As a marriage and family therapist, who is also a Reiki Master, I have made it a priority to understand the scientific research behind various approaches so I can explain to my clients what options are available and how these options might aid in their healing. I have had many colleagues who are reiki practitioner’s ask me how to talk to their clients about the benefits of reiki for mental health issues. As I spend a great deal of time reading research studies, I have been able to provide an explanation to my colleagues. As this has come up on several occasions, I thought it might be information that clients and potential clients might be interested in. So here is a basic break down of the research on the benefits of reiki for mental health issues from a neuroscience perspective. This is important as it helps us understand how reiki actually changes the body and brain.
Various scientific research has revealed that the vagus nerve plays an important role in mediating the mutual interactions between the brain and the body. The vagus nerve is located below the lungs in the abdomen, so when we take deep, relaxed breaths, the vagus nerve is stimulated. Research has also shown that the vagus nerve assists in regulating “the health of the body, including inflammatory responses, glucose regulation, and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function.” (Reiki Is Better Than Placebo and Has Broad Potential as a Complementary Health Therapy, David E. McManus, PhD; J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017 Oct; 22(4): 1051–1057.) This is important to understand because under stress, we are more likely to take shallow breaths which leads to increased heart rate because the vagus nerve is not being stimulated. When our heart rate increases the autonomic nervous system is activated sending us into a state of distress. You have probably heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response. This response is activated when the autonomic nervous system is triggered. If triggered often enough it can affect the health of the body and mind.
Science has further revealed that the autonomic nervous system is responsible for emotional expression and social behavior. This is important to understand because a “compromised autonomic nervous system, as characterized by reduced heart rate variability, is associated with cognitive and affective dysregulation, and psychological inflexibility, which are major psychological risk factors” for chronic pain, chronic anxiety, and depression. (Reiki Is Better Than Placebo and Has Broad Potential as a Complementary Health Therapy) Basically this means that under stress our body struggles to regulate itself, and when triggered often enough can lead to mental health issues and chronic pain. This is because we begin to believe that the world is a dangerous place.
You might be wondering what this information has to do with Reiki? Well, if a compromised autonomic nervous system and vagus nerve lead to physical and emotional distress, than regulating these systems, would lead to better regulation of emotional responses, development of healthy coping strategies, increased positive emotions, and social connectedness. This is supported by scientific studies that have shown that “artificial stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve has been shown to reduce the perception of pain, reduce depression, and improve mood and quality of life.” (Reiki Is Better Than Placebo and Has Broad Potential as a Complementary Health Therapy) During reiki, the client experiences a meditative state of calm where their breath slows and deepens, stimulating the vagus nerve, which in turn slows their heart rate, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and deactivating the autonomic nervous system. So reiki assists the body is regulating itself.
You might be thinking, well it makes sense that during reiki the individual is able to be in a relaxed state body, but how does this benefit them long-term and heal their body and brain? Well, stress can be defined as wanting or expecting the situations we encounter to be different than we perceive them to be. Neuroscience has shown that 90% of our brain, scans our environment looking for data that validates our belief systems. So if we believe the world is dangerous and overwhelming, our brain will perceive information that validates our belief system, tuning out any data that de-values our belief system. So we are perceiving the world in a way that leads to further stress.
Mindfulness is the practice of increasing conscious awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. Current research in neuroscience shows that when individuals practice mindfulness the neural pathways in their brain actually began to re-wire. So being mindful can assist our brain in changing our belief systems leading to enhanced attention control, improved emotion regulation, and altered self-awareness. As reiki takes the individual into a state of mindfulness, reiki is actually helping the neural pathways in the brain to re-wire so that the client’s belief systems begin to change and they are able to perceive the world in a more positive manner. The more an individual practices a state of mindfulness, the faster their brain will re-wire and their belief systems will change. So we should practice reiki daily because reiki re-wires our brain to perceive more joy, more connection to self-compassion and love, and a sense of peace.
I hope that this helps you better understand how the body and mind work from a scientific approach and how when viewed from a scientific perspective you can actually see how reiki may lead to long-term healing of the body, mind, and spirit.