While Western medicine has been slow to recognize the mind-body connection, Eastern medicine traditions have always stressed its importance. In many Eastern practices, illness is thought to stem from an energy imbalance. A life force is considered part of the physical health. In Indian medicine and Ayurvedic healing traditions, Prana is the term that describes universal cosmic energy. In Chinese traditions, this “vital force” is called Chi or Qi. Since around 500 B.C., Chi has been central to the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The idea is that a human being and her surroundings contain energy that requires balance for good health. A person is continually exchanging energy with her environment through her experiences. In Western medicine, with its singular focus on the physical body, this viewpoint has been mostly dismissed as woo-woo.
As a medical student, I attended an optional seminar about TMC. I approached the talk with the skepticism. I was intrigued but unconvinced. The practitioner discussed the importance of adjusting energy imbalances in the liver for ill patients. In the early 2000s, I thought this sounded outlandish. After all, I had no framework to unite my Western medicine model of human physiology with Eastern medicine’s longstanding theory and practice.
But, here’s where things get spooky.
There are increasing rigorous scientific studies showing that exercises that bring the mind and body into alignment, such as synchronizing the breath and the heart rate in meditation, improve one’s immune functioning and reduce the risk of disease and death. Compelling research shows that changing one’s energy flow, or what in the west we might term reducing stress and increasing compassion, positively impacts tissues at a microscopic level throughout the body. We now understand that an important marker for inflammation in the body, C-reactive protein, is produced in response to stress by the liver. Yes, the liver. What sounded like hocus-pocus to Western doctors learning about Eastern traditions may on a microscopic level reflect the neuro-immune system at play. Because we did not understand it, we dismissed it. In Western Medicine, we’re just now embarking on the exciting new era of understanding the bidirectional communication between the nervous system and the immune system via autonomic and endocrine functioning.
Recognizing how much of our ill health can be traced back to the mind-body connection, stress, and the stress of the hidden factors illustrates a whole host of new paths we can take to better health. Many of these routes are free and preventative rather than expensive, after-the-fact treatments. Bolstering emotional wellbeing can help offset stress during challenging times like when facing a personal crisis or illness. Actions that buffer stress are well within our grasp.
Now I know I promised you that this wouldn’t be just another one of those self-help books with the usual directives: “Eat better, sleep more, work out!” And we’ll get to the bigger picture of collective resilience soon. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause to suggest some actions you can take as an individual to boost your resilience. Knowing what we now know about the crucial importance of mind to body, it’s impossible to ignore that our everyday acts to cultivate a healthy mind matter. We can start by examining the possibility of a mind-body link in our own pains and ills.
When new mental or physical symptoms arise, we can check in with ourselves as a first step. For example, when you have a new headache or back pain or belly pain or leg pain, take a moment to slow down and check in with how you are feeling otherwise in your body and what’s going on in your life. Symptoms such as pain are a red flag for an underlying problem. And that problem may have to do with our mental health. We can ask ourselves, “Do I feel tense from stress? If so, where do I feel it in my body?” “Did I miss a good night sleep or skip a workout?” “Did I indulge in unhealthy foods I wouldn’t normally have because of stress-eating?” If so, what steps can you take to get back on track and introduce some relaxation? While certainly please do go see a doctor to check out persistent symptoms that don’t go away, you can do a first pass by considering your own mental state in relation to your physical health and making adjustments to see if it helps.
Like Ana, if you face an acute intense stressor that knocks you off your feet, do what you can (recognizing its not easy in the moment) to take steps to buffer that stress immediately so little problems don’t become big problems. Something I know from personal experience, in the midst of a crisis please take mini self-care breaks (i.e. catch a nap, take a brief walk, or what works best for you to mentally switch gears). Please ask for help from others so that you don’t get too run down too. You’ll be in much better shape to deal will what may come.
Another key way to buffer your resilience reserves is to take steps to reduce your baseline levels of negative stress. The idea is to get into as good of mental shape as possible so that when an acute stressor rocks your world, you’ll be better able to stay balanced. Aside from getting regular sleep (seven or more hours a night) and exercise (see other books on ideas about this one), some other ways to reduce personal stress include meeting up with a friend for coffee (chapter 3), attending a regular support group (chapter 10), and journaling (chapter 5).
The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness Copyright © 2019 by by Kelli Harding, MD, MPH. Reprinted by permission of Atria, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.