MIND AND MATTER: What we think can make us ill (and well)

The effect of the mind on our health is an endlessly fascinating subject. Placebo, or sugar, pills are without doubt the most successful therapy ever created, as they’ve proved to be effective across a wide range of diseases – just because the patient thought they would help.

Now researchers have been turning their attention to hypochondriasis, where people wrongly believe they have a serious illness. It’s a surprisingly common condition, affecting up to five per cent of all hospital patients. It’s also chronic, distressing, and disabling, because the patient changes his lifestyle to accommodate for the non-existent disease. Any ache or pain is further proof of a serious illness.

So can the mind be used to change its own patterns? Researchers from Harvard Medical School treated 80 hypochondriasis patients with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with promising results.

Each patient had six 90-minute sessions during which he or she spoke about the illness, their symptoms, their behaviour, and so on. The therapist then talked about the disease, what it really is, and so endeavoured to re-educate the patient’s thinking.

The therapists reported a significant improvement in the patients’ perceptions, even up to 12 months later.

So, for these patients, it was good to talk.

(Source: Journal of the American medical Association, 2004; 291: 1464-70).

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

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