Almost everybody has heard of death curses: psychological literature is laced with accounts of how Aboriginal witch doctors have quite literally brought about the death of the young and healthy by cursing them. No sooner do these people learn of the fate which has been cast for them than they begin inexplicably to sicken and eventually to die. It appears that through complex biological processes, their simple belief in the curse brings about destruction of their organism.
modern-day death curses
In civilized society we tend to look upon such phenomena as anthropological curiosities – products of primitive superstition which simply don’t touch us in our more enlightened age. What we are not aware of however is that many of us in the civilized world are also under our own brand of `death curses’. They may be subtler than those issued by witch doctors but they can be every bit as potent in bringing about the physical and mental decline which we have come to associate with aging. Common (and usually unconscious) notions such as `retirement’, `middle-age’, `It’s all down hill after forty’, and `At your age you must start taking things more easily’, are widely held. They can exert a powerful effect on the process of aging by creating destructive self-fulfilling expectations about age decline. Instead of facing the future full of confidence and excitement about what lies ahead, optimism is replaced by anxiety as we are warned to `Be careful’, or `Don’t take chances on a new career at your age.’
The list of commonly proffered `sensible’ advice is a long one. Such well-meaning suggestions often lead people to make changes in their lifestyle which encourage physical decline – for instance decreasing the amount of exercise they get, altering their eating habits away from fiber-rich natural foods towards `softer’ foods, and even decreasing the amount of social and intellectual stimulation they have been used to. Even worse, this kind of advice can undermine your self-image and destroy self-confidence, which in turn interferes with the proper functioning of the immune system which plays such a central role in protecting your body from aging. An essential ingredient in ageless aging is a strong awareness of just how powerfully your emotions, state of mind, and your unconscious assumptions can influence both your susceptibility to illness and the rate at which you age. Once that awareness has penetrated your consciousness then you can begin to make use of some simple and pleasant mind-bending techniques in aid of ageless aging.
The notion that your state of mind can influence your health and the rate at which you age was once something which had to be taken on faith. Now it is not only being scientifically proven, it is even being put into effective practical use thanks to a rapidly developing scientific discipline with a tongue-twisting name: psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). PNI has discovered that your body’s immune system, that bulwark of defense, is undeniably affected by your unconscious assumptions, your emotional states and your behavioral patterns. They can lead either to an increased resistance to aging or to an increased susceptibility to degeneration and illness. In simple terms the happier you are, the better you feel about yourself and the more positive are your expectations about the future, the more likely you are to age slowly and gracefully and the less likely you are to fall prey to degeneration and illness of whatever sort – from a common cold to a life-threatening disease.
No area of ageless aging is more fun to explore than this one. I always think of its positive side as `Zorba the Greek’ consciousness. It can make possible the most amazing physical and mental feats by quite ordinary people living quite ordinary lives. Take the man who is able to work eighteen hours a day, drink whisky by the tumblerful, dance on tables until the early hours of the morning and still live to be 110 thanks to the sheer joy of his experience of life. I have seen it too amongst saints and holy men who carry out their day-to-day activities, from writing letters to peeling potatoes, in a state of bliss – samadhi. Take a look at their superbly unlined faces. They could as easily be thirty as seventy. Psychoneuroimmunologists are working to find out why.
So new is the PNI discipline (the name was only coined in 1981) that the average physician is unlikely even to have heard of it. But so profound and wide-reaching are the consequences of its findings that they threaten to revolutionize medical theory about the origins and development of degeneration. Research into psychoneuroimmunology is already describing the pathways through which mind and body are inextricably bound together. These pathways include neurological connections linking glands and organs with the brain, the antioxidant system and the blood, thanks to hormonal secretions triggered by thought patterns and emotions and – most important of all – via the immune system. PNI researchers have discovered for instance that several kinds of lymphocytes involved in your body’s immune response carry receptors which recognize hormones found in the brain that alter mind and mood. They have also found that some of these neurotransmitters or peptide hormones stimulate T-cells to produce more lymphokines such as interferon while others have the opposite effect. In fact listening to leading PNI researchers talk about mind-body connections makes you realize there is probably no state of mind which is not faithfully reflected by a state of the immune system.
