JUDITH WOODS is sceptical of self-help guru Louise Hay's claim that mind-power healed her body... but could it help her own back pain?
Recent medical research has revealed that the intense stress of bereavement can trigger irregular cardiac rhythms, leading to sudden death in people with underlying conditions. The findings have also cast a spotlight on the sometimes powerful link between the mind and the body.
Written 20 years ago, Louise Hay's self-help book You Can Heal Your Life has sold 35 million copies in 30 languages worldwide, with sales still going strong. Geri Halliwell famously used the book to draw up her life goals in the early Spice Girls days. The idea that positive thinking can alter our destiny is a very seductive concept.
You Can Heal Your Life, which Hay wrote when she was 60, gushes with exhortations to love yourself and chant little affirmations to boost self-esteem, achieve your ambitions and ward off ill-health. So far, so harmless. But the book is also packed with extraordinary claims that how we think directly affects our health.
While it is accepted that stress can affect the immune system, which makes us more susceptible to illness, Hay gives an exhaustive list of ailments and pinpoints the thoughts directly responsible for them. Thus, the "probable cause" of high cholesterol is a fear of accepting joy; cystic fibrosis is down to too much self-pity; Hodgkin's disease to low self- esteem; and bunions to "a lack of joy in meeting the experiences in life".
When I suggest her analyses are rather insulting to those suffering from serious illness, Hay, who claims to have cured herself of cancer by positive thinking, smiles benevolently.
"People have one of two extreme reactions to my book," she says. "They throw it across the room or rush out and buy 10 copies. The message I'm giving out, that what we think about becomes true for us, and negative thoughts mean good things don't happen, isn't always easy for some people to take."
I can personally vouch for the extremity of my own reaction. Nevertheless, as a shortcut, chanting 'I deserve the best, I accept it now', certainly beats worrying about life.
When I mention that I suffer from lower-back pain, Hay insists this is down to money worries and a deep-rooted sense of financial insecurity rather than a shockingly sedentary life spent in front of the computer. She has a point. I'm currently obsessing about interest rates and don't even get me started on the pensions crisis.
"You should breathe deeply and chant, 'Money will easily and effortlessly flow into my life' as often as you can every day," says Hay. "Things will start to change after a month. If you believe you will be financially secure, then you are opening yourself up to change."
Hay herself has not been averse to change. An 80-year-old vision, with golden sugar-spun hair and a pert nose she certainly wasn't born with, she looks like Joan Rivers' prettier, younger sister.
I suggest that cosmetic surgery rather undermines her philosophy that we should stand in front of the mirror every day and say: 'I love and accept myself'. Hay is taken aback. She didn't have a facelift in the belief that it would change her life, but because she didn't want to "age in that way".
Never mind that in Life! Reflections on a Journey, she castigates as "terrible" the way modern women see every change in their body and face as something to be disdained.
I turn instead to the subject of her own journey. After a traumatic childhood (she was beaten by her parents and sexually abused by her father) Hay dropped out of school, left home and became a model. She married, but the relationship didn't last and the divorce hit her hard.
"Like most women, I felt that the breakdown of the marriage was all my fault and that I was unlovable. Then a friend of mine invited me along to a meeting at the Church of Religious Science. She didn't want to go on her own. I went. She never turned up, but what I heard at the meeting made a great deal of sense to me," says Hay.
The Church of Religious Science is founded on the spiritual philosophy that God is in each of us, and people can change their lives for the better by altering their thoughts.
"It's all about our connection to the universe and how we can use the power within us," says Hay, who became a minister of the church. Then she was diagnosed with vaginal cancer.
"It was terrifying, but by then I had the tools to deal with it. I realised I was being given the opportunity to prove to myself that what I was teaching worked; that the mind-body connection is so strong, the mind can heal the body."
Hay is short on clinical detail. "It was 30 years ago. I can't remember exactly what stage the cancer was at."
She believes that because of her traumatic childhood, her anger and resentment made her susceptible to cancer. Because she was sexually abused, it was "obvious" that the disease would develop in her vagina.
"I told the doctors to give me six months before undertaking any treatment. They weren't happy. I started eating very healthily and I did a lot of praying and constant visualisation of a stream of crystal- clear water washing through me, and I let go of the hatred I had felt for my parents for harming me."
The average oncologist would dismiss out of hand the notion of curing cancer by positive thinking. But, according to Hay, six months later her doctors declared she was cured. Yet she is at pains to stress that other people should consult their GP about medical conditions. Does this mean that her techniques don't work?
"Not at all. I just don't think other people would necessarily give it 100%, the way I did," she says. "It's about overcoming fear and taking responsibility for your own life."
Hay reports that she's never had another day's illness and feels fitter than she did 40 years ago. The experience, moreover, prompted her to turn to writing, "to help others". She self-published the bestselling Heal Your Body, a precursor to You Can Heal Your Life, using money from her divorce settlement.
She now heads the publishing firm, Hay House, which has a ?50m turnover and boasts the Dalai Lama as an author.
As for me, I'm still reciting my mantra that money will easily and effortlessly flow into my life. It's all very corny but it makes me smile.
More importantly, I did find a coin in a shopping trolley at Tesco. Maybe my luck is changing...
'You Can Heal Your Life,' by Louise Hay, Hay House, ?15.