Illness offers us a precious opportunity to investigate our lives without judgment, diagnose the root cause of what might be contributing to an illness, realign ourselves spiritually, and do what we can to make our bodies ripe for miracles. When viewed with compassion and without judgment, illness can be a potent opportunity for personal growth. – Dr. Lissa Rankin
When I was foraying into Integrative Medicine approach to health, I found it really interesting to hear it straight from doctors. I wanted to know their point of view given their professional background, since most would simply scoff at the concept of self-healing, not to mention specifically how the mind affects the body.
By the time I saw Dr. Lissa Rankin’s TED Talk, she was more than walking the talk. She was rallying a movement. Her mission? Putting back health in healthcare. Uhmmm, love it!
And this book is just that – integrating everything we’re learning along The Path to Awesomeness, plus the scientific proof. Because Dr. Rankin was also a skeptic, even though she had been witnessing firsthand the seemingly miraculous healing of her patients. So she had to research what was going on and look for a scientific explanation to make sense of it.
It wasn’t until she encountered what she calls “The Perfect Storm,” when her life was visited by tumultuous events, that took a huge toll on her health. Unknowingly, in the eye of the storm was the answer she was seeking – within her, which she has termed the Inner Pilot Light.
Are you ready to meet yours?
Whatever the mechanism, it’s clear that the mind and body communicate through hormones and neurotransmitters that originate in the brain and then leave the brain to signal other parts of the body. So it should come as no surprise to us that what we think and how we feel can translate into physiological changes in the rest of the body.
The book opens with Dr. Rankin discussing the two phenomena that have been well-recognized in medical literature – the placebo and the nocebo effects.
She cites several cases to illustrate them, such as:
- Bruno Klopfer’s case study in 1957 about Mr. Wright, who had an advanced type of cancer, got cured, got ill, and cured and had gotten ill again until his eventual death, all due to his belief in the efficacy of a drug
- A patient reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation who suffered from severe nausea got cured by a potent drug, not knowing that what the doctors actually gave her was ipecac, a substance that induces nausea, not prevent it.
- Moseley’ fake knee surgery on patients who experienced the same relief as those who underwent the real surgery
- Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS)’ The Spontaneous Remission Project, which documents 3,500 references for spontaneous remission, defined as “the disappearance, complete or incomplete, of a disease or cancer without medical treatment or treatment that is considered inadequate to produce the resulting disappearance of disease symptoms or tumor.”
Same is true of nocebo, says Dr. Rankin:
Excessive knowledge about what can go wrong with the body can actually harm you. The more you focus on the infinite ways in which the body can break down, the more likely you are to experience physical symptoms.
There’s no denying the impact of the mind on the condition of our well-being. Whatever you believe in regard to your health, you’re right. Your beliefs, whether they’re scientifically proven or not, will be deemed true by you.
The mind is equally potent as a poison as it is a potion.
Think sick, get sick. Think well, get well.
Perception and Interpretation
It all kept coming back to the hormones and neurotransmitters the brain spits out, depending on whether the mind interprets something as positive (as it does with the placebo effect) or negative (as with the nocebo effect). When our beliefs are hopeful and optimistic, the mind releases chemicals that put the body in a state of physiological rest, controlled primarily by the parasympathetic nervous system, and in this state of rest, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are free to get to work fixing what’s broken in the body.
It’s Dr. Lissa’s personal insight after consulting Dr. Bruce Lipton on how the mind alters the state of the body. He explained to her that the brain is perception, but the mind is interpretation. In other words, while the brain is objective, the mind is subjective. And it’s all about how the mind interprets what the brain perceives.
For example, when you see a person and interpret it as a lovely experience, your brain then secretes hormones and neurotransmitters that activate your parasympathetic nervous system putting your body into a relaxed state (healing).
On the other hand, if you see something and interpret it as fearful, the brain again releases another set of biochemicals, but this time triggering the sympathetic nervous system, or your stress-response system (dis-ease).
