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Mind-Body Techniques

by Steven Rosenzweig, MD

Mind-body techniques are based on the theory that mental and emotional factors can influence physical health. Behavioral, psychologic, social, and spiritual methods are used to preserve health and prevent or cure disease.

Because of the abundance of scientific evidence backing the benefits of mind-body techniques, many of the approaches are now considered mainstream. Methods include the following:

  • Meditation

  • Relaxation techniques

  • Guided imagery

  • Hypnotherapy (hypnosis)

  • Biofeedback

Mind-body techniques can be used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, chronic pain, coronary artery disease, depression, headaches, difficulty sleeping (insomnia), and loss of urinary control (incontinence). Mind-body methods are also used as an aid in childbirth, in coping with the disease-related and treatment-related symptoms of cancer, and in preparing people for surgery. The effectiveness of mind-body techniques in treating people with asthma, high blood pressure, and ringing in the ears (tinnitus) is not as clear.

There are few known risks associated with the use of mind-body techniques.


In meditation, people regulate their attention or systematically focus on particular aspects of inner or outer experience. Meditation usually involves sitting or resting quietly, often with the eyes closed. Sometimes it involves the repetitive sounding of a phrase (a mantra) meant to help the person focus. The most highly studied forms of meditation are transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation.

Meditation has been shown to have favorable effects on heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) function, immunity, and brain activity, such as increasing activity in parts of the brain associated with mental clarity. Meditation often induces physical relaxation, mental calmness, and favorable emotional states such as loving-kindness and even-temperedness. Meditation fosters the capacity for metacognitive awareness (the ability to stand back from and witness the contents of consciousness). Metacognitive awareness interrupts habitual and reflexive responses to stress and improves tolerance of and coping with emotional distress.

Most meditation practices were developed within a religious or spiritual context and held as their ultimate goal some type of spiritual growth, personal transformation, or transcendental experience. As a health care intervention, however, meditation may be effective regardless of people’s cultural or religious background. Meditation has been shown to offer numerous health benefits, including relieving stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, and symptoms of chronic disorders such as cancer or cardiovascular disorders. Meditation is also used to promote wellness.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are practices specifically designed to relieve tension and stress. The specific technique may be aimed at reducing activity of the nerves that control the stress response (sympathetic nervous system), lowering blood pressure, easing muscle tension, slowing metabolic processes, or altering brain wave activity. Relaxation techniques may be used with other techniques, such as meditation, guided imagery, or hypnotherapy.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery involves the use of mental images to promote relaxation and wellness, reduce pain, or facilitate healing of a particular ailment, such as cancer or psychologic trauma. The images can involve any of the senses and may be self-directed or guided by a practitioner, sometimes in a group setting. For example, a person with cancer might be told to imagine an army of white blood cells fighting against the cancer cells.

Guided imagery has not been thoroughly scientifically studied, but many people claim to have had success with it.


This alternative therapy is derived from Western practice. In hypnotherapy (hypnosis), people are guided into an advanced state of relaxation and heightened attention. Hypnotized people become absorbed in the images suggested by the hypnotherapist and are able to suspend disbelief. Because their attention is more focused and they are more open to suggestion, hypnotherapy can be used to help people change their behavior and thus improve their health. Hypnotherapy can be used to treat or help treat purely psychologic symptoms.

Hypnotherapy may also be helpful in treating many conditions and symptoms in which psychologic factors can influence physical symptoms:

  • Phobias

  • Certain pain syndromes

  • Smoking cessation

  • Conversion disorders (in which apparent physical illness is actually caused mainly by psychologic stress and conflict)

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Headaches

  • Asthma

  • Some skin disorders (such as warts and psoriasis)

  • High blood pressure

  • Nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, particularly the nausea some people get before chemotherapy (anticipatory nausea)

  • Anxiety and diminished quality of life in people who have cancer

Hypnotherapy has been used with some success to help people stop smoking and lose weight. Some people are able to learn to hypnotize themselves.

The mechanism of hypnotherapy is poorly understood from a scientific standpoint.


Biofeedback is a method of bringing unconscious biologic processes under conscious control. Biofeedback involves the use of electronic devices to measure and report back to the conscious mind information such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and brain surface electrical activity. With the help of a therapist or with training, people then can understand why these functions change and can learn how to regulate them.

Typically, biofeedback is used to treat pain ( Nondrug Pain Treatments), including headache and chronic abdominal pain, as well as stress, insomnia, fecal or urinary incontinence, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, mild cognitive impairment, tinnitus, and Raynaud syndrome.

Biofeedback has been shown to be clinically effective in treating certain problems (for example, headaches, incontinence, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder).