In my last blog, I gave you the backstory of how I came to meet Harvard doctor and researcher Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv, who just published CURED: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing, finally sharing the results of his 13 years of research into the “health outliers” who have defied their doctors and gone on to experience prognoses that shattered the expectations of how their bodies were supposed to succumb to life-threatening and incurable illnesses. While his book is full of inspiring and medically verified case studies of “spontaneous” remission, Jeff took the book beyond story-telling to unpack the “how” and “why” of what happened, in order to try to answer the question of whether spontaneous healing is something we can reproduce in those who are still sick and suffering. While his book is not a typical self-help book, my self-help oriented mind took notes throughout reading CURED so I could share a summary of what Jeff discovered as overlapping patterns among the people he studied. Some are similar to the 9 factors Kelly Turner, PhD uncovered in her research for the Radical Remission Project, which she published in her bestseller Radical Remission. (You can read my blog summarizing Kelly’s book here.) I have organized these factors differently than Jeff did in his book, just to make it easier to wrap my brain around what I’ve learned thus far, but most of this is based on what Jeff reports from his data in his book CURED. In this blog, I’ll report the first two “CURED Tips,” but make sure you’re on my newsletter list. I have eleven more I’ll be sharing over the next couple of weeks.
CURED Tip #1 Activate The Relaxation Response
As I described in detail in my book Mind Over Medicine, one of the keys to mind-body-spirit medicine in general and the field of psychoneuroimmunology specifically relies on making lifestyle changes aimed at flipping the nervous system from disease-inducing “fight, flight, or freeze” sympathetic nervous system stress responses to the homeostatic healing state of the relaxation response, or the remission-inducing parasympathetic nervous system. Meditation, prayer, making art, ritual, and being in nature can activate the relaxation response, but even more importantly, making lifestyle changes that take you out of situations that activate the stress response is essential to maximizing your chances of being a health outlier. Those with radical remissions were often VERY proactive. These healings were not usually “spontaneous.” They got treatment for longstanding traumas. They freed themselves from toxic jobs that required them to sell their soul or tolerate abusive bosses. They left or set very strong boundaries with poisonous relationships. They quit making excuses and finally went after fulfilling the dream they had long put off. They opened their hearts and engaged in radical forgiveness over grudges they had long held, which were festering in their nervous systems. They sought out spiritual counseling, engaged in intensive spiritual practice, and put their heart and soul into healing spiritual disconnection. They went all out to create a relaxation response-inducing life their bodies would love, living fully, loving well, and their efforts paid off in ways that can be measured.
New research on telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of your DNA strands that shorten with age, suggests that we have some control over how long our telomeres are. It’s no surprise then that those whose bodies live in relaxation response the majority of the time have nice long telomeres and those whose nervous systems are chronically in stress response develop short, frayed telomeres that damage both your health span and your life span. While we tend to glorify stress, even bragging about it as if stress means “I’m a busy, productive person making my mark on the world,” physiologically speaking, stress means premature disease, disability, and death, whereas relaxation equals a higher chance of reversing disease.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do intense things and still have good health. It’s all about how you perceive your situation. Two people in the same situation may have entirely different physiological responses to the same life event, depending on whether they see it as growth-inducing and feel gratitude for the initiation or whether they feel like a helpless victim at the mercy of a hostile universe. This is not about “spiritual bypassing” or emotional repression, artificially putting a silver lining on traumatic experiences that cause real suffering or applying positive psychology principles and denying your authentic experience when you feel like shit. It’s about moving through those emotions authentically and vulnerably and then moving beyond them, rather than getting stuck in disease-inducing ways.
As Jeff describes, the degree of agency and autonomy you feel regarding stressful situations has everything to do with how you perceive those situations. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that instead of getting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the result of traumatic situations, some resilient people experience post-traumatic GROWTH in ways that can make them more likely to have exceptional health outcomes. So perception is everything when it comes to your physiology. To some degree, stressful experiences are unavoidable when you’re incarnate in a human body, and painful events inevitably cause painful feelings. We can’t avoid the inevitable, but we can be proactive about changing the things that are within our control and then when difficult events inevitably arise, we can lean in, rising to the challenge and remind ourselves, “I’m growing here.”