Adding to what we learned from his groundbreaking work in The Biology of Belief – that it’s not the genes, but the environment that affects the cells of our body – Dr. Lipton says that the brain is the chemist changing the environment to which our cells are exposed.
Isn’t this what medicinal drugs do to our brains? To alter how it functions to induce a certain effect on the body. The good news is, through learning the techniques and practicing them, the mind can do it, too, even overriding what medicine can. The placebos and nocebos have proven that.
Suffice it to say, your health is in your hands. Or more appropriately, in your mind!
I know that’s a lot to hear right now, but let me share with you the good news. The good news is that a percentage of people with exactly this diagnosis survive, and there are some predictors of who those people might be. The body is designed to repair itself when it gets sick, and we have clear evidence that those who nurture their bodies, minds, and spirits while staying hopeful and believing in their ability to get well are more likely to be cured. It’s important to your body that we all remain optimistic and that your mind and body stay as relaxed as possible, because only in this state of relaxation can your body fight off the cancer.
I want you to know that I believe that it’s possible for you to be cured from this, and I will be here to support you every step of the way.
That’s Dr. Lissa playing the role of Doctor Love in delivering a medical report to, in this example, a cancer patient. What do you think are the odds of the patient’s recovery and healing? It’s highly probable!
Doctors can become the placebo or the nocebo. Viewed as the authority and expert by patients, their words are powerful.
In the book, Dr. Lissa relays a real account of Sam Londe, a patient who suffered from cancer of the esophagus. His doctor, Dr. Clifton Meador, told him that his condition is fatal. Guess what? Weeks following his diagnosis, Sam died, only to find out in his autopsy that very little cancer was found – not enough to kill him. Dr. Meador confessed, “He died with cancer, but not from cancer.”
No blame here. It’s not easy being in a doctor’s shoe (or coat), doing the best they can. But it’s important to realize that a healer’s role comes from the being part, more than the doing. It’s the core message of the book, Heal Thy Self – becoming mindful, having the awareness of what takes place in the patient-caregiver relationship.
Dr. Lissa says that often, doctors do so much to the extent that they sacrifice their own being. With that, they won’t be able to establish an environment that fosters healing.
It’s impossible to be fully present for our patients, to open our hearts as widely as they must be opened, and to serve as fully as we can when we have nothing left to give. If only doctors could be models of self-care so that patients might learn by example, the whole system would undergo a radical shift. If healers could heal themselves first, we would be able to serve and love from a place of wholeness, so we could more effectively heal the world.
Heal Thy Mind
It’s not enough to focus solely on the body without taking into account the health of the mind. Promoting health of the body without encouraging health of the mind is an exercise in futility. Not until we realize that our bodies are mirrors of our interpersonal, spiritual, professional, sexual, creative, financial, environmental, mental, and emotional health will we truly heal. In fact, the scientific data suggests that, at least in some instances, the health of the mind is equally, if not more, important to the health of the body. The body doesn’t fuel how we live our lives. Instead, it is a mirror of how we live our lives. The body is a reflection of the sum of our life experiences.
If we acknowledge the mind-body connection, it must follow that the body is the physical extension of the mind. In other words, the body is the physical manifestation of the mind. Does it mean that a sick body could be a manifestation of a sick mind? You bet.
A Course in Miracles even teaches us that the first error in our thinking is the idea that the body can get sick. Whoaaa…
Here’s the teaching it implies: the body doesn’t get sick, but it does get symptoms. Symptoms of what? There you go: a sick mind.
This is why a healthy diet and regular exercise, though they’re helpful, are not enough to be healthy. While care is given to the body, we must tend to the root cause of sickness – the mind.
In his book, Your Power to Heal (one I highly recommend), Dr. Grayson says, “The true purpose of healing is to use the body to help us heal the mind that “needed” the body to be sick.” Check out The Seven Questions for uncovering what your bodily symptoms might point to.
When you hear yourself complain: “I’m sick of this job… sick of this relationship… sick of this person… sick of this ______________ ,” listen to your body.
