It is a marvel that in the last twenty years we have learned so much about health and well-being. The average person knows more about exercise, diet, psychology, supplements, and pharmaceuticals now than ever before in history. Why then, is there such an obvious slip between the cup and the lip? We are more obese, sedentary and stressed out than ever before and these lifestyle choices impact our health in a serious way.
More than 70% of all cancers, greater than 80% of all heart disease and over 90 per cent of type 2 diabetes are related to unhealthy lifestyles. Finger pointing does not help figure out why we in the western world take such poor care of ourselves. Yes, there is a raging fast food epidemic, spurred by the kind of television commercials that feature lovely young skinny ladies gulping down giant burgers and frolicking in fields of french fries.
Surely most of us also realise that endless hours of staring at computer monitors or playing video games are no match, health wise. for being outside and moving around. Yet, as a society, we have all but forgotten how to inhabit the natural world.
But perhaps the most obvious explanation for the gap between what we know and how that translates into taking care of our health, is our emotional state. Dr. Martin Seligman, who founded the field of positive psychology in 1998, cites data that despite our better standard of living we have become progressively more depressed since World War 1 – and at a much younger age.
Seligman credits self-absorption and being more interested in our own individualistic agenda than in the good of the whole as one obvious culprit. Altruistic people, who think about helping others, are less depressed and anxious than most-and they also live longer. The same is true of those who can manage stress and accentuate the positive rather than marinate in the negative.
When we feel bad, overwhelmed by anxiety, uncertainty, depression or stress most of us act in the most human possible way. We try to comfort ourselves. Going to the gym, jumping on a bike, or even taking a walk are most peoples first choice for comfort. It is easier to numb out, watching the television, hunting for happiness in cyberspace, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, or eating something full of fat, sugar or salt that is instantly satisfying.
I am convinced as a scientist and as a psychologist, a busy professional, a father and a husband that taking care of the mind, which in turn generates our emotions, is the missing link when it comes to taking care of the body.
I learned this lesson many years ago. I was working on my doctoral dissertation, at Kings College, investigating the way cells maintain their attachment to one another. I was also working in many of the most distressed areas of the world, with soldiers in battle ground operations. I was responding to areas distressed by natural disasters, heading up psychological response teams. I was married and a young father. I was tired and broke. I was a relentless perfectionist trying to control and succeed at everything. My emotions were in an uproar. I was slipping in and out of deep bouts of depression, with increased thoughts and attempts of suicide. High anxiety and irritability were my constant companions.
I was also a physical wreck, troubled by chronic asthma all my life. I found that the intensity of always living in my head was adding crippling stomach pains and vomiting and severe headaches to my list of psychosomatic illnesses. As if this was not enough, I also developed high blood pressure which ran in my family. I was on a cocktail of medications for physical and psychological reasons.
The field of mind/body medicine did not exist yet, but there was an American colleague who was excited about his new hobby, meditation. He compared this to a mini vacation in which he could switch off his cares and concerns and come out refreshed and ready to tackle whatever came up.
My first thought was that meditation was for hippies from the 1960s who believed in flower power, but out of desperation I gave it a try and decided to practice it every day. The real test came a few weeks later when I had just come back to base having spent 10 hours debriefing soldiers who had been involved in a critical incident involving major loss of life. My headache was crippling and the accompanying nausea awful. Retreating to my office, I pulled the blinds and shut the door. I settled into a chair, relaxed my muscles from head to foot, shifted my breathing from tense chest breathing to relaxed tummy breathing, and began to meditate.
In time the pain subsided. After the meditation was over, I was left with a feeling of having being washed clean, like the earth after a heavy rain. It was the beginning of a tremendous change in my life and by understanding how the thoughts in my head were affecting what was going on in my body I was able to make the necessary changes in my life which have led to greater happiness, increased emotional resistance and a much healthier lifestyle.
Major studies indicate that approximately 75% of visits to the family doctor are either for illnesses that will get better by themselves or for disorders related to anxiety and stress. For these conditions, symptoms can be reduced or cured as the body’s own natural healing balance is reinstated. The underlying issues with these people have as much to do with the meaning of life as with learning to use the power of the mind to reduce symptoms.
For many other chronic or potentially life threatening disorders, symptoms may be lessened, but the progress of disease will lead inevitably toward death. Death, after all, is part of the natural progression of life and its reality can be a powerful reminder to live life in a way that maximises contentment, creativity and love. This is what I call “Healing for Wholeness” This is what all people have in common, regardless of the condition that needs healing.