Although medicine likes to pretend that these cases are rare, a scan of the medical literature is instructive. One in eight skin cancers spontaneously heals, as does nearly one in five genitourinary cancers. Virtually all types of illnesses, from those where organs have supposedly packed up, as in diabetes or Addison’s disease, to those where a body part is supposedly irretrievably damaged, as in atherosclerosis, have healed on their own.
Rather than calling these cases what they are – the body’s ability to self-correct – medicine refers to them as ‘spontaneous remission’ (SR), as though the illness has simply decided to go into hiding, but might yet suddenly spring out at you again at any moment.
We all marvel at cases of SRs because even the most enlightened among us subscribe to the body-as-machine paradigm. Under this model, what is broken stays broken, until a seasoned mechanic comes along with the right monkey wrench or spare part.
The sheer volume of SRs shows that self-repair and renewal is natural to the human body. Most cases seem to take place after the patient has made a major psychological shift to recreate a life that is engaging and purposeful. Most people, this would suggest, get ill because they’ve lost all hope of life ever being good. Most people get ill because they think the wrong thoughts.
The most interesting new evidence of the psychological effect of illness comes from the work of a husband-and-wife team, psychiatrist Jan Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser, a professor of virology at Ohio State University. Recently, they recruited 42 married couples, aged 22-77, and used a suction device to create eight tiny blisters on their arms, then monitored the healing of these wounds over 24 hours.
Initially, the couples were asked to discuss any characteristics of their married relationship they’d like to change, assisted by a psychologist who ensured the encounter was positive and supportive. At the second study visit, they were asked to, in a sense, relive a time when they’d had a major disagreement that had sparked strong emotions – and, this time, there was no professional referee.
After examining their findings, the Glasers found that the wounds from the second visit took a whole day longer to heal. Among couples who were usually argumentative and hostile, the wounds took 40 per cent even longer.
Production of cytokine – the key element in the immune system that triggers healing – was far lower at wound sites when the participants had argued with their spouses than when they’d been supportive. Furthermore, chronic hostility produced far more proinflammatory circulating cytokines, which can lead to degenerative diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer (Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2005; 62: 1377-84).
The Glasers offer solid biological proof – if we needed any – that a person surrounded by psychological conflict is not as healthy as someone who is generally surrounded by supportive, loving relationships.
What cases of SR suggest is that the thoughts we think and what others around us are thinking most of the time are either healing us or killing us.
The best New Year’s health resolution is incredibly simple: to resolve to start thinking happy thoughts.
Have a happy, healthy holiday and New Year.