Journalist Shannon Harvey was just 24 when she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease. For the next five years, she followed her doctors’ advice, took her medicine and even explored alternative therapies.
But she was still sick.
She also turned to the internet to research her symptoms. An experienced researcher from her work, she kept looking until she found an answer. She turned up something that would change her life — evidence explaining the link between the body and the mind in long-term, or chronic, illness.
“There is a mountain of evidence that when it comes to good health, the mind and body are connected,” Harvey says.
Research shows strong social ties can help lower one’s blood pressure. That meditation can spur dramatic changes, a quieting of the body that is the opposite of a typical stress response. That a walk in the forest can boost one’s immune system.
Reading the research gave her a map for changing her life. She’s been studying the topic ever since, and she’s eager to share what she’s learned.
First, Harvey dealt with her chronic stress. She realized she worked too much, slept too little and lacked real human connection. She started to meditate and made other changes.
As a vegetarian, she thought she was eating a healthy food plan. After she reviewed her diet, she realized she was consuming a lot of processed food when she ate on the run. She switched to a plant-based, whole food diet based on fruits and vegetables.
And she felt better.
What worked for her — and others — is a whole health/whole life approach. It’s taking care of chronic stress. It’s balancing your emotions. It’s prioritizing sleep. It’s cutting the junk food and eating a good diet. It’s moving your body and getting regular exercise. It’s nurturing relationships.
It’s not new thinking. And it’s backed by scientific research from leading health institutions.
A study from Stanford University’s Center on Stress and Health shows how professionally led support groups offer mental, emotional and health benefits for women with breast cancer.
Research from Dr. Dean Ornish explains how diet can undo heart disease.
People want to take a pill and feel better, Harvey says. But often it doesn’t work that way. “There is no magic pill or herbal treatment,” she says.
Now, though she still has an autoimmune disease, Harvey’s rheumatologist tells her there is no need to be on any medication.
“The great thing is that it’s all free, and it’s never too late to start,” she says.
Harvey and her filmmaker husband created “The Connection: Mind Your Body,” a documentary about the mind/body link as told by patients, leading health researchers, doctors and others.
“People are hungry for information,” she says. Her next project will focus on meditation and mindfulness. “We’re not taught how to handle our minds, but evidence is building that mental training may be as important as physical training.”
Behavioral changes are hard, as evidenced by the many people who give up on their New Year’s resolutions after just a week or two.
“People have good intentions, but life happens,” she says. Blaming themselves or their lack of willpower won’t help.
What will help? Planning, she says. If/then planning is particularly helpful. For example, plan that if it’s 3 p.m., then you will take a walk in the park. And if it’s raining, then you will wear your new raincoat when you walk in the park. That way, 3 p.m. becomes the cue for a walk.
Take the First Steps
You may want to start out with small changes to address stress. Improving your sleep habits is one way to start, and better sleep can have a significant impact on improving your health.
Experts suggest these tips to sleep well:
- Create a calming routine. Plan time to wind down and relax. Maybe even take a hot bath.
- Avoid activities that get your emotions revved up before going to sleep. Try not to think about upsetting subjects. Avoid watching disturbing TV shows or checking social media feeds.
- Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you plan to go to bed.
- Skip that glass of wine. You may feel more relaxed after drinking it, but it can make it harder to stay asleep.
Sources: “A randomized controlled trial of psychosocial interventions using the psychophysiological framework for Chinese breast cancer patients,” Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 2007; “Intensive Lifestyle Changes for Reversal of Coronary Heart Disease,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2001; Healthy Sleep Tips, The National Sleep Foundation, 2017; Jon Kabat-Zinn on the benefits of meditation on psoriasis, excerpt from The Connection: Mind Your Body documentary, Aug. 6, 2015; The Relaxation Response, Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital; “Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain,” The Washington Post, May 26, 2015; Meditation: In Depth, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health, 2016