My search for peace of mind has taken me from giving up much control of my well-being to biopsychiatry, to exploring my unhealthy behaviors, to ultimately finding peace amidst fellow seekers in the holistic healing world. I found peace on my yoga mat, by eating healthy food, by quieting my mind through meditation, and by surrounding myself with people that nourish my soul.
My wife, Carrie, has been by my side as we’ve collaboratively explored ways to enrich our lives and optimize our human experience. Recently, our search has intensified. My beautiful wife was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.
My wife’s response to this life-threatening situation has been inspiring. She has methodically explored all available treatment options – both traditional and non-traditional. She has sought advice from survivors and healers and listened intently to their offerings. While she went about preparing to engage in a battle with cancer, I went in search of ways to best support her through this challenge.
My efforts led me to several books and articles about the mind-body connection in healing. The power of the human mind is extraordinary. I am fascinated by studies like the Rogaine study−where people taking sugar pills grew hair.1 In Mind over Medicine, Dr. Lissa Rankin credits this phenomenon to the power of relaxing the mind. When the mind is relaxed the body’s self-healing mechanisms are active. When we are in this state and believe we are taking a drug that will grow hair – we are capable of growing hair even with a sugar pill.
This state of having a relaxed mind was dubbed the “relaxation response” by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University. When the mind is relaxed all the natural healing abilities are turned on. The immune system is releasing healing hormones and endorphins. In a relaxed state one can respond thoughtfully to life’s challenges. In his work The Biology of Belief, Dr. Bruce Lipton articulates a concept called the state of growth. Lipton argues that one’s mindset dramatically impacts one’s creativity and capacity to overcome obstacles.
The opposite of the relaxation response was dubbed the “fight or flight” or “stress response” by Dr. Walter Cannon. The stress response is activated when the body is in self-preservation mode. In this state, the immune system is deactivated and stress hormones are released into the body. One’s ability to respond thoughtfully to challenges is limited. It is about reacting – as if a bus is coming at you. The problem is the human mind has a difficult time distinguishing between abstract and actual threats (i.e. a bus barreling towards you, vs. worrying about what someone thinks about you). Most people spend an inordinate amount of time in fight or flight mode. Much of our ill health stems from the physiological consequences of repetitive stress responses.
The mind, if relaxed, has an amazing ability to heal the body. Carrie and I have long been yoga partners – so I knew we would continue our practice. How else can she make sure she is in a relaxation response mode? Further research revealed how important it is that Carrie’s treatment team believes she will be cured. Their believing and conveying said belief, that she will fully recover, enhances her relaxation response.
In Love, Medicine and Miracles, Dr. Bernie Siegel, a pioneer of the Mind-Body connection in medicine, says that doctors can literally kill their patients by the information they convey. Saying “there is nothing more I can do” or “put your affairs in order” can seal the fate of their patients. These prognoses cause fear and put patients in a perpetual stress response, thereby shutting off their natural healing abilities. Dr. Siegel said, “All patients must be accorded with the conviction that they can heal, no matter what the odds.2”
By giving negative predictions, doctors create a nocebo effect that activates the stress response. The nocebo is the opposite of the placebo. The placebo shows the power of positive belief – it activates the relaxation response. The nocebo effect shows the power of negative belief – it activates the stress response. The nocebo effect has caused people receiving sugar pills in cancer studies to lose hair and experience nausea.3 Dr. Lissa Rankin said, “Scientists believe the nocebo effect is caused primarily by activation of the same stress response the placebo effect relieves. When a patient is cursed, either by a witch doctor, a family member, or a modern physician, the stress of the bad news stimulates the stress response.4”
Dr. Andrew Weil said that when doctors take away hope and potential for healing from their patients they are essentially “medically hexing” them. Their pronouncements elicit the stress response and can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Giving prognoses that take away hope is a form of hexing. The mind responds to this fear by turning off the body’s self-healing mechanisms. When you feel fear, your mind is worried about protection, not about healing and growing.
“By labeling a patient with a negative prognosis and robbing him or her of the hope that cure might be possible, we may ultimately prove the poor prognosis we have bestowed upon our patient correct. Wouldn’t we be better off offering hope and triggering the mind to release health-inducing chemicals intended to aid the body’s self-repair mechanisms?5”
– Dr. Lissa Rankin
Having examined ways to transcend difficult experiences, Carrie and I have come to believe the following three principles are important:
- One needs to cultivate an internal belief that they will get better. It is imperative that one has hope – they need to believe that suffering is a transient experience. There has to be a belief, regardless of the situation, that “this too shall pass.”
- It is essential that we have people around us that share our belief that we will get through the current challenge. Dr. Bernie Siegel said, “Nothing helps someone get better as much as someone granting the possibility.6” Immediately get rid of the people that think you will not get better. I believe, despite the myriad of problems surrounding the peer role in the mental health system, that peer support can be profound. There is something vitalizing about being around people that have successfully navigated what we are currently going through. The cancer survivors who have come into Carrie’s life have made immeasurable contributions to her wellbeing.
- We need to be actively involved in our own health and not give our power away to medical professionals. We need to have a sense of control. For Carrie, it is practicing yoga, praying, questioning everything the docs say, being in nature and eating nourishing foods. When we feel we are at the mercy of others our stress response is turned on. Taking even initial steps for yourself can have a significant impact on your mindset. If you need to lose weight and commit to doing so – the first time you exercise or skip dessert you feel better. You have not actually lost weight yet but you have made an effort and your mind rewards you. If you have a big term paper due that you are stressing about – the first time you sit down to work on it you start feeling better – even though you have many hours of work to go. We need to realize how resilient we are and move forward accordingly. We will start to truly heal and grow when we cultivate our inner strength.
My research has been into ways to best support my wife as she beats cancer. But I cannot help thinking about how “hexing” happens around me everyday in the work that I do. In fact, the hexing that happens in the mental health field is the worst kind. People are told they have a “chemical imbalance” that will require them needing medication for the rest of their lives – giving their mind no hope of living drug-free thereby eliciting a stress response. People are told to avoid stress. They are told that they will be on federal assistance for life. They are told that they have a genetic brain disorder or disease. These are all examples of “medical hexing.”
The part that makes it worse than what is happening in the physical realm is that the treatment for so-called mental illness is not based on provable science. Cancer is completely different. We can see it under microscopes, in CAT scans and MRI’s. The so-called mental health experts (hexperts), by treating emotional distress as a disease, have created a crisis in our country. Pathologizing and labeling human emotions has led to the hexing of many people. Human emotional struggle and suffering are very real. But medicalizing these experiences is causing an epidemic. We need to look for healing within the context of our lives and not in medical textbooks. We need to value individual narratives: healing lies in our stories. For our individual and collective well-being we need to stop identifying with labels that block healing energy. And we need to avoid the hexperts.
1. Lissa Rankin, Mind over Medicine (Hay House, 2013)
2. Bernie S. Siegel, Love, Medicine & Miracles (Harper Collins, 1986) p. 39
3. Lissa Rankin, Mind over Medicine, p. 21
4. Lissa Rankin, Mind over Medicine, p. 25
5. Lissa Rankin, Mind over Medicine, p. 34
6. Bernie S. Siegel, Love, Love, Medicine & Miracles, p. 196
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.