was out of touch with my inner subjective experience. Until recently, I had always focused on external signs of success. Being sick has forced me to pay more attention to the subtle signs that I never wanted to take the time to even acknowledge.

Emotional distress is often self-inflicted by the untrained mind, the result of being out of harmony with our inner, subjective experience of the moment. This happens when we do not allow ourselves to fully experience our thoughts, sensations, or emotions, or to recognize them as insubstantial mental constructs. In other words, even the negative thoughts don’t cause stress or illness as long as we are able to step back from them and observe them as if they were clouds floating across the sky. This is not easy, and requires considerable practice. The most evidence-based method of learning this form of mental training is referred to as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR classes meet for just 8-weeks. They are designed for people with no prior mindfulness experience and are offered in most cities throughout the world. 

Larry Berkelhammer, PhD, is a researcher and psychophysiologist who uses his blog, www.LarryBerkelhammer.com, to show how learning to live with conscious intention can maximize health and well-­being.

 

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