[caption id="attachment_2066" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The audience of empowered patients and conscious health care providers in Munster, Indiana[/caption]
I was scheduled to speak in Munster, Indiana at 7pm in front of 300 cancer patients, their support people, and their health care providers. Mapquest said it would only take 48 minutes to drive from the North Shore of Chicago, but knowing Chicago traffic, I left at 2:30pm, thinking I'd avoid traffic, sit and work on my next book in a coffee shop with plenty of time to spare, and show up fully chillaxin’ in a relaxation response.
Good thing I did.
I inched my way east in bumper to bumper traffic, past downtown Chicago into eastern Illinois, until finally - still with 2 hours to spare - the traffic speed picked up. I was cruising along at 60 mph, listening to Pandora on my iPhone, when suddenly something in the road jumped up and blew out the two driver’s side tires on the car I had just borrowed from my BFF from my Northwestern days.
So there I am, at 5pm, in a full on stress response. My amygdala is rightfully screaming “DANGER!” as I try not to careen into the car next to me or get crushed by the car behind me. Full of cortisol and epinephrine, I wrangle the big minivan into control and limp my way to the highway shoulder, where my whole body shakes from an overdose of adrenaline.
Knowing what I know about stress responses from all my research for Mind Over Medicine, I take a moment to assess myself. I know that stress responses only last 90 seconds if we don’t add more stress response-inducing stories to them. As soon as my amygdala realized I was safe, my stress response should have shut off. But then the stories start.
I watch myself in slow motion, like I am an observer, watching myself in a movie, realizing how we let one real, healthy life-endangering stress response spin into dozens of them. ("Oh no, I'm going to miss my speech and I’ll disappoint 300 people! Oh no, it's not even my car! Oh no, how much will it cost to fix this? Oh no, I don't even have my AAA card because it got stolen in Miami!") And so on...
My mother had a sore neck. Probably from Pilates class, she thought. So she went to her doctor, who ordered an X-ray. Upon reviewing the X-ray, her doctor ordered an MRI for a week later.
My mother asked her doctor why he was ordering more tests. Did he see evidence of osteoporosis? Arthritis? A slipped disc?
Without even making eye contact with her, Mom’s doctor said, “Could be metastatic cancer.” Then promptly left the room.
Unsurprisingly, my phone rang next. It was my mother, who has read my book Mind Over Medicine, asking me to help calm her nervous system.
The Amygdala As Sentry
Here’s what was happening in my mother’s brain when her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer” without offering any comfort.
Mom was married to my father, a radiologist whose job it was to read X-rays, identify any potential abnormalities, and order follow up testing if anything appeared even remotely suspicious. So her thinking, rational forebrain reasoned, “It’s probably nothing and the doctor is just covering his butt by ordering a follow up scan.”
But her amygdala, the scaredy-cat part of her primordial limbic brain, only hears, “METASTATIC CANCER! A CERTAIN DEATH SENTENCE!”
Now being an amygdala is sort of like being one of those meerkat sentries that stands on the top of the mound, surveying the environment for danger in order to protect the whole clan of meerkats. The amygdala’s primary job is to be on the lookout for danger and sound the alarm when it discovers a threat. When it does, it triggers a whole cascade of hormonal activity, and the hormones that get secreted bathe every cell in the body.
We all know stress is bad for us, yet many of us wear it like a badge of honor. See if this sounds familiar:Dude: “OMG, I’m so stressed out! I’m working 14 hour days and haven’t used my vacation days for two years now, but hey - sometimes you just gotta keep your eye on the prize, right? Hey, you still seeing that guy?”Dudette: “Nah. We tried to make it work, but it was such a headache. Relationships are just too stressful. Plus, who has time for a relationship when you’re on a deadline and you’ve got the boss lady to impress?”
You know the drill.
Many of us are stress addicts. We claim to want inner peace, but if life gets too peaceful, we go seeking our next hit of our drugs of choice - cortisol and epinephrine. It’s almost as if being stressed makes us feel important, valuable, and useful. What we forget is that we’re already worthy souls deserving of love and a sense of worth, simply because we are all little sparks of divinity, shining our lights on the planet.
Why Should We Avoid Stress?
Our bodies know how to heal themselves. In my new book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, I share boatloads of data about the placebo effect, which provides concrete proof that the body is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that are under the control of our brilliant minds.
Our bodies know how to fix broken proteins, kill cancer cells, retard aging, and fight infection. They even know how to heal ulcers, make skin lesions disappear and knit together broken bones!
But here’s the kicker - those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t work if you’re stressed! No wonder Dude and Dudette wind up sick or injured!