The mind-body link in treating diseases

The mind-body link in treating diseases

The interaction between mind and body is an important subject which is currently not given the consideration it deserves.

MANY doctors look for physical causes when treating diseases of the body. There is also a common tendency to classify illnesses into those with physical causes and those with psychological ones.

This encapsulates the tendency to compartmentalise the problems of the “mind” and the “body” separately; any inter-relationship is frequently ignored.

The clear-cut division of “mind” and “body” is an over-simplification and regularly leads to the wrong conclusion being drawn.

While the “mind” and the “body” may appear to be separate, they are in fact, a single entity. A simple analogy would be to think of them as two sides of a coin. Expressions such as “feeling butterflies in one’s stomach” or “having a gut-wrenching experience” are often used, reflecting the intuitive notion that there is a link between the mind and the gut.

Indeed, the digestive system houses a complex array of millions of neurons, and this system is so sophisticated that it will continue to work even if it is no longer connected to the brain.

The two-way link between the brain and the digestive system has been at the core of much research and discussion over the past quarter of a century.

For example, studies have confirmed that the inability to handle stressful life events, like the loss of family members and bullying at school, can be associated with symptoms such as recurrent abdominal pain in children. These events can also lead to poor academic performance and poor self-image.

A patient who discovers that he has a serious illness often suffers a profound shock, which has major effects on his mental state, possibly leading to depression.

Conversely, stress can exacerbate symptoms of physical diseases like asthma or inflammatory bowel disease and severe emotional turmoil can precipitate cardiac arrest in an adult with heart disease.

Generally, if a child is ill, a negative mental outlook can place more stress on the body, thus increasing susceptibility to other illnesses as the body’s resistance may be compromised.

In contrast, having a positive mindset often speeds up the healing process.

It is important that a paediatrician carry out a thorough assessment of any child with symptoms like abdominal pain to look for causes that need immediate medical treatment, such as urinary tract infections.

On the other hand, if your child has recurring symptoms and your doctor has not been able to find any causes for it after detailed examination and relevant investigations, there is a possibility that it is a subconscious cry for help.

School refusal, frequent displays of irritability, sudden drop in grades, difficulty sleeping and unexplained bouts of crying could also be your child’s silent call for help.

Spend time with your child and listen to him/her in order to better understand his/her anxieties, fears and worries. If any of the symptoms last for more than a week or two and interfere with regular activities (including family or school life), it would be wise to seek professional help.

Neither an atmosphere of over-pampering nor one of excessive scolding would be conducive to a child’s growth and mental health. Children are emotionally more sensitive to disparaging comments than adults. Therefore, it is important to create a climate of encouragement.

A book entitled The Inner Philosopher by Professor of Philosophy Lou Marinoff and Soka Gakkai International President Daisaku Ikeda highlights the importance of sincere and positive praise in childhood education.

In this book, the authors relate how the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky was encouraged by Pablo Casals. Piatigorsky had been so nervous when he played as a student for the great musician Casals that he froze and performed badly. Convinced he had played poorly, Piatigorsky was surprised by Casals, who embraced him and praised his performance.

Deeply encouraged, Piatigorsky overcame his weaknesses and went on to become a great cellist.

In the book, Professor Lou Marinoff comments: “Among the first duties of parents and teachers alike is encouragement of talents and correction of errors. But the second of these duties is almost always most effectively accomplished in a climate of encouragement rather than disparagement. Therefore, we should begin by praising the child or the student with respect to whatever he or she is doing correctly and well.”

Dr Daisaku Ikeda adds: “An authoritarian approach – forcing children to do as you say or to make them conform to certain preconceived standards – only provokes rebelliousness. Though you may succeed in gaining their superficial obedience, it’s very difficult under those circumstances to enable children to freely manifest their full potential.

“It’s very important to discover, encourage and praise the positive aspects – even just one – of the generations who follow us. We must foster young people’s confidence in themselves.”


1. The Inner Philosopher by Lou Marinoff, Daisaku Ikeda. Dialogue Path Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2012

2. The Interaction Between Mind and Body: Implications for Health by Christopher Chiong Meng Boey, University of Malaya 2009




Dr Christopher Boey Chiong Meng is a professor of paediatrics. This article is a courtesy of Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting Programme. The opinion expressed in the article is the views of the author. For more information, please visit