beyond psychosomatic consciousness
Western medicine has long acknowledged that emotional states such as anxiety and depression can make a limited number of illnesses worse. These include asthma, diabetes, peptic ulcer, ulcerative colitis, migraine and cardiovascular problems. But until the advent of PNI it has paid little attention to examining the nature of their psychological components nor has it explored ways and means of improving these conditions by altering a patient’s mental state or behavioral patterns. Meanwhile it has almost completely ignored possible psychological components in the vast majority of other illnesses – from lung disease and cancer to rheumatism and allergic reactions – treating them instead as pure physiological occurrences little affected by whether the patient experiencing them felt good or bad in himself.
This is mostly because Western medicine, bound by the Cartesian notion of a split between mind and matter, has failed to consider the people it treats as psychobiological units – total beings whose feelings, thoughts, expectations and perceptions are intimately bound to their physiology and biochemistry. Happily this is now changing in no small part thanks to a few visionary scientists who began asking some penetrating questions. Why for instance do some people who smoke forty cigarettes a day for twenty years end up with lung cancer while others following exactly the same pattern don’t? The first, most obvious answer is that the former have an hereditary disposition to the disease. True, genetics are important, but these scientists found that they were by no means the whole answer. A large and very important piece of the puzzle was still missing. So they began to look at psychological factors.
let go and live longer
In a pioneering study carried out over twenty years ago, Scottish researcher Dr David Kissen examined more than 1000 Glaswegian industrial workers suffering from respiratory complaints. Before diagnosing them he gave each man a psychological test designed to delineate personality patterns. He came up with some quite fascinating and highly significant results. He discovered that those who were later found to have cancer showed a striking inability to express their emotions. Intrigued by Kissen’s study and other similar investigations which suggested that emotional repression was an important component in the development of cancer, two doctors, R.L. Horne and R. S. Picard, at the Washington University School of Medicine in the United States, decided to carry out an in-depth study of the psychosocial risk factors in lung cancer as measured on a psychological scale developed from the findings of previous studies including Kissen’s. They confirmed that emotional repression was indeed the central component of a complex personality pattern which led to the development of the disease. In fact, so important were the relationships between psychological states and the development of lung cancer which they uncovered that the two researchers found they could predict with an amazing 73 per cent accuracy which men had cancer and which men had simple lung disease, from psychological testing alone. They discovered that cancer sufferers, because of their emotional repression, tended to find great difficulty coping with life’s challenges and sorrows. After losing an important relationship such as a job or a wife the cancer victims often suffered profound depression for from six to eighteen months before the discovery of the illness. These findings have been confirmed by others.
mind and biochemistry
Similar studies linking other psychological factors to other diseases, including infections, arthritis, allergies and premature aging, have also recently appeared. One of the best known is that done by Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosemann which demonstrated that what they called `type A behavior’ – a behavior pattern characterized by a fierce and unrelenting struggle to do ever more things in less time against harsh competition – appears to cause a number of bodily changes predisposing one to coronary heart disease. They include alterations in blood-fat and blood-sugar levels, changes in circulation and increased levels of the hormone noradrenaline. And each disease is beginning to appear to have its own collection of psychological characteristics.
Studies have now established that psychological factors are primary determinants in a host of illnesses while in others psychological factors appear to interact with biological ones determining whether disease tendencies, initiated either by heredity or your environment or both, will in fact turn into degeneration or whether your body will be able to fight them off. But how does it all work? Through what physiological mechanisms do emotional repression in the case of cancer, a frustrated power drive in the case of high blood pressure, and all the various other psychological and behavioral traits linked with their illnesses help create their respective illness and age decline? Perhaps even more important, once one can find these physiological mechanisms how can we make use of them first to prevent aging and even perhaps to reverse some of its processes once they have occurred? The key to both questions appears once again to lie in the immune system.