It Takes A Village
The reality is that loneliness causes stress, while loving community relaxes you. The effects of stress and relaxation don’t just affect the mind; they affect the body. When you lack supportive community and feel you must handle life alone, the daily overwhelm may trigger anxiety, which the brain perceives as a threat. The negative consequences of overwhelm and stress can be mitigated, as it turns out, when you are nurtured by friends, relatives, and neighbors who care. In fact, this factor alone may affect your body more profoundly than what you eat, how much you drink, whether or not you smoke, or how much you exercise.
Have you been to a group healing session? Or joined a community prayer? Have you felt its therapeutic vibes? That’s the power of having people supportive of each other, creating an environment that nurtures everyone.
We just talked about the mind being the cause of sickness. If we go deeper its root, we’ll find that the source of human suffering is the mind’s belief in separation, which is due to its attachment to the body.
Viewing ourselves as somebody separate makes us think we’re alone. Our tendency is to feel lonely and miserable that in effect weakens the immune system of the body.
One such documented study Dr. Lissa shares in the book is that of Roseto village in Pennsylvania.
Here’s what Roseto website says about their history:
In the early 1960s, Dr. Stewart Wolf and Dr. John Bruhn began their research studying a unique feature of Roseto, Pennsylvania. Their study was to determine how the effects of family bonds and the strong social values contributed to the low incident of coronary heart disease and sudden death. In spite of the fact that risk factors such as smoking, lack of exercise and high-fat diet were found as great as in other communities, the outstanding difference was the family-oriented social structure that controlled the way of life for Rosetans.
But then they become Westernized and began living differently, adopted the modern lifestyle and left behind the family-oriented, communal essence, that the overall health of the village declined to the same level of the sickly neighboring communities.
Good thing, human beings are innately social creatures, so we’re bound to the spirit of “oneness,” in spite of our physical separateness. It’s the human spirit, which we call love.
The Ananda Village, featured in the documentary Finding Happiness, is a living example of such a community, something we can replicate in our local neighborhood. If we can, no doubt that the coming of the New Earth would be just a matter of time.
Work For Life, Not For Living
When your work involves pursuing goals that are personally resonant for you, it boosts your self-esteem as you start checking off the baby-step goals that get you closer to your big dream; it lifts you up and motivates you to keep on plugging away, doing what you love, even when the pursuit of these goals may require tedious tasks, risk-taking, and uncertainty. Striving to leave a legacy or pursue a calling increases happiness, which leaves the body flooded with health-inducing hormones that strengthen the immune system, relax the cardiovascular system, and deactivate the stress response.
Scientific data is hardly necessary to show how work-related stress impacts our health. In the book, Dr. Lissa lists a number of studies for reference and explains the fact that, similar to the effects of loneliness, stress from work triggers the sympathetic nervous system (flight-or-fight response), the same psychological response of our body to threat.
It’s even accentuated in Japan that they have a word for it – karoshi, meaning “death by overwork.” And it’s not uncommon in other parts of the world. Here in the Philippines, in the company where I was last employed, it saddens me whenever I saw a roaming donation box for a co-employee, around my age, who died prematurely due to stroke, or heart disease, or cancer of various types.
I realize now that the message delivered in the enlightening book, Conversations With God, was not just some lofty idea. It was straight talk:
Go ahead and do what you really love to do! Do nothing else! You have so little time. How can you think of wasting a moment doing something for a living you don’t like to do? What kind of a living is that? That is not a living, that is a dying!
Wake-up call! Dr. Lissa echoes it as scientific evidence shows that doing what you love can be a lifesaver.
Hallelujah! Doing what I love (writing, music, any artistic endeavor) played a significant role in healing my hyperthyroidism, since the thyroid gland is linked to the throat chakra, the energy center for communication and self-expression. Creativity to me is therapy.
So, go ahead, do what you love and make a life of it, not a living.
