Most people in our culture are riddled with fear, and it’s running the show in our lives, taking the wheel in most of our decision-making. But the funny thing is, we don’t even know it. This is partly because, in our culture, we tend to dress up “fear” in the more socially acceptable clothes of “stress.” And stress—well, hell—stress is practically a badge of success in our culture!
We’ve been taught to think that fear is for sissies. We see it as a weakness, something we should hide from others and deal with alone in dark nights of the soul. But fear is not something that should elicit shame or stay hidden. Now more than ever, our fears need to shamelessly take center stage so we can let fear illuminate everything that is in need of healing in our lives and finally be free. Physical therapist Val Zajicek says PAIN means Pay Attention Inside Now. I think fear is like pain. It’s an emotional and physical signal alerting to you to Pay Attention Inside Now. Rather than running away from it, we need to examine it and let it heal us.
Fear is sneaky, and it shows up in all kinds of disguises, but until you see it for what it is, it’s hard to come into right relationship with fear.
The body knows how to heal itself. As I describe in Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, our bodies are beautifully equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that fight cancer, prevent infection, repair wounds, protect us from infectious agents and foreign bodies, and even affect how our genes express themselves! But here’s what most people don’t know. These natural self-repair mechanisms get deactivated when your body is full of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine in “fight-or-flight” mode.
Makes sense. When your amygdala, the not-so-smart part of your brain that reacts to threats by tripping off the “fight-or-flight” stress response, signals the warning alarm, your body focuses all its attention on fighting and fleeing. Blood flow is shunted to your large muscle groups, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, and your body is on red alert. When your amygdala thinks you’re about to get eaten by a mountain lion, the body isn’t worried about preventive maintenance and the body’s self-repair operations halt until the threat is over.
But in modern day life, our warning alarms are ringing at least 50 times per day, flooding our bodies with cortisol and putting us at risk of illness. Your amygdala can’t tell the difference between a real threat to life and limb, like getting chased by a mountain lion, and a perceived threat, like fear of losing your job, worry that your loved one will leave you, or even anger that someone spilled red wine on your white carpet. (Are you at risk? Read here for 10 Signs That You Have WAYToo Much Cortisol).
The good news is that it’s easy to shift the body into the opposite of the stress response into the relaxation response, and when this happens, your cortisol levels drop and your body’s self-repair mechanisms get back to work doing what they do best - healing you. All of the following techniques have been scientifically proven to activate relaxation responses and return your self-repair mechanisms back to optimal operation.
In Mind Over Medicine, in my latest TEDx talk and in many blog posts like this one, I talk about how the body is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that can be flipped on or off with thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that originate in the mind. This is great news, because it means, in essence, that you can heal yourself.
Mind Over Medicine has a whole section which teaches you the 6 Steps To Healing Yourself (you can read it for yourself by buying the book here.) But one of the many simple ways you can flip on your body’s self-repair mechanisms is via meditation.
What Does It Mean To Meditate?
Dictionary.com defines meditation as “continued or extended thought; reflection; contemplation,” but I prefer Harvard professor Dr. Herbert Benson’s definition. He defines it as “Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity while passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition.”
With this definition of meditation, anything can be a meditation - not just sitting with your eyes closed in the lotus position, but walking, making art, cooking, shopping, dancing, driving… whatever.
How The Body Heals Itself
In my medical training, we were not taught that the body knows how to heal itself. It is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that repair broken proteins, kill cancer cells, fight infections, prevent aging, and maintain the homeostasis of the body. When the body gets sick, whether from the common cold or something more serious, like heart disease or cancer, it’s almost always because the body’s self-repair mechanisms have broken down, usually because of stress.
When the nervous system is stressed, as it is during the “fight-or-flight” stress response that is so commonly triggered in modern day life, these self-repair mechanisms are disabled and the body is at risk for disease. Only when the counterbalancing relaxation response is activated, when the sympathetic nervous system is turned off and the parasympathetic nervous system is turned on, can the body heal itself.
As a health-conscious person, you’re already in the loop about the importance of eating your veggies, skipping the booze, cigarettes, and fake foods, daily exercise, plenty of zzzzz’s, and regular check-ups. But as a physician fascinated by why some health nuts still suffer from chronic illness, I dug deep into the medical literature to study what else really makes us healthy - and what predisposes us to illness.
What I found shocked me. What I discovered was certainly never introduced to me in medical school. As I wrote about in my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself and as discussed in my latest TEDx talk, the scientific data proves that there are ten key habits that lead to optimal health. (I’ll bet your doctor never wrote these on a prescription pad!)
Alleviate loneliness. The Italian immigrants of Roseto, Pennsylvania ate meatballs fried in lard, gorged on pasta, and smoked, but they had half the risk of heart disease as the rest of the country. Why? Researchers concluded that it was because they lived communally, celebrated regularly, and had a huge network of friends. Dinner party, anyone?
Couple up. A UCLA study reviewed census data and found that those who never marry are 58% more likely to die at a young age than those who exchange vows. But only healthy marriages count if you’re seeking optimal health. Studies show that, when it comes to health, you’re better off alone than stuck in a toxic relationship.
Get it on. Those with healthy, happy sex lives live longer, have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, get less breast cancer, bolster their immune systems, sleep better, appear more youthful, enjoy improved fitness, have enhanced fertility, get relief from chronic pain, experience fewer migraines, suffer from less depression, and enjoy an improved quality of life.
Engage in work you love. Those stuck in soul-sucking jobs are at greater risk for sudden death. In Japan, they call it “karoshi” - death by overwork. But it’s not just the Japanese who are at risk. Studies suggest Americans are at even greater risk of sudden death from heart disease and stroke due to overwork. If work is stressing you out, you may be shortening your life. However, when you’ve found your calling and are doing what you love, your nervous system relaxes, and this flips on your body’s natural self-healing mechanisms.