Now we’ve been trained in our system to think about medicine the way a doctor would think about a football player in football games. You know, the football player gets injured. So we bring the injured football player out of the game and we fix the ankle. And we set the bone or we inject the joint and we do everything we can to send the football player back out into the game. But what a lot of people aren’t talking about is perhaps the best thing for the football player is to get the football player out of the game, right?
And yet, it’s not just the doctors’ fault. What do we do when a star football player says, “Doc, just do anything. Do anything you can to get me back in the game. So we can win the Super Bowl”. That’s what many of you as patients are doing. You are asking us, as doctors, to fill you with pill so that you can go back to the game of your stressful life. And I am here because it’s breaking my heart that we’re having to do that, and I want to change the game. I want to suggest that maybe there’s a different way of doing this.
So I wrote a book called Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You can Heal Yourself. And it’s all about the scientific data that proves how stress affects our bodies. And this was really revolutionary to me as a doctor. I didn’t know — I didn’t know anything about this four or five years ago. And it was shocking to me to study the data. Because what I came to realize is that stress is not what we think stress is. You know, I think in this culture we have this concept that stress is like a badge of honor. I’m stressed, therefore, I’m busy and worthy and important. But to the body, stress is very different.
Stress is anything that triggers the amygdala in your brain to turn on what Walter Cannon at Harvard called the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response. So anything that turns on your fight or flight response puts you into the sympathetic nervous system and fills your body with cortisol and epinephrine and other very poisonous stress hormones. Now, this is good if you’re getting chased by a tiger, or if you’re about to be in a car accident because it helps to protect your life.
But your amygdala doesn’t know the difference between getting chased by a tiger and negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings that originate in your mind, that turn on those stress responses.
Now what I didn’t realize and this was my big aha is that the nervous system has two operating systems. There’s the fight or flight stress response — sympathetic nervous system. And there is the parasympathetic nervous system or what Herbert Benson at Harvard called the relaxation response. And this was my big epiphany.
Your body is beautifully equipped with natural self-repair mechanism. Your body knows how to fight cancer, how to prevent heart disease, how to fight off infection, does this every day. But those natural self-repair mechanisms are deactivated every time your body is in stress response.
Now, what is stress? Stress, as I said, is getting chased by a tiger. But stress is also social isolation and loneliness. Stress is selling yourself for a paycheck. Stress is a pessimistic worldview. Stress is fearful, anxious, worried thoughts. Stress is toxic relationships. Stress is money worries. Stress is knowing that you have a song within you that you have yet to sing. Stress is feeling out of touch with your life’s purpose. Stress is negative beliefs about your health. Stress is overwhelm. Stress is feeling like nobody really gets the real you. Stress is pretending to be something that you’re not. Stress is feeling disconnected from source.
On average, we have more than 50 stress responses per day in modern culture. And every time the body is in stress response, your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are disabled. And what kills me about this is that as doctors, by not acknowledging that, by not helping you recognize that, by not identifying with you what might be activating those stress responses in your body, we might be doing the unthinkable. We might actually be killing you. We might be reducing your life expectancy, the quality of your life and your whole life span and that is not OK.
What we need to reclaim is we need to reclaim the soul medicine. That medicine we used to have. You know, several hundred years ago, we were much better at the soul medicine part of this. We think that chronic stress is an inevitable part of our lives. But we can learn from what scientists call Blue Zones around the world — these parts of the world where people have a greater than average percentage of people who live to be over 100. These people know what soul medicine is.
So what is the medicine that we really need? Medicine is being loved just as you are. Medicine is helping those in need. Medicine is expressing your creative genius. Medicine is always seeing the glass half-full. Medicine is the unconditional love of animal. Medicine is laughing out loud. Medicine is speaking your truth. Medicine is knowing that you belong. Medicine is communing with nature. Medicine is nourishing the body with real food. Medicine is tapping in the source. Medicine is being unapologetically you.
I’m not suggesting that you won’t need other medicine. Thank God for modern medicine. Thank God for modern medicine. Over the past century, we extended our life expectancies by 30 years. 30 years, that’s remarkable. Because of the advent of things like antibiotics and vaccinations, and remarkable advances in pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions. Thank God for modern medicine.