Happiness and Optimism
Studies show that positive psychological states, such as joy, happiness, and positive energy, as well as characteristics such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism, and a sense of humor, result in lower mortality rates and extended longevity in both healthy and diseased populations. In fact, happiness and related mental states reduce the risk or limit the severity of heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, hypertension, and colds.
Researchers on happiness define it as “the overall appreciation of one’s life as a whole.” And based on multiple studies, they discovered that happiness and health are inextricably linked.
Together with what Dr. Lissa refers to as its twin sister, optimism, happiness is your best ally in preventive medicine, even in healing.
Here are some of the highlighted studies in the book that features also the work of Martin Seligman and other psychologists:
- On longevity, people with higher levels of “subjective well-being” live up to ten years longer than those who don’t.
- People with a positive outlook are 45 percent less likely to die within a specified period of time from all causes than negative thinkers.
- A study that tracked 1,300 men for ten years and found that heart-disease rates among optimists were half the rates in pessimists.
- The “inescapable shock” experiment that we first related to trauma in The Body Keeps the Score was also found to suppress and weaken the immune system in rats. The T-cells no longer multiplied and the Natural Killer (NK) cells lost their killer abilities.
- The study comparing 2 nuns who were asked to write their life stories before entering the convent and were followed for the rest of their lives. One nun had a stroke at 59 and died soon afterward, while the other was reported to still be alive and healthy at 98 years old. What made the difference? Implied in how they wrote their stories was their outlook in life. The optimistic nun outlived the other.
That said, all hopes are not gone if you don’t see yourself in a positive light. It’s exactly what we’re working on this Path to Awesomeness. And we keep learning, as also shown in this book, that a fixed mindset can be fixed! The mind can be healed and so is the body.
When the relaxation response is induced, the parasympathetic nervous system is in the driver’s seat. Only in this relaxed state can the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms go about the business of repairing what gets out of whack in the body, the way the body is designed.
If there’s the stress response, there’s also the relaxation response, originally termed by Dr. Herbert Benson whose research was expounded by Dr. Lissa in the book. She goes on to list many health conditions where the relaxation response was proven effective in healing.
There are four components that elicit the relaxation response:
- A quiet environment
- A mental device (e.g. repeated phrase, word, sound, or prayer)
- A passive, nonjudgmental attitude
- A comfortable position
Of them, Dr. Benson later discovered that only the mental device and passive attitude were necessary.
Any guess where this is leading us to? Say hi to affirmation! (Check out our Daily Aweffirmations on the FB page)
And what’s a practice that leads to nonjudgmental awareness? Say hello to meditation.
Here’s Dr. Lissa’s guided meditation you can go back to later:
Inner Pilot Light
We all have this part within us. Your Inner Pilot Light is the radiant, sparkly spirit of you—call it your Highest Self, your Christ Consciousness, your Buddha Nature, or your soul. It’s that part of you that is a little piece of divinity fueling your life in human form. It’s that 100 percent authentic, never extinguished, always-shining-though-sometimes-dimmed part that lights the way back to wholeness, happiness, and health.
That sounded a bit strange coming from a doctor, don’t you think? I thought so, too.
How did Dr. Lissa end up with this spiritual insight? It started January of 2006 when “the perfect storm” hit her – she became a new mom, lost her dog, her brother had liver failure, and her father died of a brain tumor – all in two weeks. Her stress responses went on overdrive, which took a toll on her health.
On the bright side, the disaster cracked her open. Her body, who’s been yelling at her for attention, found an opening for it to be heard. And Dr. Lissa finally listened. That’s how she learned about her Inner Pilot Light, which she says we all have.
What is the flight plan, the healing plan, of our Inner Pilot? Radical self-care, says Dr. Lissa.
Although I also made changes to my diet and exercise regimen, I primarily credit the healing of my mind.
Radical self-care also involves things like setting boundaries, living in alignment with your truth, surrounding yourself with love and a sense of connection, and spending time doing what you love. You need radical self-care, not just in your health habits, but in the rest of your life.
The healing of the mind, that’s where the medicine is.
Sickness is but a call for love. Your body loves you so much and it’s been waiting all this time for you to love it back.
