The Will to be Well

CHAMBERS’S JOURNAL November 1 1906

The Will to be Well

CHAMBERS’S JOURNAL November 1 1906

The Will to be Well


Everyone knows the power of imagination. No one doubts that there are imaginary diseases and that multitudes of beings have no other disease than that they imagine themselves diseased. Is it not then as possible, and ever so much better, to imagine oneself healthy ? And may we not in this way increase and preserve health, just by the contrary plan we can increse or produce disease?

MOST people have noticed that paying attention to sensations and impressions increases the effect these have on the body; witness the coughing in church at a pause in the sermon. The morbific effects of cold and other agents upon the system are certainly less when the corresponding sensations are not excited or not attended to. It undoubtedly requires a firm and reasonable man-when plagued with sensations for which no cause can be found, or where, if a cause be present, nothing can be gained by thinking about it—to voluntarily banish it from his mind and proceed about his duties unembarassed thereby, although this is the best way to cure or render as harmless as possible, the trouble he has or imagines. Kant mentions that he himself almost got to desire death in the condition to which he was brought by thinking about his narrow7 and flat chest which scarcely allowed room for the functions of his heart and lungs; but, on considering that this feeling of oppression in the chest w7as only mechanical and could not be altered, he soon

got to disregard it; and, while there might be palpitation and panting in the chest, all was calm and cheerful in the head; and this philosopher lived to a ripe old age. Kant writes: ‘Even in real diseases wTe must separate the disease from the feeling of sickness. The latter generally much exceeds the former; indeed, one would not notice the disease itself, which often consists of a locally deranged function of an unimportant region, were it not for the general unpleasant sensations and pains rendering us miserable.’ These sensations, however—this action of the disease on the system—are often for the most part under our control. A w'eak, enervated spirit, with its increased sensitiveness, becomes completely prostrated; a stronger, more resolute one, resists and subdues these sensations.

Every one allows that it is possible to entirely forget one’s bodily troubles when anything occurs of a startling or pleasant nature, anything which conducts the mind from itself. Why, then, cannot one’s own mental power bring the same result about by its own determined effort?

Kant mentions cases in which he and others have done so, to which Hufeland adds : Tt is incredible what a man can effect by the power of a determined will, even in his physical conditions, and similarly by hard necessity, which is often the cause of the exercise of this determined will. Most striking is the power of the mind over infectious and epidemic diseases. It is a well established experience that those are the least liable to be infected who have good humor and do not fear or grieve over the disorder. But I am myself an example that an infection which has actually taken effect may be removed by cheerful mental excitement.’ And so on.

I quote these extracts merely as samples; the whole essay is well worth study. No doubt the views preached and practiced by our authors have cropped up in literature at various times since history began ; the Stoics taught and practiced similar precepts, and Asiatic races forages have done the same. The recognition of the power of the will and of imagination over definite physical and physiological conditions in the animal body is as old as religion, as old' as quackery.

The power of the will in influencing bodily conditions depends on the determinate direction of the attention to or from the sensations or ideas presented to the mind; and, as, Dr. Carpenter says, this capacity ‘depends, first, upon our conviction that we really have such a determining power; and, secondly, upon our habitual use of it.’ It has been proved that this attention, howeverinduced, changes the local action of the part; so that, if habitually or repeatedly exercised, it may produce important modifications in its nutrition, probably thronh the so-call-

ed trophic nerves and through the vaso-motor system of nerves which control the capillary circulation of the region concerned. In this way it often happens that a real malady supervenes upon the fancied ailments of those in whom the mind dwells upon its own sensations; while, on the other hand, the strong expectation of benefit will often cure diseases that involve serious organic change. Doubtless, most of us remember where our reading or hearing of some cases of illness has caused us to recognize symptoms of severe diseases in ourselves, and where disregard to these sensations, either voluntarily or as a result of a medical verdict, has removed all evidences of disorder.

Among the bodily changes more obviously directly resulting from mental influence, especially sudden emotions, may be mentioned, fainting, vomiting, change of the color of the hair, and of the nutrition of other parts, St. Vitus’s dance, indigestion, important changes in the secretions and excretions, braindisease, and death itself. On two occasions the writer has seen wellmarked jaundice follow in two or three days after the individuals had been plucked at examinations, no other cause than the despondency produced being evident.

Undoubtedly many of the good effects attributed to magnetism, belts, pads, and the nostrums of the day are due to their mental influence; and much of the doctor’s cures are due to the same ‘expectation’ of benefit from the drugs and rules of diet and conduct he recommends. The physician’s personality and individual tact, the ‘bedside manner’ which has often been ridiculed, is often of more importance to the patient than all the drugs in his

pharmacopoeia. The marvellous therapeutic effect of many a placebo astonishes the physician and should cause him thought. One of the worst signs in many diseases is despondency or fear or the lack of a desire to recover; while we are often surprised at the tenacity of life evidenced by the hopeful and by those who have determined not to die. The desirable mental state may be induced or aided by the physician and by others about the patient, and is largely under the patient’s own voluntary control.

There may be danger of exaggerating the capacities of this voluntary direction of the will towards the benefit of the economy, and such exaggeration can only cause disappointment. The power differs greatly in different people, and develops marvellously by practice. It is not sufficient to cry ‘peace, peace, when there is no peace;’ and Shakespeare cells us

There was never yet philosopher That could endure the toothache patiently;

but in the large class of functional disorders of the nervous system, including the fashionable nervous breakdown and neurasthenia, the first thing is to remove the causes where possible, and to improve the habits where necessary, and the next thing is to strengthen the determination to be well. Sleep is largely under the control of the will, and so

is pain, as are the various sensations known as symptoms. One method by which the will can act is by switching the attention off from such symptoms by interesting studies or light literature, by music, theatres, cheerful company, and travel, and especially by congenial employment, physical and mental. Ennui, worry, lack of interest and employment are more common causes of nervous breakdown than the unjustly maligned overwork. How rapidly the man ages, and how easily he dies, who has retired from business and not secured employment!

To imitate the child and play at ‘let's pretend' is an excellent game. Smile and you will soon feel cheerful, frown and you will soon fret; say and think ‘I am well and happy,’ say it firmly and often, and you will excel Mark Taplev as an optimist. ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you.’

Let us recognize the undoubted benefit derived from the mental influence of relics, shrines, faith-healing, Christian Science, quacks and nostrums, and similar stimuli in all ages, and let us determine to have a bit on our own.’ Recognizing the power of voluntary conduct to materially influence happiness and good health, let us determine to be happy and well.

It is the mind that maketh good or ill;

That maketh wretch or happy, rich or poor.