Subliminal Messages Affect Health

by Brenda Stockdale, HMDI Contributing Editor

How the Little Things in Your Environment Can Make or Break Your Healing Process

Images of mouthwatering treats and snacks popped up on movie screens back in 1957, and guess what happened? Snack sales went through the roof! What’s fascinating about this was that moviegoers didn’t consciously see the images. At work, were the effects of subliminal messaging (i.e. messages perceived below the level of awareness). This affect on behavior is so significant the Saturday Review argued:

“The subconscious mind is the most delicate part of the most delicate apparatus in the entire universe. It is not to be smudged, sullied, or twisted in order to boost the sales of popcorn or anything else.” CBS followed suit, pledging: “The legal, social and ethical implications raised by subliminal perception…are sufficient to preclude it from use in any form in the CBS Television Network and our Company owned stations.”

In spite of that awareness, our homes and offices continue to be bombarded with this very kind of messaging–except that we’re the ones sending the message to ourselves. We may not consciously think of the experience or story behind the items in our home, but there are subliminal messages in each and every color, piece of furniture, or art. In fact, research indicates the day-to-day effects of such messages on our health and well-being can be profound, for good or ill.

Consider this: In a Harvard investigation elderly subjects were exposed to fleeting messages linking positive qualities such as wisdom and experience to the aging process. With what result? The measurable gains in physical strength and stamina were the equivalent of what would be achieved in a 12-week exercise program!

Is It a Message You Want to Receive?

In appreciating the effects of subliminal messages, I often ask patients to scrutinize their healing environment at home. (Are stacks of medical bills and insurance statements on the bedside table? Is the picture of you and your teenage daughter on the refrigerator a reminder of a happy time?) While I encourage this regularly at the cancer center, I didn’t think to ask a client of mine, named Susie, to do the same.

Susie was referred to me for behavioral medicine methods to dial down the panic she was experiencing due to the effects of cardiomyopathy. Strong and healthy at sixty-years of age, Susie’s subsequent diagnosis was as swift as her symptoms were sudden. Her cardiac output was reduced nearly by half, to only 30% ejection fraction, in addition to a conduction defect requiring surgery to implant a pacemaker. This allowed us just a few weeks to work together prior to the procedure.

My hope was that the skills she learned (shown to influence body processes once thought to be beyond our control such as heart rate, blood pressure, hormones and even genetic expression) along with the Sinatra protocol, would not only improve Susie’s well-being but possibly boost her ejection fraction. After a few weeks of practicing her new techniques, the panic attacks ceased and she was sleeping through the night, but her cardiac measures remained the same.

It was during our last session together that I realized a key component had been overlooked. So I asked Susie to imagine scanning her home with the detached eye of an observer and notice what sort of messages she’d been sending to herself. As it happened, she and her husband played cards, read books and watched TV in the living room – where, on either side of the television, on the mantle sat two urns – one for his mother, one for hers. Susie decided to relocate the urns, receiving a more life-enhancing message. To our mutual surprise, at her pre-surgery evaluation the following week, she discovered her ejection fraction and conduction defect had improved so much a pacemaker was no longer necessary and she was cleared for international travel.

Using the diagnosis as a turning point to reignite a sense of purpose in her life, she chose to pursue a life-long quest. Adopted at birth by an American couple, Susie began searching in earnest for her family of origin, spending weeks in small German towns chasing down a cold paper trail dating back to World War II. Her focus paid off, for the following year, on her second trip to Germany, she found Peter, her brother.

They’ve spent three summers together now and email each other almost everyday. I saw Susie recently after a regularly scheduled follow-up with her cardiologist and her ejection fraction is now perfectly normal. Simply put: she no longer has cardiomyopathy.

Your Largest Endocrine Organ

At a continuing medical education conference on the science behind remarkable recoveries, I presented Susie’s case—but more importantly her story. Without the story, the narrative, the dry data disappears into the netherworld of “spontaneous remissions,” a catchall for unexplained medical recoveries. But when we consider neuropeptides (molecules of emotion) locking into heart tissue we get a new sense of the heart’s ability to respond to thoughts and feelings as well as its capacity to repair and regenerate. “Broken heart syndrome” is less surprising considering the endothelium–a one-cell lining of our entire circulatory system–has been identified as the largest endocrine system in the human body. And science has shown the endocrine system is powerfully influenced by beliefs, feelings, attitudes and judgments. This understanding of mind/body mediation systems—combined with the stirring details of a woman feeling lost, searching for her roots, facing daily symbols of suffering and sadness—gives us a sense of how her renewed strength and vigor supported a quest for discovery and meaning and how that connectivity could restore something vital, something precious.

Her story though is not an isolated event. Equally impressive are studies with people where large survival benefits are linked with small changes in daily life. So we can start small. We can take a close look at our healing domain, whatever it may be—a house, a room, or a flat. We can experiment. De-clutter, maximize flow, and prioritize. Whether it’s a poem on our refrigerator or a flower in a vase, the television shows we bring into our living rooms or the friends we hang out with, make sure the messages we’re sending affirm the life we want to live.

Other featured article: Imagine and Heal: Using Your Mind as Medicine

References:

  • Koudstaal S, et al. Concise Review: heart regeneration and the role of cardiac stem cells. Stem Cells Translational Medicine, 2013 June; 2(6):434-43.
  • Stockdale B. You Can Beat the Odds: Surprising Factors Behind Chronic Illness and Cancer. (Sentient Publications, 2009).
  • Van Craenenbroeck EM, Conraads VM. Mending Injured endothelium in chronic heart failure: a new target for exercise training. Int J Cardiology, 2013 June 20;166 (2): 310-4. 
  • Von Känel R, et al. Relation of heart rate recovery to psychological distress and quality of life in patients with chronic heart failure. Eur J Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation. 2009 Dec; 16(6): 645-50.
  • Yuan P, Ma X. Endothelial cells facilitate cell-based cardiac repair: progress and challenge. Curr Stem Cell Res Ther, 2014; 9(5):415-23

© 2015 Brenda Stockdale. All rights reserved.

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