During my graduate training, I had an experience that presaged my later life's work. I was enrolled in the Health Psychology doctoral program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. By our third year, we were required to choose a medical specialty on which to concentrate. I was interested in women's health, so I chose obstetrics and gynecology. I was the first student in the program's history to select this specialty, which showed how little attention was being paid to the mind's role in women's health. The head of OB/GYN agreed to let me participate in the medical student rotations in obstetrics and gynecology, as long as 1 kept quiet that I was from Health Psychology. He didn't want the medical team to view me any differently.
On the third day of the rotations, we were attending to a woman undergoing a difficult delivery. She was being given an episiotomy, in which a surgical incision is made to widen the vaginal opening and ease the birth process. All of the medical students were down by the expectant mother's pelvis, observing the episiotomy and its aftermath. But I was up by her head, asking questions about the experience: How are you feeling? Do you have any pain? I comforted her until her baby was born, and she was clearly relieved to have a health professional who cared as much about her emotional state as her physical state.
I wondered if my behavior with the expectant mother had blown my cover. When I persisted in spending more time by women's heads than their pelvises, I knew the jig was up. Instead of resenting me for concealing my department of origin, the other students recognized my particular skills and put them to good use. Whenever a patient was anxious about a surgical procedure, medical test, or examination, I became responsible for attending to her mental state.
It became clear to me that my evolving role was no sideshow in the theater of high-tech medicine. I saw how profoundly the patients benefited from psychological support, whether they were in the hospital to give birth, have a hysterectomy, receive cancer therapy, or undergo treatment for endometriosis. I recognized that women's minds had to be treated along with their reproductive organs. Almost every condition affecting women carries its share of emotional upset. A body of scientific evidence, and my own observations, pointed toward the same conclusion: psychological suffering can impede physical healing. I believed passionately that a mind-body approach to women's health was needed. That was the contribution I wanted to make.
Over the past decade, I have been fortunate to realize my dream of developing mind-body methods to help women with their most common health concerns. Today I direct the women's health programs in the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the Deaconess Hospital in Boston, one of Harvard Medical School's major teaching hospitals. Our division is led by Herbert Benson, M.D., a pioneer in the field more commonly known as mind-body medicine. To my knowledge, there are no similar programs anywhere in the country. (I am also a senior scientist at the Harvard-affiliated Mind/Body Medical Institute, which Dr. Benson founded and directs as a research and training facility for mind-body medicine.)
My patients share a form of suffering all too frequently associated with female conditions: they feel anxious, isolated, and out of control. Their doctors, who offer medicines and surgical procedures, treat their physical conditions but rarely offer remedies for their emotional distress. Our programs provide the needed psychological medicine: powerful techniques enabling women to relax, transform negative thought patterns, express emotions, and develop strong sources of social support. I have found that these methods also help healthy women to stay healthy, by defusing the impact of stress on their bodies.
When our patients adopt these methods, they not only feel better, they often get better more rapidly. By themselves, our mind-body methods are not cures for physical problems; they must be combined with traditional medicine. But they are essential components of a medicine that treats women as whole beings rather than as machines whose reproductive parts need fixing.
In my women's health programs, I have seen patients overcome the aggravating symptoms of PMS, the hot flashes of menopause, and the despair of infertility. In a series of published studies, my colleagues and I have documented these benefits. Our data have been published, and we're being funded by the federal government to expand our research on mind-body medicine for women's health.