mysteries of mind and immunity
The immune system has two major branches, each with its own particular kind of defense cells or lymphocytes. It also includes other less important factors such as large scavenger-type cells called macrophages which gobble up antigenic material. The first branch confers on your body what is known as cell-mediated immunity and is responsible for about half of your body’s resources for defense. It is centered around T-cell leucocytes – warrior cells produced in the thymus which battle the thousands of potentially lethal organisms, cancer inducing ultraviolet radiation from the sun and toxic chemicals from our highly industrialized environment. T-cells also produce a group of hormone-like substances such as interferon. They are called lymphokines and are considered the immune system’s natural drugs. Some are poisonous to foreign tissue, others trigger white blood cells to keep an immune reaction going. The second branch of the immune system offers humoral-mediated immunity. It relies on what are known as B-cell lymphocytes, which produce antibodies specific to whatever invaders the body is being challenged by. B-cells are carried in the blood. They can combine with antigens in the body and neutralize them or they can coat them, making it simple for white blood cells to destroy them.
The actions of both T and B cells are mediated through the thymus gland – often called the master gland of immunity. As we have seen, the rate at which you age appears to be very much influenced by the function of the thymus gland and the state of the immune system which it governs. It has also been well established that immune functions can be disrupted or depressed by such things as malnutrition, free radicals, infection and certain drugs. Recent research shows too that lymphocytes from people suffering from all kinds of stress and from grief, say after the death of a close relative, have a markedly decreased ability to rise to the occasion when challenged by antigens threatening the health of the body. What psychoneuroimmunologists are now trying to explore in experiments with animals and in studies of people are the pathways between brain and body through which this occurs – to delineate the means by which mind affects immunity both as a result of direct input from the brain and the indirect influence of hormones associated with specific emotional states and personality patterns.
stress and immunity
One of the questions currently being most seriously investigated by PNI researchers is how biological changes associated with stress diminish immune response and increase susceptibility to illness. Stress of any kind triggers the `fight or flight response’ – a matrix of hormonal reactions designed to prepare the body for action. Adrenaline is released, for instance, and corticosteroid hormones from the adrenal glands. They in turn trigger other hormonal reactions. PNI researchers have now found that within fifteen minutes of its hitting the bloodstream even a small dose of adrenaline challenges the immune system and triggers the release of lymphocytes. It also inhibits the function of mature white blood cells needed to ward off invasion. Other studies have shown that the corticosteroids can also seriously depress immune functions and increase your susceptibility to disease. They inhibit the functions of both lymphocytes and macrophages and they undermine the ability of lymphocytes to reproduce themselves in the body. In fact if stress is prolonged enough and the levels of corticosteroids become high enough in the body they even cause a withering away of lymphoid tissue altogether.
At St Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, Dr Richard Shekelle headed a research project which examined death certificates of more than 2000 men who had been tested psychologically for depression and other emotional states seventeen years before. He found that the death rate of men who had been very depressed at the time of testing was twice that of the rest.
One of the most widely held theories about cancer states that each of us develops small malignancies all the time in our body but that these are rapidly destroyed in a healthy person thanks to the actions of the immune system. If, however, you have strong feelings of helplessness or depression this can result in elevated corticosteroid levels and other changes which impede your immune system from doing its proper job and rejecting the cancer cells before they can take hold.
pni alters paradigms
The mind-body links which PNI research is uncovering are beginning to have far-reaching consequences, consequences which ultimately will go far beyond helping people avoid life threatening diseases and slow the aging process. There is a strong resonance to be found between PNI and much of the new physics which is busily exploring the view that the observer is essential to the creation of the universe just as the universe is creator of the observer. As Nobel laureate Roger Sperry has said, `Current concepts of the mind-brain relation involve a direct break with the long-established materialist and behaviorist doctrine that has dominated neuroscience for many decades. Instead of renouncing or ignoring consciousness the new interpretation gives full recognition to the primacy of inner conscious awareness as a causal reality.’
