Psychology Meets Physiology...
After a yearlong international travel adventure, I returned to the U.S. from Peru yesterday with a nagging viral respiratory illness (I apologize to the lady next to me who had to endure my hacking coughing on that 8 hour overnight flight). I spend a lot of time as a nurse practitioner and health coach educating and empowering people to take control of their health through regular exercise and a whole-foods plant-based lifestyle, but realized I (like the majority of healthcare practitioners) don't always discuss the importance of the mind-body connection in managing health. That's probably because though I'm always dedicated to plant-based food and regular movement, I don't put enough personal emphasis on other modalities for managing the mind. I'll go through spurts of journaling and meditating for several days when I'm feeling particularly stressed, but quickly fall off the wagon the moment I start feeling better. In addition to healthy eating, meditating, shifting mindsets, journaling and retraining stress responses are also preventative practices. Someone could be in tip-top marathon shape and eat all the broccoli in the world, but still succumb to illness if plagued by chronic, poorly managed stress and anxiety.
About 10 days ago, I had a client tell me about the documentary 'Heal', which I finally took the time to watch this morning. Though I managed to evade illness most of the year, I was reminded how the stress of transition and uncertainty can manifest in the body in physical ways. I had resolved to be very productive today, but after watching the documentary, I decided to spend most of the day journaling, meditating, grounding, reflecting, walking by the water, catching up on my favorite podcast and resting- essentially trying to identify any physical or emotional imbalances that could be impeding respiratory recovery.
I highly recommend the documentary which you can purchase or rent on Amazon. It made me recall a webinar I heard last year from Vishen Lakhiani, the founder of Mindvalley, in which he described a long-term battle with acne. He tried every medication available on the market without improvement. One day he decided to try a visualization technique and did a meditation imagining himself picking a leaf off a tree and rubbing the leaf and all of it's healing properties over his face. He visualized the leaf healing his acne and did this exercise daily. Within a matter of weeks, his acne was completely gone. This is a minor example of a problem that is certainly not life threatening, but can strongly impact confidence and self-worth.
I've worked as a nurse practitioner in clinical oncology for the last 8 1/2 years and I can say that anecdotally, people that have a positive mindset, strong spiritual practice and truly believe their treatment will heal them tend to do better overall and incur fewer treatment related side effects. The body has innately powerful healing capabilities when provided with the right conditions. Of course healthy food, water and movement are included amongst the list of conditions, but just as important is a healthy, positive mindset. On the contrary, a negative outlook about the world, perpetual feelings of inadequacy or helplessness, suppressed trauma, anger, guilt or fear, inappropriately managed stress, a victim mentality, etc. can all manifest in physical ways, perhaps as an acute illness like a respiratory infection from a compromised immune system, pain or as a more chronic disease, like cancer or an autoimmune disorder. The placebo effect, shown repeatedly in clinical studies with a control group, is a powerful example of how mindset can impact outcome. It is not an unexplainable phenomenon, but rather an example of the interplay between mindset, the body's healing capabilities and social context.
You have the power to change the way you think, which in turn will change the way you feel and also positively influence your body's healing power. Cultivating positivity doesn't replace an otherwise healthy lifestyle, but mindset (which includes facing problems, rather than suppressing them) and lifestyle work synergistically to strengthen your immune system, reduce inflammation and aid with physical healing. So while you continue chomping on that kale, consider regularly practicing one of these healing modalities:
1. Talk Therapy
There are many other modalities out there to harness the power of the mind- you may have to experiment to see which you connect with most. Found something that has worked well for you? I would love to hear about it in the comment section below!
Of note, although I think our healthcare system is plagued by an overabundance of pharmaceuticals and procedures, I base my recommendations on evidence-based science and readily acknowledge that these things have a very necessary and important role in healthcare as well!