Saturday, October 19, 2013

Timeless Healing by Herbert Benson with Marg Stark

Herbert Benson, M.D., is known for discovering the relaxation response. This is a natural, restorative state of the body that can be elicited with practices similar to meditation. Though the relaxation response is discussed in this book, it is not the focus.

Timeless Healing is about the power of the mind, especially the power of belief, to cause or accelerate healing. Benson specifically refers to the well-documented placebo effect, which he refers to as “remembered wellness.” Remembered wellness is a phenomena distinct from the relaxation response, though both can be useful.

Benson summarizes the results of several studies related to remembered wellness. Patient beliefs, caregiver beliefs, and positive patient-caregiver relationships have significant, large effects on healing and the effectiveness of medical treatment. The body affects the brain and the brain powerfully effects the body; they are intimately linked and there is no body-mind dichotomy.

This connection between body and mind was recognized in historic medicine. Because the processes of the body were not understood, ancient physicians relied heavily on remembered wellness. As scientific knowledge increased, medical practitioners became reluctant to acknowledge the effect of remembered wellness, instead preferring the newfound power of science.

That very science had to account for remembered wellness. The placebo effect in powerful.  Traditionally, placebos were thought to be about 30 percent effective; studies conducted by Benson and his associates showed them to be 70 to 90 percent effective. Instead of dismissing the placebo effect as an oddity, Benson advocates recognizing and using remembered wellness in medical practice, patient care, and especially self-care.

Another element of belief that affects health is faith. We seem to be wired to believe in God (or something greater or an ultimate power).  Benson sites studies that show that regardless of the particulars, religious beliefs and observances contribute to healing. He refers to the combination of remembered wellness, the relaxation response and belief as the “Faith Factor.”

Mind-body medicine has gained popularity in the 17 years since Timeless Healing was published, but the overall medical system has not changed a lot, in spite of the constant talk about and changes to medical policy. There is still relevance to Benson’s chapter on incorporating remembered wellness into the medical system, and the billions that could be saved by helping people heal themselves of the mostly stress-related symptoms that drive them to physicians. The book also has a chapter on how an individual can incorporate remembered wellness into his self-care and his relationship with his physician and medical care.

Some strategies for self-care using remembered wellness include
-challenging negative automatic thoughts,
-using visualization and affirmations (especially combined with eliciting the relaxation response),
-focusing on helping others,
-letting go of worries (and stopping obsessing over health and all the medical news),
-recognizing the healing power within yourself while wisely recognizing the need for medical care,
-finding trustworthy guides and advisors
-trusting your instincts and recognize the value of your emotions as well as analytical facts, and
-letting your faith, religion, or belief in God be part of your healing.

There is also a note of warning in the book. The placebo effect can also produce negative results, or a “nocebo” effect. Our beliefs can cause illness and negate the effectiveness of medication. Negative beliefs, stress and worry are bad for your health.

Herbert Benson also wrote The Relaxation Response.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Benson, Herbert, with Marg Stark. Timeless Healing: The Power of Biology and Belief. New York: Scribner, 1996.

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