The mind-body connection has been gaining ground in Western medicine as scientists, once resistant to the notion, increasingly acknowledge that thoughts and emotions influence health. Meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques are now as mainstream as exercise, diet and medications in the treatment of certain medical conditions.
A landmark 1989 study by Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel helped launch this change in scientific thinking. Spiegel’s study showed that women with metastatic breast cancer who participated in supportive-expressive group therapy not only had better quality of life, they also lived significantly longer than those who received only medical treatment. This research kicked off many studies examining the effects of psychosocial interventions, such as group therapy, and conditions, such as loneliness, on health and illness.
The role of spirituality, considered by many to be an integral part of the mind-body phenomenon, is emerging as the next point of study and debate in this growing movement:
• Increasingly, medicine is incorporating religion and spirituality into health care, perhaps in response to patients’ desires. One study done in 2001 found that 83 percent of questionnaire respondents wanted doctors to discuss spiritual matters with them in at least some circumstances.
• More doctors are embracing the idea of encouraging patients’ faith as a way to promote healing, but some resist it, saying it raises ethical concerns and can weaken science’s role in care.
• Many medical schools are training physicians to take patients’ spiritual or religious history and to discuss their spiritual concerns, and conferences are addressing the spiritual needs of patients. According to the John Templeton Foundation, classes on spirituality and faith are part of the curriculum at two-thirds of the nation’s medical schools.
• Research into the mind-body connection is proliferating, including studies of the ways religious or spiritual belief impact health and illness. One federally funded study, for example, examined whether mind-body interventions such as yoga and meditation can help treat addictions; among other things, the researchers are looking at whether faith-based treatment may be more effective than other approaches.
As the studies and debate continue, reporters can explore a broad range of stories on this developing topic. ReligionLink offers resources and ideas for getting started.
Why it matters
With the move of mind-body medicine into the mainstream, the premise that thoughts and beliefs can affect one’s health has spurring research on religion and health. Can religious or spiritual beliefs and practices improve your health, well-being and longevity? If so, should they be “prescribed”?
Questions for reporters
- Look for patients whose stories help illuminate how mind-body medicine and spirituality affect health. How do religion and spirituality improve a patient’s quality of life? Are there situations in which they could negatively affect the sick? Do patients welcome physicians who inquire about a patient’s beliefs and spiritual practices? Can such inquiry be intrusive or coercive?
- Should religion or spiritual belief and/or practice be “prescribed” to patients by physicians as something that can improve health? Should religion and spirituality be used in a utilitarian manner to improve health and well-being?
- How important are research studies on the effects of spirituality on health to both doctors and patients? What are their critiques of these studies?
- Are any faith groups in your area involved in mind-body medicine? In what ways?
Read a backgrounder on mind-body medicine by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Read a primer on the techniques of mind-body medicine, including the use of biofeedback, relaxation techniques and spirituality, from the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
Mind and Life Institute was created in 1987 to promote neuroscience research on the mind, Buddhism, health and meditation.
Read about the “relaxation response” as defined by the father of mind-body medicine research, Dr. Herbert Benson.
Read a critique of the literature on religion, spirituality and health by Richard P. Sloan, director of the behavioral medicine program at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, N.Y.
Read “Faith, Healing: Is There a Proven Link?,” about the debate between Sloan and Harold Koenig, founding co-director of the Center for the Study of Spirituality, Theology and Health. The article is from the Nov. 25, 2003, Columbia Spectator.
Read “An Analysis of the Field of Spirituality, Religion and Health,” by David Hufford for an overview on studies on religion and health.
Read “How the Mind Hurts and Heals the Body,” by Oakley Ray of Vanderbilt University.
Integris maintains a list of current studies about the mind-body connection.
Josephine P. Briggs is director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Research into the interconnectedness of the body and mind is funded by the center, which was created in 1992 (as the Office of Alternative Medicine) in response to the public’s growing interest in alternative health therapies, such as yoga and meditation.