CURED Tip #2 Love Heals
Just as stress responses create the hormonal cocktail of disease, love induces a margarita of healing hormones like oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Some people worry when they hear that love heals because they don’t have a partner, a tight-knit family, a roommate, or a close circle of friends, and they fear that this means there’s no hope of finding the love that heals. On top of the loneliness, they may already feel, they panic because now they’re scared they could literally die from love depletion.
The good news is that new research by Barbara Frederickson, lead researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggests that from a physiological and biological standpoint, love is more available to you than you might think. In fact, love is all around, if you know how to harvest it. In the compilation of her research in the book Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, she makes the bold claim that we can find “positivity resonance” (aka “love”) anywhere there are other humans receptive to sharing these sweet small moments of everyday connection—at the coffee shop, the grocery store, in the schoolyard of the kid’s school, with others in a restaurant or people in your yoga class or church or workplace. Social isolation prevents you from experiencing the benefits of this kind of healing love, but even introverts can learn to be proactive about putting themselves in situations where positivity resonance can be cultivated, enjoyed, and used medicinally. If this sounds hard, it turns out that regular loving-kindness meditation makes it easier to connect, changing the quality of even the simplest social interaction and making it ripe for nourishing moments of love.
Let’s make one thing clear. The kind of biologically measurable effects of love can only really get activated by being together in person, Frederickson says. Social media simply won’t cut it. As loneliness researcher John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago puts it, if we were to build a zoo for the human animal, we would include the instructions “Do not house in isolation.” Sure, we can have emotions that are evoked by text. We can feel what might feel like love from reading a love letter. But Frederickson says they pale in comparison to what we experience physiologically when we look in someone’s eyes and feel love in our hearts, even if only in brief moments of connection with strangers. (If you like to nerd out on data like I do, read Chapter 6 in Jeff’s book CURED or go direct to Frederickson’s book Love 2.0.)
The health outliers Jeff Rediger studied went out of their way to be in love, sometimes in traditional romantic love, but often in simpler ways that induce those fleeting love moments Frederickson discusses. Just think about people who visit Lourdes or make pilgrimages to healing centers in Brazil or get love-bombed by fellow churchgoers or your fellow dancers in your ecstatic dance or other meditators at retreats like Joe Dispenza’s advanced meditation retreats. While those might require extra effort, what if you could get love-bombed simply by changing how you show up in places where you’re already surrounded by people, like at a sporting game or even hanging out with friends for happy hour or volunteering at a soup kitchen? What might be possible then? When one of my father’s friends got sick, they started a club they called “Everything But Chess,” where they got silly and played Twister and goofy board games (not chess! Too cerebral!) and covered each other with body paint and sprayed Silly String on each other. (They ruined the overhead fan in my childhood home, which is still gummed up with fluorescent pink goo, I suspect.) Why not mix fleeting moments of love with the laughter others, like Norm Cousins, who wrote The Anatomy Of An Illness used to heal?
Read CURED & Stay Tuned . . .
You won’t want to miss the actual medically verifiable stories Jeff Rediger beautifully shares in CURED. I’ve boiled the self-help parts down into these CURED Tips, but the stories themselves are wonderful medicine and really touched my heart. Don’t miss the next few blogs I’ll be publishing soon. I’ll be sharing ten more CURED Tips and one vital tip from my next book, Sacred Medicine: A Doctor’s Quest To Unravel The Mysteries of Miraculous Healing, which I couldn’t resist sharing with you now since the book won’t come out until Fall 2021 (Sounds True). This sequel to Mind Over Medicine will unveil my own research findings after a decade of studying spontaneous healing, but I can’t resist giving you a preview from time to time!
Tell Your Healing Stories
Read more inspiring stories in Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing or in my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself.
Do you have a story of spontaneous healing or ideas of what helps make your body ripe for miracles? Share your stories of healing in the comments below.
*Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv is our latest addition to the faculty of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, a program designed to teach and certify doctors, therapists, coaches, and healers how to facilitate Whole Health mind-body-spirit medicine for those who are ready for it. We’re enrolling now for the Class of 2020, and the deadline for early bird bonuses is February 15. Learn more or register here.