It is a causal reality that you can begin using to your advantage right now. For just as prolonged unmitigated stress, depression and anxiety can suppress immune functions, a positive frame of mind and a sense that you can cope with whatever comes your way offers potent protection against illness and age-degeneration.
At Beth Israel Hospital, another researcher, Dr Stephen Locke, has used psychological tests to evaluate students’ abilities to cope with the shocks and challenges of their lives. He has found that the `poor copers’ – those who tend to succumb to anxiety, depression and a sense of helplessness when life difficulties arise – show suppressed immune functions, while the `good copers’ – people who feel they can deal effectively with whatever comes their way – had normal immune functions even when faced with major life changes. Meanwhile in a well controlled study of women suffering from breast cancer who underwent mastectomy, British researcher Dr Steven Greer discovered that women who react to their diagnosis with a denial that they are ill or with a determination to conquer the illness are far more likely five years later to be free of the disease than those who stoically accepted the diagnosis or who felt hopeless or helpless.
making immunity work for you
What can you do, starting right now, in the way of using your mind as a tool for ageless aging? You can begin by exploring the benefits of mind/body techniques which can help alter your mental attitudes and emotional states from negative to positive and therefore encourage good immune functions and hence slow down the rate at which you age. There are many. Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School developed the simple meditative technique, called the relaxation response, which consists of sitting with your eyes closed for fifteen or twenty minutes morning and night and repeating a single word – say `one’ or `peace’ – over and over again silently. Practiced regularly it will not only counter the immunesuppressing tendencies of stress but even bring about major psychological shifts in belief systems that can gradually change a self-defeating `poor coper’ into an optimistic `good coper’.
Contrary to popular opinion only 2 or 3 per cent of old people are institutionalized because of psychiatric disorders. Neither do the vast majority of old people have memory defects. Most people over sixty-five continue to be interested in sex, and sexual relations continue well into the eighties between healthy men and women. Studies made of morale and happiness amongst the elderly show no difference between their enjoyment of life and that of younger people.
People over sixty-five have fewer accidents per person driving than do younger drivers. They also have fewer accidents at work. The majority of old people are not set in their ways although it does take them longer to learn something new than the young. Studies show that few old people suffer from boredom. Neither are they socially isolated or lonely. More than 10 per cent of old people work and two-thirds of those who don’t would like to. Finally old people are seldom irritated or angry. This has been determined by three separate studies.
visualize age anew
Becoming aware of false assumptions about aging is a good first step. The next is to create a new vision of what it means to have time passing. Make use of creative visualization techniques where in a state of relaxation you allow your mind to play on positive images of yourself five, ten, thirty years from now. There are some excellent books available on the subject which you can use as a guide. But really the technique is very easy. It is only a matter of letting yourself indulge in positive daydreaming. Or practice a meditation or deep-relaxation technique a couple of times a day and finish off by repeating silently to yourself Coue’s formula for personal growth and healing, `Every day in every way I am getting better and better.’ It is exquisitely simple yet enormously powerful when practiced daily in a deeply relaxed state so that it is your imagination rather than your will which is brought into play.
affirm youth and well-being
Another simple technique which has real power for altering unconscious expectations and creating new realities is that of writing out `affirmations’ – seven times seventy – for a week or two. This can be something as simple as `I am well and will continue to be so as the years pass’ or `I let go of past confusion and day by day make my life anew.’ The mere act of writing out such words over and over for several days helps break through old thought patterns and negativity that may be hampering you from realizing your full psychobiological potentials. You might be surprised at how quickly they penetrate your consciousness and bring about positive shifts in expectations and in your reality. For they can generate positive mental states and emotions and make them your common everyday experience of reality. And, just as PNI researchers have been discovering, it is the simple positive experiences and emotions like love, hope, faith, laughter, playfulness and creativity which can not only make life worth living, they can actually keep us alive, youthful and well. As effective as massive doses of antioxidant nutrients, fresh-cell therapy and all the other biological methods of age retardation available to you? Very probably. Besides they’ll cost you absolutely nothing but a smile.