Have you ever been through a prolonged stressful time in your life and ended up getting a nasty cold? Or, have you ever been through a season of junk food eating and found that it started to affect your emotional balance and ability to think clearly? Since university days, I have been fascinated by the psychology of health. That is, the impact of the mind on the body and vice versa. In recent years, I have come to realise that the mind and body are one integrated system and cannot be separated. They are inexplicably connected and will always have an impact on each other. This is why I was excited to hear about 'The Connection', a feature length documentary that explores mind-body integration.
Two weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the UK premier of the film. I was completely blown away! The film conveys groundbreaking, information to say the least. It is all backed by rigorous research studies and is highly credible. I'm blogging about it today because I feel that everyone needs to understand the exceptionally important link between mind and body and the effect they have on each other. Shannon Harvey, the film maker, has done a remarkable job of exploring how calming the mind can contribute towards healing everything from infertility to cancer and yes, MS.
Shannon was diagnosed with debilitating arthritis a few years ago and has been on an incredible journey to find healing, which she certainly has found. She documents the stories of six other people with various conditions and explores how they used various techniques to calm and focus their minds to find healing. One of them is our very own MS hero, Prof George Jelinek.
Here is a clip from the film to whet your appetite:
Obviously I'm not going to give everything away, you need to see the film for yourself. However, I would like to share a few things that really stood out for me. This is vital information that everyone on the planet needs to know.
The Relaxation Response
We all know what happens when we experience a stressful situation. Our bodies go onto fight or flight mode and the associated anxiety either makes us run away or hang around and endure the pain. All sorts of stress hormones are released which have pro-inflammatory and disease promoting effects. It's fascinating that there is actually an opposite response to this stress response. This is suitably called, the Relaxation Response. In this mode, your body can focus on healing and reconstruction. It can actually get around to removing toxins and making sure all the systems are working efficiently.
With the help of experts in this field such as Jon Kabat Zin (PhD), Craig Hassed (MD) and Andrew Weil (MD), Shannon has discovered that allowing the body to be in this zone for even just a few minutes a day, has huge benefits for health.
This can be through many different mediums such as:
- Playing music
- Walking in the park by yourself
- Taking 20 mindful deep breaths (Shannon's technique to calm herself before giving a talk)
You might have your own tried and tested way to evoke the relaxation response or maybe you still need to find what works for you. Watching TV is definitely not one of them by the way! Even if it's Downton Abbey (my fav).
I know that time is also a problem for all of us. Life is busy and often it is nearly impossible to find calm in the storm. However, to see the results you are so desperate to see, it is important to intentionally set aside time every day to be quiet and mindful. Even if it's ten minutes. Set your alarm and do it at a time when you know you can sneak away for a bit of quiet time.
The Shrinking Amygdala
One of the experts that Shannon interviews in the documentary is Dr Sara Lazar from Harvard University. Dr Lazar conducts ground breaking studies on the brains of people who meditate and has found a difference between the brain structures of people who mediate and those that don't. It all has to do with the amygdala, two almond shaped regions at the base of the brain known to play a role in the stress response.
She found that when people who had never meditated before were put through an 8-week meditation program, the region of the brain called the amygdala got smaller. The amount that the amygdala shrank, was consistent with the meditation students reporting that they were experiencing less stress and greater feelings of peace. Fascinating stuff! It's important to note that just taking a break or a holiday is not enough to start the shrinking process. It is only the intentional practise of calming the mind that does this. Shannon expresses, in her blog, that this was a light bulb moment for her. It was definitely one for me too!
Switching off Disease Genes
Then there was this, absolutely amazing, bit of research. Dr Herbert Benson has been involved in research showing that the relax response can actually turn off the genes that may give rise to various diseases. To me, this was the cherry on the top! How amazing are our bodies that when given the opportunity, they choose to ignore disease markers in favour of those that promote health. How astonishing that we can actually have an influence on our genes through the relaxation response! It can even affect the rate at which we age. Now if that doesn't get you meditating then what will?
Will This Help My MS?
I'm sure this is the question on all of your minds. The answer is a resounding YES! It seems that the relaxation response helps to promote anti-inflammatory activity in the body, thereby calming symptoms. It also has a modulating effect on the immune system which means that it will be less likely to go haywire and start attacking its own tissue. Meditation has also been shown to decrease the anxiety associated with having an unpredictable illness and this will definitely increase quality of life.
What techniques do you use to bring on the relaxation response? Prof Jelinek practices mindfulness meditation, sees a counsellor in order to process his emotions, and writes in a diary regularly. Obviously, combining this with the MS diet, ensures the best results!
Summing it up
I know that watching this film will be a turning point for many of you, in your health. I was shocked at the statistic that one in every two people will now be diagnosed with a chronic illness. That sounds about right since about half the people I know are afflicted with various illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, PCOS and heart disease. Amazingly, I'm the only one in my family with a chronic illness and I often find myself wondering who is going to be next (I try not too dwell on these negative thoughts!). I have ordered the DVD of 'The Connection' and will be sitting them all down to watch it in the hope that they can, somehow, escape our modern scourge. You can learn more about 'The Connection' by visiting their site. You can also watch a fifteen minute segment of the film.
I'll leave you with this quote from Dr Esther Sternberg.
- “There is no doubt that when you take it to the next level, the mind and the body are connected, and that when those connections are intact and in balance you have health and when they’re broken you have disease.”
As always, I'm very interested in your feedback!
Chat to you soon!