'Psychological illness' versus The mind-body connection: Neural Retraining and Wim HofMar 06, 2021
Perhaps the most triggering phrase you can use with someone who has suffered fruitlessly under the conventional medical paradigm in pursuit of an explanation for debilitating symptoms is…
Verbal explosions of F-bombs will inevitably and universally ensue should you venture to utter this phrase to such a person.
And – to be clear – this is so justified.
It is nauseating that there are so many negligent medical personnel out there, who too often lean on phrases like these to attribute some kind of explanation - albeit an incredibly insulting and reductive one - to physiological processes that don’t constellate in a way that is familiar to them.
Rather than scratch their heads a bit longer or shrug and admit they might not know what’s happening (this would be so welcome, wouldn’t it?), you’re more likely to see them cautiously look up from their computer screens, squint their eyes at you, sigh, and say something along the lines of:
You’re just making this up, aren’t you?
Many on the other end of these interactions can understandably feel dismissed, gaslighted and may even require a few years of therapy to unpack all of that in a way that doesn’t impact their mental health long-term.
But, here’s the twist. This problem actually cannot be relegated solely to the far-from-perfect doings of conventional healthcare.
No, my friends. It also permeates – perhaps more insidiously – to many dark corners of the alternative wellness sphere, where a disturbing amount of snake oil salesman tout phrases like “think yourself well”.
This has really become a commonplace thing to run across in the evermore dubious frontier of online wellness advice.
And as a wellness professional who works online, I can tell you that this really infuriates me.
Here’s why: the mind-body connection is real.
It’s the reason the word psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology exists. (Yep, that’s a whole scientific field.)
Science has shown us time and time again that how we condition and use our brains has a major impact on our physiology.
And this isn’t even that big of an Atom Bomb to drop – we’ve known for a very long time that our brains play a hand in pretty much all of our bodily functions. It’s the control center, after all. The big boss.
But… and I’m going to say this really loud for everyone in the back:
JUST BECAUSE THE MIND CAN IMPACT OUR DISEASE ACTIVITY DOES NOT IMPLY THAT IT IS CAUSATIVE OR CURATIVE.
And this is such an important distinction to make when we’re talking about these kinds of therapies because of the common context of trauma that chronically ill populations have experienced in just trying to be seen by their doctors.
It’s something I see in clients when a lot of resistance comes up around lifestyle factors that are focused on mindset. Resistance to this type of work can stem from defense mechanisms they’ve had to construct in holding firm that their illness is not one they just ‘made up’…
…and isn’t that what we’re saying if I meditate and then it helps me feel better?
Nope, it’s not – but I see you, and understand why this feels like the same thing.
The truth is that this is an incredibly common conflation, and it’s one that is crucial to clarify.
When you have a knee-jerk reaction to something that (rightfully) feels triggering and then you shut down entertaining it, in this case it translates to shelving a wide-swath of potential benefit you could be receiving from implementing science-backed techniques to deal with pain, mood issues that often accompany chronic illness, and many other symptoms.
Our brain is actually a really important tool that we can use in service of eliciting therapeutic physiological responses in the body.
Here’s what cultivating the mind-body-connection can do:
- Make you more emotionally healthy, lowering your physiological stress response (cortisol production), which can have impacts on pain, appetite, sleep, and more.
- Feel more love and connection towards your body, which may increase your awareness around the cues it gives you and help you to listen to them.
- Develop resilience – something we care about a lot around here – coping mechanisms mean more flexibility and freedom in your life to experience things beyond your ken.
Here’s what it won’t likely do:
- Cure you
- Be the only tool necessary in your arsenal
- Cause illness if you don’t do it ‘right’
There are many incredible techniques out there that have robust bodies of literature demonstrating their utility when it comes to immunity and chronic illness. Chief among these are yoga, meditation, hypnosis, massage, Tai Chi… just a few of an ever growing list of methods that I encourage you to explore thoroughly.
But I want to talk briefly about two emerging modalities that have me particularly excited because of their emphasis on autoimmune application, and rebalancing systems in the body efficiently in ways that increase resilience.
And resilience is really our currency when it comes to more adventure.
There are a few Neural Retraining programs that have emerged in recent years which have shown impressive results for participants. More clinical trials are underway to help illustrate their efficacy at normalizing irregular brain activity that can result in certain types of immune symptomology.
The two most prominent and respected programs are by Ashtok Gupta and Annie Hopper. Gupta’s program has a recent study showing its efficacy as an adjunctive treatment for Fibromyalgia, suggesting application for those suffering from chronic body pain.
These programs focus on rewiring the brain to more appropriately respond to normal stimuli using conjunctive therapies and exercises that promote neuroplasticity.
Annie Hopper was recently interviewed on Chris Kresser’s podcast about her program and gave a succinct and insightful explanation about Neural Retraining and why it is definitely not an affirmation of psychological illness that I’ve included here:
“It’s not a psychological illness and it’s not the patient’s fault. They didn’t do anything to create this illness. It’s not their thoughts or their feelings that are creating the illness. There has been a real brain trauma.
