At 24 Shannon was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. After trying everything conventional medicine had to offer she turned to mind-body science and travelled the world in search of leading experts.
I was just 24 years old. A doctor told me that I had an autoimmune disease and that, if the disease progressed, I could end up in a wheelchair before I was 30.
Over the next few years I saw many different doctors and although they meant the best for me, they couldn’t offer me a cause or a cure. As a journalist I needed answers. I couldn’t accept the potential prognosis given to me. There was one thing I did know – when I was stressed, my symptoms were worse.
I’ve since spent years researching the scientific connection between our mind and health, travelling the world and meeting some of the leading experts in mind-body medicine. In that time I’ve realised that, in order to change my health, I needed to change my mind.
The first thing I did was to start practising yoga.The onset of the inflammation caused by the autoimmune disorder left me in chronic pain and unable to exercise. The medication that the doctors prescribed me also caused weight gain, but I felt too unwell to exercise. My self-esteem plummeted and the worse I felt… the worse I felt. It was a vicious cycle. And I had to break it.
Scientists have begun to investigate the therapeutic potential of yoga, and it’s all pointing in one direction – that yoga helps blood pressure, respiratory function, metabolic rate and many other bodily functions. Yoga was something I felt I could handle.
The next thing I did was to learn to balance my emotions. The link between emotions and health is now being studied at universities all over the world. For instance, we know happy people live up to ten years longer than unhappy people. If you’re optimistic you have about half the risk of getting heart disease than if you’re more pessimistic. In one landmark study of 2,000 middle aged men who worked at the Western Electric Company in the 1950s, those who had been emotionally depressed at the start of the study were twice as likely to have died from cancer 20 years later.
I’m the kind of person who invests my heart and soul into things. And many of those things were beyond my control. So I got professional help and saw a psychologist who taught me to re-frame my thinking, change some bad habits and understand my emotional responses.
At the time I got sick I was also experiencing a high level of stress working as a news journalist on daily or sometimes hourly deadlines. This came off the back of years of being a chronic ‘over worker’, taking on way more than was necessary.
I’ve now learnt that chronic stress wreaks havoc on the body. Stress has long been associated with greater risk of depression, heart disease and infectious diseases. Thanks to advancing bio-imaging technologies, scientists are now able to look at how stress influences disease and health, and believe that chronic psychological stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone.
I knew I had to do something to reduce my stress. I had a constant sense of rushing. I was always thinking of the next thing I had to do or ruminating over an exchange that had happened that day, that week or even years in the past. Rarely was I just there.
Anyone familiar with mindfulness will know that it’s about practising being aware of the moment and doing things like noticing the sounds around us, the sensations of touch, the taste and smell or the food we eat.
I interviewed Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who is known as the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a mindfulness program which has been scientifically proven to improve the health outcomes of people with chronic illness and is now being taught by more than 20,000 people worldwide.Dr. Kabat-Zinn explained to me that one of the first exercises people do on the course is to take five minutes to eat a raisin. The exciting thing is there’s now science to back up what is happening in our brain when we do this.
Sara Lazar from Harvard Medical School is conducting research showing that people who have been mindfulness meditators for a number of decades have unique structural features in their brains. Her research shows that the structural changes in parts of the brain related to our stress response start to shrink after just eight weeks of a mindfulness meditation practice.
As I continued researching, I also came across fascinating studies on the power of social support when it comes to health outcomes, indicating that people who feel lonely or isolated are more likely to get sick or die prematurely. At the time I got sick, I was working in a different city from where my family and friends lived, and at times felt isolated. I was working so much it was often hard to find the time or energy to get out. After I discovered this could be a major predictor in my health outcome I applied for a job so I could move home.
The last piece of the puzzle was understanding that I could overcome my genetic programming. Autoimmune disease runs in my family and the doctors I saw would explain my illness by telling me it’s genetic. This left me feeling that getting sick was inevitable.
However, one of the significant moments in my healing journey was travelling to Boston and interviewing Dr. Herbert Benson. His groundbreaking body of work has led him to be considered by some people as the father of modern mind-body medicine. He discovered the Relaxation Response in the 1970s – a physiological response opposite to the stress response that can be triggered by a focused awareness exercise such as meditation. His cutting edge research continues to this day, including a recent study that shows that a simple 8-week meditation program can help to switch off genes affecting disease. What was more staggering about his findings was that the gene expression changes start happening the very first time we evoke the relaxation response. The more we do it, the more anchored the changes.
To paraphrase something said to me during my travels by Dr. Craig Hassed from Monash University, it’s staggering to think that we could be sitting in a chair practising a simple mindfulness technique like meditation and at the same time be conducting genetic engineering. Needless to say, meditation is something I practise regularly now.
These changes did not integrate into my life overnight. They occurred over a number years. They weren’t easy – especially the career change and the emotional work – and they came with consequences, such as baffling people who thought I was on a certain career trajectory or having to back away from significant unhealthy relationships.
Integrating a regular yoga practice and a regular meditation practice was also a challenge with life’s daily distractions and commitments proving to be obstacles. But I am happy to say that these days I’m really well. I don’t need medication and I rarely experience ‘flare ups’. When I do, they always coincide with a time in my life of high stress or emotion. But I am certain that, without changing these key areas in my life and practising conscious stress reduction, living in a supportive social community, practising yoga, mindfulness and meditation, I would still be suffering the daily debilitating symptoms of an autoimmune disease. The doctors were never going to cure me with drugs. The healing had to happen from within.
Filmmaker Shannon Harvey is the director of The Connection, a feature documentary about the science of mind-body medicine. For this she interviewed world leading scientists and met with people with remarkable stories of recovery, all delving into the link between our mind and body.
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