Why should you put yourself through what might be an uncomfortable process? Because you often have to break down to break through. This process offers you the opportunity for rebirth.
If you’re fearless enough to face the truth about yourself, your life, and your illness, you’ll have the opportunity to awaken to the bliss that comes with living in alignment with your Inner Pilot Light. And when you do, you make the body ripe for miracles. Remember, anything is possible.
The last parts of the book are what I found to be most insightful. They’re both scientific and pragmatic, too, as Dr. Lissa uses the data from her copious research to come up with her holistic prescription.
She developed a treatment model, what she calls the Whole Health Cairn:
Dr. Lissa argues that we’ve gotten it backwards. Contrary to what most other health models would suggest, the body is NOT the foundation of health. It is the physical manifestation of the sum of your life experiences, which as you can see on the diagram, made up of interrelated aspects of living.
This is what “integrative” means. From a scientific perspective, Dr. Bruce Lipton has the Quantum-Holistic approach that sees each part as part of the whole. You align everything and anchor them to your Inner Pilot Light.
To keep the health cairn in balance, the environment surrounding it plays a huge role. It should be surrounded by love, pleasure, gratitude, and service.
Dr. Lissa also sheds light on the difference between “cured” and “healed”. She says:
There’s a difference between curing and this kind of healing. You can be cured without being healed, and you can be healed without being cured. In a perfect world, the process you’re about to embark upon will both cure you and return you to wholeness. But I can’t guarantee that you will be cured. What I can guarantee is that, if you embark upon this process with the support of the right people, you will wind up healed and whole, even if you’re not cured.
With this in mind, she prescribes 6 Steps to Healing Yourself:
STEP ONE: Believe You Can Heal Yourself. Whatever you believe in, you are right. So why not believe you can get better? Because regardless of the diagnosis, you can.
STEP TWO: Find the Right Support. Find health-care providers who also believe in you and will support you in your healing journey. (I’m not a pro, but I’m here to assist you. I believe in you!)
STEP THREE: Listen to Your Body and Intuition. Your body holds the answers to your health inquiries. Listen to the message of symptoms. In the book, you’ll find exercises designed by Dr. Lissa to help you tune in more to your body.
STEP FOUR: Diagnose the Root Causes of Your Illness. Find out the non-physical causes of the sickness. Your awareness of them is the key to your healing. Try the self-diagnostic questionnaire provided also by Dr. Lissa in the book.
STEP FIVE: Write the Prescription for Yourself. Once you become aware of the changes that must be done, act on them. You claim your health back by becoming responsible for it. Do what you feel is best for you.
STEP SIX: Surrender Attachment to Outcomes. You know when did healing start to happen for me? It was when I didn’t care anymore. My father died at the time, and with it, my desire to get well died, too. “It’s up to you now, God,” I thought. I didn’t know it then, but reminiscing now, I realized that it was an act of surrender. It felt like dying in a way, but rebirthing was what it really was.
More than anything, whatever the case may be, healed or cured, sickness always has a purpose – healing. It is an uneasy call from our Inner Pilot Light, our Inner Awesomeness that’s always beckoning us to our own individual journey back home.
“Healing yourself” may seem like a lonesome ride, but know that you are never alone. We’re in this together.
Have an awesome trip, my friend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lissa Rankin, M.D., is a physician, coach for visionaries and healers, author, speaker, artist, and blogger. Lissa is committed to helping people heal, connect, and thrive, not just in their bodies but in their hearts and souls. She is also passionate about supporting other visionaries, healers, and coaches who share her desire to help others become wholly healthy in all aspects of their lives. When not traveling the world spreading her message, Lissa loves painting in her encaustic studio, skiing in Lake Tahoe, practicing yoga, dancing, and hiking near the ocean and among the redwoods in Marin County, California, where she lives with her husband, Matt, her daughter, Siena, and her dog, Bezoar. Follow her blog to read “Passionate Prescriptions for Living and Loving Fearlessly” at LissaRankin.com.