So we know that mold, for instance, mold can be extremely toxic. And we have all kinds of brain research out there that shows how it affects the brain and how that injury, that absolute injury can affect the structure and function of the brain. So we know that the illnesses are not made up. There’s a real injury happening. There’s a real toxic injury, mostly, happening for people. And that that’s affecting not only the body and the capacity of many of our different systems to function properly, but it’s also affecting the brain structurally and functionally. And the brain goes into this really innate, protective, flight-or-fight mechanism. And it can be as a reaction to the actual trauma itself or it can be because any of the neurons along that neural pathway within the limbic system become damaged or injured in any shape or form…
…Now, that doesn’t mean that the patient did that themselves. This is an actual brain trauma or brain injury that is causing that. And is that cause, does that have effects on the rest of the body? Absolutely. I mean, when you think of the brain being the control center of the entire body, if your brain is not functioning optimally, then you can imagine that it’s going to send messages for your immune system to be on alert, for your endocrine system to change as well, so you’d be releasing all kinds of different hormones that are related to this fight, flight, or freeze response.
So it has a top-down effect on all systems of the body. So by no means is this in your head at all. In fact, it’s really dangerous and so disrespectful to even suggest that this illness is in the head. Because it’s not. It’s a brain injury. It’s a toxic injury. It affects so many different systems in the body.”
“Right. Or I sometimes tell patients, if it’s in your head, everything else is in your head too. Because there’s no experience that we have that’s not mediated by the brain and there’s nothing that happens in the body that’s not controlled by the brain. So it’s such an important thing for people to understand. And we have this whole field of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology—got to be one of the longest words in the English language—that has been dedicated to studying this for the past, for several decades now.”
The Wim Hof Method
The Ice Man’s three-armed method uses cold exposure, breath work, and commitment to leverage something called hormetic stress.
What is hormetic stress you ask?
Hormetic Stress is a phenomenon where exposure to low levels of a stressor results in beneficial effects for the exposed, where high levels of exposure would be toxic or inhibitory.
Ice water exposure, for example, would be very dangerous for someone to be exposed for longer than a few minutes (unless you’re Wim Hof), but 1-2 minutes a day is stimulating for the vascular system and modulating for the immune system.
The same kinds of benefits have been shown using the breathing methods. These employ a kind of forced hyperventilation that then allows the breath to be held for up to minutes at a time, leading to temporary low oxygen levels in the blood. Obviously, if we expose our bodies to the low oxygen levels for a long period of time, we would be in trouble fast, but Wim Hof has tapped into the Goldilocks-Hormetic-window instead.
What’s really cool for those of us with immune problems? Wim Hof and his followers are now the first on record to be able to exert a voluntary control over the immune system. They are able to dictate what their immune cells react to and how.
Very exciting stuff!
I know it’s hard, but let it all coexist.
Wim Hof’s method, in particular, has resulted in a more open collective questioning about the lines between what we might actually be able to control, and what we should chalk up to genetics, or disease, or other things generally held to be beyond our control.
But, while we’re having this dialogue, I’d like to point out: Wim Hof climbed Everest in shorts, he sprinted up Kilimanjaro in 28 hours, ran a marathon in the Namibian Desert with no water.
His level of dedication to intensive training and putting his body in incredibly dangerous situations is off the charts. And, he had some privilege in making those wagers because he could do so without thinking about managing a chronic illness.
Are these lifestyle commitments compatible with someone living under the pressures of modern life? Maybe not to his extreme.
So, just a suggestion, don’t moralize too much about what his feats need to mean about you.
Wim Hof can be out there headbutting Narwhals, activating his immune system at will, and declaring anything is possible with a strong mind, and you can draw inspiration on how the pillars of his approach can jigsaw into your - perhaps - different goals and circumstances.
It can all coexist.
You can have legitimate physical symptoms that are not psychological and are not your fault, and that deserve seriousness...
…and you can use mindset tools to help yourself.
It’s all allowed.
And you deserve to use every tool available to you that has evidence behind it saying it can improve your baseline.
Why this is especially important around here…
Just one more crucial word on why we care so much about the mind-body connection around here.
In short? This is because without having some mastery of a toolset that allows you to regularly check in with yourself and what you need – and ensuring that process is easy, and not a stressful or emotional one – none of what you implement is going to be sustainable, let alone going to be workable while you’re out there having adventures.
The whole idea behind adventure is that it’s new and different – and with the unknown there’s always some degree of risk.
That’s a tradeoff that I’ll make every time. But it means putting some effort into maintaining my decision making, troubleshooting, and problem-solving skills so that I’m well-equipped to deal with what comes around the corner.
We want to do our best to minimize that risk to the degree that we're able, so we can focus on the experience.
How we ensure that these faculties are fresh and working correctly is by fostering them with mind-body work.
This is such a strong value of ours that we’ve firmly embedded it in the Revive in Five master healing framework that we use as the guiding light for all of our programming.
(Step 3: Live Lucidly.)
Unfortunately, the world where our physical bodies don’t interact with our emotions, our thought patterns, and our self-image is not the world in this charming reality.
So don’t sell yourself short and nix the mindset stuff without nodding your head at the nuance here!
You’ll only be hurting yourself.