I have a great secret to share.
This secret comes from all my years of practicing integrative medicine: If you think of yourself as healthy, or if you believe that you can be healthy, you have a much higher likelihood of transcending illness and transforming it into wellness. Conversely, if you think of yourself as sick, or if you believe you’ll never get better, you have a much higher chance of staying right where you are or getting worse.
For me, after all my years of study to diagnose and treat disease, optimal health comes down to this one simple fact: I can help you the most – contribute to prolonging your life and improving its quality – by helping you reframe your experience. Yes your blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight do factor into the overall picture of your health, but too many doctors and patients get lost in the pursuit of “ideal” numbers – which are meaningless out of the context of who you are, how you think, and how you feel. In conventional medicine, we don’t talk enough about the mind, where you have the greatest opportunity for optimal health, where you have the most potential to make the biggest improvements.
Just think about it. The fact is, what’s on your mind is, in essence, the entirety of your experience as a human being. Of course, there are many factors and variables influencing what’s on your mind – where you are, what you are eating, the way your body is feeling, how someone is speaking to you, and so forth – and you have varying degrees of control over each of these things. In each moment, however, your reality – including your health – is ultimately experienced internally, giving you more power and options than you may believe you have.
The more your mind plays visual “movies” or audio “soundtracks” of fear, anger, powerlessness, or despair, the more your body enters into or even stays in flight-or-fight mode. This primitive alarm system has not caught up to the technological age, so it is unable to distinguish between feeling distress about being stuck in bed vs. needing to escape a pack of lions. In either scenario, the body releases a burst of adrenaline. If your mind chronically spins through anxiety-riddled thinking, your flight-or-fight mechanism can get locked in the “on” position – ultimately depleting your energy and causing a chain reaction of health problems that only complicate any pre-existing illness.
To the contrary, the more your mind engages in thinking that activates feelings of love, gratitude, harmony, and joy, the more your body relaxes into the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the mechanism through which the body heals and repairs itself – for example, stimulating skin to grow back over a cut.
It’s quite the paradox, isn’t it? Just when you have the most reason to freak out and get into a catastrophic mindset, it is most critical for you to relax and think creatively. This call to action is similar to that of emergency situations: “Don’t panic. Remain calm.” In this way, crises and illnesses provide a tremendous opportunity for spiritual discipline and personal growth: Right when we are inclined to sink into a pit of despondency or terror, we need to rise to the occasion and call forth our highest beings. When we channel our energies in this direction, and in doing so, when we draw from all our resources in the most innovative ways possible, we transform our experiences, going from tragedy to triumph and from victim to victor.
Chances are, of course, that you have suffered difficulty and loss, from mild to extreme. Perhaps you have a chronic health condition or are on the verge of one, or maybe you’re struggling with more everyday challenges. Either way, you may be worried, in pain, or simply frustrated and confused. It is certainly important to recognize, honor, and create sacred space to acknowledge the reality of what you have endured and to feel the spectrum of your more challenging emotions, like grief, anger, sadness, and fear. The objective is not in any way to deny the reality of your condition or accompanying feelings. Instead, it is to leverage everything at your disposal – yes, even illness itself – so as to feed your soul instead of steal from it.
Your grief can break open your heart and enable you to feel the deepest possible love; your anger can serve as a wellspring of power that catapults you into action; your sadness can deepen your awareness of and compassion for the suffering of others; and your fear can set the stage for flexing your courage muscle. In these ways, your challenges can serve as the vehicle for extraordinary personal transformation, by playing the role of a spiritual weight resistance machine.
Which all goes to say, my prescription for you is not another pill. Instead, it is an attitude adjustment. It is a shift in perspective. I want you to learn about and embrace the power of your mind, starting today. One step at a time, one choice at a time, you can cultivate the skills that will help you reclaim your life, and with it, your optimal health – in this body, your body, in this moment, every moment.
Here, take my hand, and let us begin.
This content originally appeared on SlowMedicineDoctor.com.