Full text of Physician Dr. Bal Pawa’s talk titled “Chronic Stress, Anxiety? – You Are Your Best Doctor” at TEDxSFU conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Dr. Bal Pawa – Physician
Let’s pretend that I’m Oprah, and all of you are getting a brand-new car, a BMW. Whoa! You’re excited, you rev up the engine, and you hit the road; you’re enjoying the ride, and suddenly a little white poodle jumps right in front of you. You panic, the dog panics. You’re going right, left right.
And just when you think you’re going to hit the dog or crash into the ditch, you slam on your brakes, swerve, and shoo! The dog scampers off but you’re left shaking.
What just happened? You just experienced an acute, short-lived stress called ‘fight-or-flight.’ sound familiar?
Now, imagine if your body lived in this state all the time. Chronic excessive stress leads to distress – heartburn, headache, muscle tension, hypertension, gut problems, sleep problems, high anxiety, low sex drive. Sound familiar?
As I can tell you, the American Medical Association also reports that an astonishing 75% of all the symptoms that doctors treat can be traced right back to excessive stress.
As a researcher and as a physician, I see these symptoms. And eventually, these symptoms lead to serious life-threatening diseases – diabetes, depression, heart attacks, and even cancer.
There is an undeniable mind-body connection when it comes to stress and disease. But today, I’m going to show you how to use your mind to stress proof your body by becoming your own best doctor.
But first, a little Anatomy 101, like a car, your brain has a little engine and it’s called the autonomic nervous system; and this autonomic nervous system revs up when there’s stress. And that’s great when we had to run away from external dangers like saber-toothed tigers, that fight-flight reaction was important.
But nowadays, those prehistoric tigers are replaced by tigers that roam in our mind: Fears; fear of failure, fear of rejection, loneliness, a toxic boss, busy to-do list. You can’t run away from those fears in their mind; they’re with you all the time.
So what happens, your body goes into fight-or-flight all the time; becomes your new norm, your default option. Your engine is revving up all the time and your gas pedal is stuck.
So what happens? You’re bombarded with stress hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and they wreak havoc with your body. The more stress, the more you get sick – cause and effect.
But wait, the autonomic nervous system has a brake. It’s called the Vagus nerve. But unlike that other Vagus, what happens in this Vagus doesn’t stay there. This Vagus runs from your brain all the way, and it wanders, this nerve collection wanders to all the different organs in your body, and it does the opposite of fight-or-flight; it’s called rest and digest. It slows everything down.
So, it’s taking you out of that survival brain into your calm, cool, rational brain. Much better for your health, but the problem is we don’t apply the brakes consistently. And I know this too well, both as a doctor and as a patient.
At age 32, I wasn’t perfect but my life sure was. I’m married to an adoring man, an optometrist, whose eyes is only for me. We’ve moved into our brand-new home; we have two beautiful children, and one more on the way. And I’m doing something I love – delivering babies and keeping families healthy. Life is good.
One rainy Vancouver evening, I’ve just finished delivering a baby, I’m heading home. The baby is a nine pound beautiful future wrestler, big boy. You should have seen the mother: tears of joy streaming down her face, and it’s the best part of my job; I get to share that joy.
And I couldn’t wait to get home and hug my two children when I walked through the door. They say that your life can turn on a dime, and mine turned in my prime. Out of nowhere, a speeding truck rams into my little white sedan. The impact catapults me and my car into oncoming traffic in the other lane: screeching tires, crunching metal, smashing glass, and sirens screaming, and lights flashing.
And the paramedic is asking me questions, how old are you? What’s your name? And then, total blackout. When I wake up, I’m now a patient in the neck brace, in the same hospital that I just left as a physician a few hours ago. But this time, I’m the one who’s getting poked and prodded, x-rayed and examined. That role-reversal, very scary and sobering.
That accident ruined seven years of the prime of my life. I was left with debilitating injuries to my neck, shoulder; fractured ribs, collapsed lung, my chronic pain, exhaustion; I couldn’t sleep. I lost my baby. I was sad, depressed.
And on top of that, I was woken up with nightmares because my autonomic nervous system was revving up all the time; I was reliving the accident over and over and over again. I couldn’t look after myself; how could I look after my children or my patients?
My medicine cabinet was overflowing with drugs. You name it, I had it; but I was not healing physically or emotionally.
At age 39, I felt like I was 59, and my dreams and careers were washing away. If you’ve ever had a serious setback and you’ve been down in that dark place, you know how it feels, hopelessness and despair.
But I had to do something. My crushed shoulder meant I couldn’t deliver babies anymore. So, as a career transition, I signed up for a mind-body course at the Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Benson was a leading researcher there.
So, one day, after class, I approached him and I said; “Dr. Benson, I’ve been suffering for seven years after an accident. I’ve had multiple surgeries, I’ve seen so many different specialists; I’ve tried every kind of medication but I’m still not getting better. Could your research help me?”
He said; “Definitely, Bal. Chronic pain and chronic stress triggered the autonomic nervous system. You are living in constant fight-or-flight; you can’t heal in that state. You have to turn on your Vagus nerve, rest and digest.”
He said; “Look, stress is automatic but relaxation is not. You have to relax your diaphragm; relax your muscles in your body and repeat a word. Put the three together. Try it. What have you got to lose?”
And you know, he was right. I had nothing left to lose at that point; I had everything to gain. So, I returned to Vancouver with renewed hope and determination, but my science-based training, evidence-based medicine made me very skeptical, so I had to do my own research.
Study after study confirmed that relaxation techniques definitely slowed down this automatic, autonomic nervous system, but more compelling was the neuroscience that showed when you do mind-body medicine and connect this, you get remarkable dramatic improvements in your emotional and physical health.
I was convinced. I’ve got to take this, so I combined the research that I did with the relaxation techniques I learned from Dr. Benson, and I made it very simple. I said three steps that I could do: breath, mind and word — BMW meditation. So, that was going to be easy.
I started. I got up in the morning and I started a routine; found a quiet, small, comfortable space, started with deep diaphragmatic breath. Then two minutes in, I would relax my muscles. And I remembered what the research said; “Relaxed muscles slow down your autonomic nervous system and very tensed diaphragm, tensed muscles do the opposite, fight-or-flight.”