Dr. Christina Puchalski is director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality & Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which develops educational, clinical and research programs for physicians and other health-care professionals on the role of spirituality and health in medicine. A professor of medicine and health sciences at GWU’s School of Medicine, and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, Puchalski works to integrate patients’ spiritual beliefs into their health care. She authored A Time for Listening and Caring: Spirituality and the Care of the Chronically Ill and Dying.
The Rev. John Lundin is a Protestant minister. He has studied Buddhist practice in depth and is interested in using it to help others deepen their own religious practice, whether Christian, Jewish or Buddhist. He is co-author of The New Mandala: Eastern Wisdom for Western Living — a book on Buddhism for Christians — with the Dalai Lama.
Rabbi Simkha Weintraub is a social worker and director of the National Center for Jewish Healing in New York, N.Y. He co-edited a publication by the center titled Guide Me Along the Way: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Surgery. He is also the editor of Healing of Soul, Healing of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strength and Solace in Psalms.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founder and executive director of Reclaiming Judaism, has spoken at a Thanksgiving Spiritual Health Retreat at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico.
Imam Yahya Hendi is the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He also just concluded his 15 years of service as a Chaplain at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He can be contacted through his website.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is founder and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative at the American Society for Muslim Advancement. The multifaith effort, based in New York City, seeks to increase intercultural communication and tolerance, stimulate new approaches to achieving peace and heal the relationship between Islam and America. Listen to a video posted at Beliefnet in which he discusses divine love.
Satya Dev Negi is a senior lecturer at Emory University in Atlanta and chairman of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. He has written about traditional Buddhist and contemporary Western approaches to emotions and their impact on health, and he has done other research on the mind-body connection and health. He has studied whether meditation can reduce depression among college freshmen.
B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies in California, trained as a monk in Buddhist monasteries. He teaches Buddhist theory and practice in Europe and the United States and has served as interpreter for numerous Tibetan scholars. His academic training is in religious studies, physics and philosophy of science. He can be contacted here.
Balaji Hebbar is a professor of religion at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He has lectured widely on religion, spirituality and the care of the patient.
Vasudha Narayanan is Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and she helped found the university’s Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions, of which she is director. She is a noted scholar of Hinduism and the environment.
Agencies and organizations
There are many mind-body centers throughout the nation, and many of their web sites include information on research and studies. Some major ones are:
- Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C.
- Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
- Institute for Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, Calif.
- Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Mind and Life Institute (affiliated with the Dalai Lama) in Boulder, Colo.
- Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine
- Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco
- Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif.
- Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif.
- Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology
- University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Healthy Lifestyle Program
Other centers, groups supporting mind-body research
(with a spiritual/religious emphasis)
- Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota
- Center for Spirituality and Health at the University of Florida
- Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health
- Fetzer Institute
- George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health
- John Templeton Foundation
- Reclaiming Judaism
- The American Holistic Nurses Association
In the Northeast
The Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston is a leader in the field with specific areas of expertise, including mind-body programs in cardiac wellness, cancer, exercise, aging, chronic pain and menopause.
Anne Harrington is acting chair of the department of the history of science at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. She was a consultant for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Mind-Body Interactions and is on the board of the Mind and Life Institute. Harrington teaches courses on the mind-body connection in modern medicine and has worked on projects studying the placebo effect and the effects of meditation on emotional health in the workplace.
Richard P. Sloan is professor of behavioral medicine (in psychiatry) at the New York Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University Medical Center. He examines the link between psychological factors and heart disease, among other issues. Sloan cautions physicians against prescribing religion as medicine, and he urges them to maintain a separation between their role as physicians and their patients’ spiritual lives and needs.
Dr. Bruce Rabin is a professor of pathology, psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, director of its Healthy Lifestyle Program and an authority on the effects of stress on the human immune system. His research has contributed to the understanding of how the brain and the immune system interact and influence an individual’s health. He has served on government panels to help promote research into mind-body interactions. His book Stress, Immune Function and Health: The Connection was published in 1999 by John Wiley & Sons.
