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Can You ‘Think Away’ Sickness Like the Coronavirus?

The power of positive thinking has been associated with naturopaths, anti-vaxxers and religious fundamentalists, but the mind-body connection might be worth considering during the COVID-19 crisis

The claim that the mind can cure the body of even the most serious illnesses would have set off my bullshit detector in any other scenario, but when it came to keeping my mom alive, I was down to try anything. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, she started meditating, doing yoga, collecting crystals, smelling essential oils and posting daily Facebook updates about kicking cancer’s ass — which she eventually did.

According to clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin, it may not have just been advances in medical treatment that saved my mother, but her aggressively Pollyanna approach as well. “Ask any athlete or any distressed mother who has saved her child with superhuman strength, and you will easily see the power of the mind defying what seems impossible,” Irwin tells me. “The will to live, to win, to overcome an illness can change DNA.”

Irwin isn’t wrong. One study found that when breast cancer patients participated in a support group and mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that focuses on the present thoughts and feelings without judgement, they experienced preserved telomere length. Telomeres, often compared to the ends of shoelaces, are stretches of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes from unraveling. They naturally shrink with age, and people who suffer from cancer, diabetes and high stress levels have shorter ones.

Evidence of this mind-body connection doesn’t stop with cancer and telomeres either. Deepak Chopra has been encouraging people to think away their illnesses for decades. Meanwhile, psychotherapy and hypnotherapy help to alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Burn victims report up to a 50 percent pain reduction when immersed in virtual reality. And placebos have been found to help patients cope with Parkinson’s, chronic pain, and especially important during the current pandemic, asthma and autoimmune deficiencies

“People who make healthy lifestyle choices, are connected to their family and friends and have a positive outlook on life tend to have stronger immune systems and better metabolism,” explains Stephen Loyd, chief medical officer at the addiction treatment facility JourneyPure. He cites numerous clinical studies that demonstrate the negative flip side of this, known as the nocebo effect, or the idea that negative expectations about treatment, prognosis and life in general, typically experience worse outcomes. 

“[Those] who suffer from loneliness, isolation and depression are more likely to experience chronic illness or have a harder time fighting off infections, such as the common cold,” Loyd says, noting that this is particularly important when considering recovery from the coronavirus. “While COVID-19 is still a fairly new disease, it’s likely that the same can be said.” 

The problem is, the benefits of optimism are frequently exploited by anti-vaxxers, hippie grifters and snake oil salesmen who promise gargling hot water, vitamin C and sunlight can cure the coronavirus. Not to mention, there are significant personal and public health consequences for taking the power of the mind too far. People with HIV may be less likely to wear condoms; people with cancer may be less likely to show up to brutal chemo sessions; and people who think they’re impervious to communicable diseases may be less likely to social distance and wear a mask during a global pandemic, Loyd notes. (Sound familiar?) 

In other words, Irwin warns, “This doesn’t mean to forsake precaution, nutrition, training, healthy protocols and preparations. The proper mindset works in conjunction with this.” 

Or as Loyd puts it, “This positive mind-body connection should be thought of as a booster for recovery rather than a replacement for medical treatment. It can increase your odds of treatment being more effective and even speed up recovery times. But you should still follow the necessary precautions as if you’re as susceptible to getting an illness as anybody else.”