Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), is a relatively recent branch of science that enforces beliefs that physicians have held for many centuries. The premise is that a patient’s mental state influences diseases and healing. Specifically, PNI studies the connection between the brain (thoughts, mood), the nervous system (stress, emotion) and the immune system (disease, healing). PNI gives credibility to many long-held folk beliefs about the effect of the mind on disease and healing. PNI researchers look for the physical links that allow the immune system to respond to psychological factors, such as the will to live to a certain date. They look at the ways that mental states, such as hopelessness, can signal the immune system to lower the body’s defences.
The term psychoneuroimmunology was coined by Robert Ader, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. In the 1970s, studies with animals by Ader and other researchers opened up new understandings of how experiences such as stress and anxiety can affect a person’s immune system.
In the 1970s, Ader performed scientific experiments on lab rats showing that environmental factors impact the immune system. Although scientific knowledge at the time did not acknowledge a connection between the immune system and other bodily systems, other studies also confirmed Ader’s findings. The field of PNI was born. Now, countless studies find connections between the immune system and our mental and emotional processes.
Many PNI studies have focused on how stress, hostility, and depression impact the immune system. Many conditions such as heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, delayed wound healing, and premature aging, are related to stress and negative emotions. Studies are also beginning to show the benefits of happiness, or positive emotions, on health (mediation, optimism, empowerment).
Many doctors have noted that a patient’s desire to get well is related to the outcome of a disease. Clinical anecdotes recount cases of miraculous healing for no demonstrable reason, or cases where a terminally ill patient held on for months longer than expected to make it to see a loved one again or other important occasion. Faith in the physician (or shaman or other healer) has also long been thought to influence healing. The ancient Greek physician Galen wrote, “He cures most successfully in whom the people have the most confidence.”
More than a particular therapy, PNI is a field of research. However, PNI has explored the benefits of many non-traditional or holistic approaches to healing. These include psychotherapy and counselling for people with illness, biofeedback, relaxation and mindfulness therapies to reduce stress and improved wellness. PNI studies may lead to the discovery of new ways to enhance the immune system, just as it has already shown new ways the immune system can be suppressed. By demonstrating the physical means by which the mind influences the body, and vice versa, PNI provides a measure of validity to holistic approaches to healing.
Research & general acceptance
Though many scientists were at first sceptical of the findings of PNI, by the start of the twenty-first century the field gained wider credibility. A great deal of new research is being carried out, and there are several academic journals devoted to PNI. Researchers emphasize that they are not simply providing scientific backing for beliefs that happy people live longer, or that people who hold in their anger give themselves cancer. Instead, they are discovering how the immune system communicates with the neurological and endocrine systems.
Some studies focus on the function of cytokines, which are substances secreted by cells of the immune system. The two main classes of cytokines are pro-inflammatory (producing inflammation) and anti-inflammatory (fighting inflammation). Studies of cytokines show that psychological factors such as stress depress the immune system, but that deviations in the immune system can also trigger psychological and behavioral changes. The communication goes both ways. A person, who is fighting infection, perhaps from a cold, undergoes behavioural changes like fatigue , irritability, and loss of appetite. PNI maps complex interactions among the body’s systems. Factors studied include mood, illness, immune response, susceptibility to disease, and maintenance of health.
Approach to Practice
Here at Stillwater Studio, Megan Hughes approaches chronic pain and chronic illness conditions with an understanding of how our psychology affects our health. She works to help clients make the crucial changes to their beliefs and behaviours that are compromising immune system functioning. Healing from a complex disorder such as chronic pain or chronic illness is typically a multi-factorial process. Megan’s foundation of knowledge for guiding client’s through this process comes from scientific evidence gained through PNI research. She is a member in good standing of the PNI Research Society and stays up to date on the latest scientific research in the field of psychology and immunology.
(Adapted from The Gale Group, 2015)