HIV & The Mind-Body Connection

By Darren Main • Fall 2000

For many, the mind and body are two distinctly different and separate forces. For them they co-exist peacefully at best. At worst they are at odds with each other, in strong conflict. In either case, there is a strong tendency to see them as separate with each having little or no effect on the other.

In this column, I suggest we take a look at a more holistic view of healing by recognizing connections between the mind and the body. In this model, the mind and body are not seen as separate but rather as a team that works together to allow us to respond to the world in a way that allows us to get the most out of life.

Close your eyes and imagine just for a moment that you’re eating a lemon. First hold it in your hand, feel the texture then cut it in half. Watch the juice squirt out. Now put it up to your mouth. How much more saliva do you have in your mouth? When I ask my yoga students to do this, I can literally see everyone’s mouth begin to pucker. When I ask them what the experience was like, many describe being able to taste this imaginary lemon. Most talk about an increase in saliva as well.

The point in this exercise is to demonstrate that simply thinking something can create a physiological change in the body. A much more common example is one we all know well: What starts to happen below the belt when we see someone we’re attracted to?

OK, granted visualizing eating a lemon may seem like a simple enough exercise, but it is really an important experience to help us recognize the influences between the mind and body. The mind can actually foster healing or contribute to an illness.

I don’t suggest you do it, but what if you imagined your body being beaten by an attacker with a baseball bat? Your body would begin to tighten. Blood would leave your digestive organs and flow to the limbs. Your blood pressure would likely increase and your immune system would be weakened by the surge of adrenaline.

Well, your body doesn’t know the difference between a man with a baseball bat and a lot of self-defeating attacks based on a stressful job or relationship, a low self-worth or thinking you are inferior to someone because you’re gay. Therefore, our psychology has a profound effect on our physical health.

Of course, the wonderful thing about a mind is that it can be changed. The messages of attack that your body receives over and over again can be replaced by messages that affirm health and bolster the immune system. This is not to say that deeply held beliefs and patterns of thought that formed early in our development are going to be easy to change, but with a little bit of determination, it can be done.

Some people may remember the famous affirmations touted by some schools of psychology and self-helpers. The truth is techniques in which you give your body loving, peaceful support help us to get healthy or stay healthy. Techniques such as meditation, yoga, Qui Gong and body-centered psychotherapy can help us to look at our mind and its connection to the body and make the changes needed to stay healthy and promote healing.

In this column, I will present them to you on a regular basis, offering you books to read on the topic, anecdotes and exercises. I welcome your e-mails with comments and questions.

If you’re a person with HIV, you are particularly welcome to read this column. A lot of emphasis has been placed on keeping your viral load down. The use of medications to accomplish this has very obvious benefits and some potential side effects. A holistic approach to HIV would not necessarily exclude the use of pharmaceuticals, but any holistic treatment plan would include a technique or two to heal the mind. In this way, the virus can be addressed from many different angles increasing the effectiveness of that program.


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