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Think yourself better

We can use the power of our imagination and resulting emotions to access and heal all parts of the body — even chronic conditions, says David Servan-Schreiber

by Psychologies

Imagine this: you’re in the kitchen. Conjure up your sink, oven and cupboards. Perhaps you hear the gentle purr of the fridge. On the kitchen table, you see a beautiful orange, big and juicy, on a chopping board. Hold it and feel its weight, the texture of its glossy skin, its delicately pitted surface. With a sharp knife, carefully cut a quarter slice. Notice the sweet, fragrant juice that wells up and runs out onto the board. Note too the bright white pulp contrasting with the orange flesh. Now bring this quarter up to your mouth and take in its fresh fragrance. You begin to salivate as you bite gently into the flesh, which releases its bittersweet juice in your mouth.

You have just done the ‘juicy orange exercise’. Nearly everyone who tries it salivates. It’s a classic introduction to mental imagery — a modern form of hypnosis aimed at promoting control over body functions. Simply calling up images is enough to set off a physical response over which you are powerless. In the above case, the result is salivation.

But imagery can influence many bodily functions, such as blood clotting or even intestinal motion. The organs that regulate our health — the heart, blood vessels, intestines, the glands that secrete hormones — are influenced by our ‘autonomic’ nervous system, the part that is not under the conscious control of our will. These organs react in a flash to our emotions and to our imagination. Images, stories and dreams affect our physiology.

The great medical traditions before ours understood this. They became expert at using the imagination as a means to access the body, to such an extent that some shamanic traditions used it as their principal approach to the treatment of disease.

Today, studies have confirmed that bleeding can be reduced by 30 per cent during surgery by asking the patient to imagine that he controls the valves of tiny taps through which the blood flows in the part of the body under treatment. One can also ease the flow of air in lungs obstructed by asthma if the patient imagines a tiny hoover clearing the bronchial tubes.

The secret of body language is simple. Whether self-taught or used with a therapist, avoid all abstract or complex words to talk to the body. Use simple images, as if telling a story to a four-year-old. Through images, sounds and smells, we can influence the body — even converse with it. 

I remember Jenny, a sales manager in her fifties, whose family was very demanding. She suffered from an incurable, chronic dry cough. I asked her to imagine an animal living in her throat. After a few minutes, she saw a little wolf, abandoned and unhappy. When I asked her what the wolf needed, Jenny said, ‘To be looked after.’ What she couldn’t admit to herself, the wolf expressed freely. ‘What does the wolf need to feel appreciated?’ She answered for them both: ‘To enjoy ourselves more, to have time to ourselves without anyone asking anything of us, to go out with friends, to be cherished. Nothing extravagant!’ Jenny burst out laughing. The wolf felt better and the cough went away.

Magic? Or speaking a language the body understands?

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