Doctors have always told me I’m essentially a “healthy” person. Though I never really thought so. You see, a quarter of my body is covered in thick, red patches of itchy, scaly skin. I have psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune disease that makes my skin cells reproduce much faster than normal, then slough off in dry scales.
I’ve always led a healthy lifestyle including lots of time in the outdoors, running, skiing, hiking and camping. I eat mostly vegetarian food, don’t smoke and only drink occasionally. Despite my many healthy habits, I don’t look healthy. Especially to those meeting me for the first time, my skin is shocking.
To be clear, my doctors have always been sympathetic. But the best they could do is offer creams and treatments to alleviate the symptoms, some of which came with dangerous side effects. None could cure the cause.
Eventually, the humiliation and discomfort of my condition motivated me to embark on a mission to heal myself. I invested a lot of dollars and hours into various healing modalities over many years. From all kinds of cleanses—inside and out—to radical diets and all kinds of alternative treatments, my quest to heal felt like a job.
For brief periods—usually weeks, though sometimes a month or two—my skin would improve considerably. But the improvements were fleeting.
The best term for describing any autoimmune disease is “stubborn.” It seems that no matter what you do, symptoms persist or return—sometimes worse than before.
Mindfulness Offers New Hope
I had lost hope of creating any lasting change when I heard about a remarkable study led by the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. The 1998 study compared the healing rates of psoriasis patients undergoing UV-light therapy, a classic psoriasis treatment. But in this study, the patients who meditated while in the light box experienced skin clearing four times faster than those who didn’t meditate while in the light box.
I quickly learned that this study was just the tip of the iceberg of evidence demonstrating the power of mindfulness on physical healing.
Australian journalist Shannon Harvey was a busy young professional when her health took a sudden nosedive. Doctors diagnosed her with an auto-immune disease as the cause of debilitating pain and inflammation throughout her body.
When doctors were unable to recommend a course of treatment, but hinted at a future that included organ failure and wheelchair-bound existence, the 24-year-old chose to find her own solution.
The ground-breaking research she uncovered and experts she interviewed became the 2015 documentary, The Connection, all about the latest scientific understanding of the role of the mind-body connection in healing.
“Conventional medicine is great at taking test results and making recommendations based on those results, but it doesn’t really show you how to go about your day to day life with a chronic disease,” says Harvey. “Mindfulness is a practical coping tool and it’s always there when all else seems to fail.”
And that ability to “cope” is more impactful to the healing process than previously believed. But how does it work?
Relaxation Response vs. Stress Response
Simply living with any kind of chronic disease, including heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disease, is very stressful. Regardless of whether the stress is perceived (imagined) or actual (physical), all that stress fuels the very disease of which you want to rid yourself.
Mindfulness offers the mechanism by which, at any time, you switch off the stress response and enter a state called the “relaxation response” as coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard. It’s only during the relaxation response that healing can happen at the cellular level.
The techniques recommended by Benson, Kabat-Zinn and other mindfulness experts sounded simple enough, so despite my skepticism, I gave it a try.
Aspen, Colorado-based therapist Dr. Connie Clancy-Fisher, author of the book, Gift of Change: Embracing Challenges Today for a Promising Tomorrow, who uses MBSR with her patients, explained to me that meditating on acceptance would be helpful.
“It’s not so much the stressors, but how you choose to handle them, that determines their long-term effects on your body,” says Clancy-Fisher. “Instead of trying to get rid of your disease, focus on accepting where you are right now because the present moment is where the healing takes place.”
One biological explanation for how it works is that mindfulness creates a hormonal shift that has a “cooling” effect on the inflammatory response that fuels the unpleasant symptoms associated with auto-immune diseases (in my case, patches of red, scaly skin).
Merging Mindfulness and Running
True enough, within weeks of starting a daily 10-minute seated mindfulness practice and mindful running several days a week, the itching and discomfort subsided. Best of all, I felt more empowered and less victimized by my disease.
And it’s helped Harvey, too, who still has all her organs and isn’t in a wheelchair. But as she points out, mindfulness is a daily practice. It doesn’t have to be all-consuming, as sprinkling mindful moments throughout the day can be hugely impactful.
“One of my favorite times to meditate is when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil. It’s amazing how quickly dark mental clouds can clear in the time it takes for water to boil,” says Harvey.
Mindfulness is now a permanent part of my self-care rituals, which I now view as a daily healing practice rather than a destination toward which I must strive.
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