Dr. Esther Sternberg is research director for the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona at Tucson. She has studied links between the central nervous system and the immune system, and the connections between disease and stress.
Dr. James Gordon is a founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and a clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown Medical School in Washington, D.C. He is the author or co-author of several books, including Manifesto for a New Medicine: Your Guide to Healing Partnerships and the Wise Use of Alternative Therapies (Addison Wesley Publishing Co., 1997) and Comprehensive Cancer Care: Integrating Alternative, Complementary and Conventional Therapies (HarperCollins, 2001).
David Hufford is professor and director at the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. He teaches and does research on religion and health and folk and alternative health systems.
In the South
Dr. Harold Koenig is a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health. He wrote the white paper for the Department of Health and Human Services on faith-based responses to natural disasters and terrorism.
Dr. Keith Meador is the director and professor of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, professor of health policy, and professor of the graduate department of religion. He was formerly the co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University in Raleigh, N.C. Meador co-authored Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine and the Distortion of Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2003), which argues that health-based, utilitarian religiosity devalues true faith.
Lorenzo Cohen is a professor of medicine and director of the integrative medicine program at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Cohen has investigated the benefits of different forms of yoga for women undergoing breast cancer treatment.
Dr. R. Murali Krishna is a president and chief operating officer of INTEGRIS Mental Health and INTEGRIS James L. Hall Jr. Center for Mind, Body and Spirit.
In the Midwest
Richard Davidson is a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has studied the brain activity of meditators and since 1992 has collaborated with the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks to study the effect of meditation on mental activity.
Kenneth Pargament is a professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. His research addressed religious beliefs in various traditions and health. He also researched how the elderly who struggle with their religious beliefs and hold negative perceptions about their relationships with God and life meaning have an increased risk of death, even after controlling for physical and mental health and demographic characteristics. Among other research, he has studied religious coping and the mental health of Hindus in the U.S., spirituality and coping with trauma, spirituality in children with cystic fibrosis, and religion as a source of stress, coping and identity among Jewish adolescents. He can also speak about the relationship between atheism and mental health.
Jean L. Kristeller is former director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State University, where she is also a professor emeritus of psychology. Her interests include integrating spirituality into care practice.
Mary Jo Kreitzer is founder and director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.
Dr. Elizabeth Bowman is a psychiatrist and clinical professor in the neurology department at Indiana University School of Medicine. Bowman, who also holds a master’s degree in sacred theology, led a panel discussion at the university on spirituality in patient care.
In the West
J. Scott Tonigan is a research professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque whose expertise in treating alcoholism includes studying spirituality as a variable in alcohol abuse and alcoholism. His work on a study called Project MATCH shows that treatment for alcoholism with Alcoholics Anonymous can affect the degree to which one reports higher God-consciousness and religious practices.
Dr. Claudia Finkelstein is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle who teaches and writes about mind-body medicine in clinical practice and in the education of physicians.
Dr. David Spiegel is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral studies at California’s Stanford University School of Medicine and a leader in the field of psychosomatic research and psychoneuroendocrinology/oncology. Spiegel’s 1989 study showed that not only did supportive-expressive group therapy improve quality of life in women with metastatic breast cancer, it significantly enhanced survival time. This research, which appeared in The Lancet (Oct. 14, 1989) and was featured in the Bill Moyers special Healing and the Mind, spawned a new area of research on the health effects of psychosocial support. In 1998, Spiegel opened the Center for Integrative Medicine at the medical school, and he is the center’s medical director. He is the author of Living Beyond Limits: New Hope and Help for Facing Life-Threatening Illness (Ballantine Books, 1994).
Siroj Sorajjakool is an associate professor of religion at Loma Linda University in California. Sorajjakool wrote When Sickness Heals: The Place of Religious Belief in Healthcare (Templeton Foundation Press, forthcoming in April 2006) and co-edited Spirituality, Health and Wholeness: An Introductory Guide for Health Care Professionals (Haworth Press, 2004). Contact through the media office for the university.