Psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI, is the most integrative mind/body health discipline around. It is very much in its infancy as far as the science goes, but there is no doubt that it will continue to develop as more neurologists and holistic practitioners include it, in some form, in their interventions with clients and patients.
The basic premise on which it operates is a truly ancient one, and is extensively referenced, albeit in different “language” in the Ayurvedic and Taoist approaches to overall health. In very simple terms, PNI validates the practice of treating the entire individual no matter what the outward manifestation of their condition may be. PNI demonstrates that all the systems within any organism are in constant contact with each other and that this continuing communication, between, for example, the mind/brain and the body is essential for sustaining life. Likewise, if the, mind/brain is in turmoil, emotional or mental, eventually this will manifest in the physical body as a form of illness or disease. PNI, and its accompanying exercises, interventions and actions, gives us the tools we need to consciously manage our own health and well-being.
Why Do we Need PNI?
PNI is really a blanket term for various methods and modalities of self-care. In order to really affect our own physiological responses and to really take care of our own unique bodily and mental health we need, first and foremost, to be aware of what may be going on for us at any given time. We need to be able to do this in minute detail as it constitutes far more than simple taking note of new twinge or ache a certain joint, or a vague sense of uneasiness in our mood.
Once we have learned how to treat our own bodies with care and compassion, to hold the area of discomfort in a comforting and loving way, much as a parent might do for a child, we can begin to reap the benefits. The first requirement for any form of self-healing is to achieve a relaxed state, if at all possible, and it is in this state that our bodies and minds begin to respond on a physiological level. When we are under stress our bodies produce excess cortisol, which has been shown to have an adverse effect on the immune system. When we relax and begin the process of self-healing our endocrine systems are able to produce more immunoglobulin A, amongst other chemical and neuropeptides. Immunoglobulin A is one of the most important defences produces by the body in the mucus membranes and gives us the ability to fight off infections of a viral or bacterial nature.
Once we have learned how to treat our own bodies with care and compassion, to hold the area of discomfort in a comforting and loving way, much as a parent might do for a child, we can begin to reap the benefits.
Other health promoting chemicals are also stimulated into production through the practice of meditation and relaxation (PNI) including dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which help to support the production of other hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone. Endorphins and serotonin are also stimulated into production, which enables the body and mind to achieve a state of homeostasis that is beneficial to health.
How To Access Effects of PNI
As mentioned above, the most effective and successful ways of self-managing the interaction between the mind/brain and the body is to achieve a state of true relaxation. There are many methods of relaxation, all of which have their own supporters, and sometimes detractors, so it can become a little bewildering if you are setting out on the journey towards self-regulation and self-management for the first time.
It is helpful therefore if you approach this issue in a very practical way. The connection between the mind and the body is a very visceral one. You can see this if you take a moment to consider what happens when you are hungry for example. As you begin to prepare some food you find that you are already beginning to salivate. Let us take this one step further to illustrate just how direct the impact of PNI is: Bring to mind a favourite food, one that you simply cannot resist. Whether you are hungry or not, as you picture this food in your mind your body starts to prepare itself to eat it. Your stomach may growl and you will produce saliva. However, the food is not actually there in the physical world, it is only present in your sensory imagination.
When you think of positive things that you enjoy, things that make you happy, your body produces endorphins and you begin to feel good. Conversely, if you bring to mind images of suffering or pain, things that make you anxious, your body responds by giving you the chemicals you might need to cope with the situation such as adrenalin and cortisol. The mind body connection is that simple. It is also that complex! The events in the mind have a direct effect on the chemical processes of the body. These in turn have a huge impact on the mood and psychology of the person.
Find Your Happy Triggers
Using all of your senses is the key to generating that blissful state of happiness where healing and self-knowledge can begin. Allow your body to relax by deliberately softening your jaw, your chest and your abdomen. Breathe comfortably and just follow the breath down inside your body. Allow your gaze to soften and look upon the world with “kind eyes” for a while.
Become aware of the sounds around you as you do this. If you wish to you can create a soundscape that you associate with happiness and relaxation. This can be either real or imagined, depending on where you are and what you are doing. If you want to play some music to help to “lift” your mood by all means do so. Check out this soundscape called Elemental Breath on my meditation page. If you feel more relaxed in silence just bring into your imagination the sounds that soothe you the most. This could be the sound of a gently flowing stream, or the sound of early morning birdsong. It may be the sound of the breeze through the trees, or the laughter of children.
When you think of positive things that you enjoy, things that make you happy, your body produces endorphins and you begin to feel good.
From this place of relaxation allow your awareness to travel throughout your body and notice any areas of tension or discomfort. It is important at this stage to simply acknowledge the existence of the pain or unease and to consciously send loving, caring energy to it. Many people find this difficult at first because we are all so used to berating our bodies for not working properly. Persevere and continue to send love and compassion to your body. Extend this compassion to any mental or emotional trouble you may be experiencing. Send kindness into every cell, every organ, every nerve, muscle, tissue and sinew. Come back to your “happy trigger” whenever you need to and continue the exercise for as long as feels right.
The above exercise is a very simple introduction to the ways in which you can begin to incorporate system of PNI into your personal journey towards better health. Eventually, you will be able to add sensory images to your soundscape, and to drop into the relaxed, endorphinated state much more easily. At the heart of this method is the truth that we can indeed consciously choose to manage the signals that our mind/brain sends to our physical bodies. As they are so powerful, it makes sense that we do what we can to bring them into our conscious awareness so that we can control and manage them in a way that enhances our health and overall well-being.