The stock market is volatile, the government recently went through a historical shutdown and acts of mass violence are almost a daily occurrence. We live in a world with constant anxiety. Besides persistent speculative fear, many of us may also experience frequent headaches, muscle tension or upset stomachs as a result. Are these relatively benign aches the limit to our brains effect on our physicality or is it possible that our minds can have an even greater impact on our physical well-being?
Be Careful What You Drink
In June of 1999, a health scare gripped the world. Several children in a Belgium elementary school began developing severe headaches, nausea, chills, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. They worsened to the point of requiring emergency transport to hospitals. Within a week the sickness had spread to affect six schools and hundreds of individuals throughout Belgium, France, and neighboring countries. A favorite soft drink, Coca-Cola, was identified as the culprit with small amounts of hydrogen sulfide in some bottles the proposed mechanism of illness. Countries throughout Europe initiated mass recalls and began pulling all products made by Coca-Cola from shelves. The recall was the greatest in the history of Coca-Cola, with 30 million cans disposed of at a cost of greater than one hundred million dollars and countless more losses from negative PR.
Things Are Not Always As They Appear
As toxicologists and scientists began studying this further, they realized something alarming. There was actually no evidence of any high enough levels of contaminants to be consistent with the reported symptoms. So what was their explanation for what had caused all these people to fall ill? It was a simple case of mass psychogenic illness or mass hysteria.
There have been many similar cases of mass hysteria over the last several centuries. These illnesses are often misidentified until after a pandemic ensues with no biological evidence of an inciting precipitant.
How Does This Happen?
Mass hysteria typically involves vague abdominal and neurological complaints without physical exam findings and occurs in workplaces or schools where people have close contact with each other. All it takes is one person getting sick. Individuals see their colleague falling ill and then worry about getting sick themselves. This is a normal reaction that happens all the time and aside from a little uneasiness, passes by without causing any further harm. However, anxiety can cause our brain to misinterpret regular physiological sensations – such as a rumbling stomach – and to attribute them instead to illness. In the right conditions, this can lead to hyperventilation and induction of further symptoms. Once a few people in a close environment start reporting symptoms, it can spread like wildfire. The worse it gets the more likely people are to convince themselves that they too have “caught the bug”. Women and those with current physical or mental stress are more likely to develop symptoms, but anyone can be susceptible especially in an environment of fear.
The good news is that just as it spreads quickly, it also quickly resolves. People typically recover over the course of weeks without residual effects. Treatment involves separating exposed individuals from each other, putting an end to fear-eliciting communications, and if possible, explaining to them the psychological nature of their illness.
The Perfect Storm
In the coca cola incident, misinterpretation of symptoms was likely exacerbated by the media coverage and the massive recall response. The initial students who fell ill were at a higher risk secondary to the stress of final exams which they had just completed. This coupled with the actual odd odor coming from some of the coke bottles and the close contact with each other set up the perfect scenario for the development of a psychogenic illness.
We Can Control Our Minds
Aside from an interesting historical account, what can we take from this story? Our minds are extremely powerful. So powerful, in fact, that they can convince us we are deathly ill. However, the capacity of the mind does not stop with it’s potential for harm. The mind is equally capable of reversing severe physical or emotional pain. With proper training and practice, we have the ability to eliminate or reduce the consequences of biological disorders.
How Can You Control Your Mind?
One way to take back control of your mind is through the practice of mindfulness. This is the act of bringing attention to the present moment and can be easily learned through psychotherapy or several available mobile apps. Recent studies have shown that 7-10 minutes a day of mindfulness is equally effective as medications in controlling chronic migraines. Further, it can reduce symptoms of ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome and decreases risks of anxiety, depression and dementia. A frequent opportunity to practice mindfulness is on Shabbos when waiting for the head of the household to make the blessing on bread. Instead of impatiently waiting in silence, try being mindful of your surroundings and the experience you are having. If practiced regularly on just a weekly basis, the results can be profound.
Another easily achieved mechanism that can rewire our brains to reduce physical and emotional distress is the act of keeping a daily gratitude journal. People who write down a couple things they are grateful for each day have reduced pain perception, asthma attacks, and improved overall emotional well being. This does not need to take up a lot of your time. It can be accomplished in just a few minutes each morning by concentrating while praying and giving thanks to Hashem for all the unbelievable miracles He has performed for you and your family. The more specific examples you think of, the better your results.
We each have the ability to hone these tools and harness the capacity of our minds to improve our physical and mental health regardless of our circumstances. Let’s take back control of our bodies and not let our minds control us.
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