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Recently, I was blessed to be able to spend an hour on the phone with my shero and mentor Brené Brown, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly. We had so much giddy fun on our teleclass about the intersection of vulnerability and health, how shame is lethal, and how daring greatly and practicing mind over medicine helps you heal. (If you missed the live call, you can get the free download here.)

I had an epiphany during our call that I want to share with you, so pull out your big highlighter. Brené says the most terrifying emotion we experience as humans is joy. We’re so frightened of loss that we can’t even allow ourselves to lean into those moments when we’re standing over our children watching them sleep or when we’re falling in love and it feels like our hearts will burst. The second most of us start to feel joy, instead of relishing the blessings, we tend to get swallowed by the fear that the other shoe is about to drop.

Foreboding Joy

Brené said, “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.” Instead of allowing ourselves to feel the vulnerability of how much joy we feel and how much hurt we would experience if we lost what we have, we dress rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch. We look at our kids with so much love and then imagine them dying. We feel such tenderness for the person we’re falling in love with that we fast forward straight to the day when we get our heartbroken. If things are going well in our professional life, we imagine the day we get fired or lose all our money, power, and status. It’s like, by trying to imagine the worst-case scenario, we somehow think we’re protecting ourselves from what we fear most.

But guess what? It doesn’t work. If your child dies or the love of your life abandons you or you lose your job or you declare bankruptcy—or whatever tragedy you imagine might befall you happens—no dress rehearsal will protect you from loss and pain. And in the interim, you’ve missed your chance for effervescent joy, radical presence, true bliss – and the health benefits that accompany joy.

Dress Rehearsing Tragedy

Here’s the a-ha with where Brené’s work overlaps with what I write about in Mind Over Medicine. Our nervous systems can’t tell the difference between dress rehearsing tragedy and real tragedy. As far as your amygdala is concerned, whether your child dies or whether you just imagine that your child dies, your “fight-or-flight” responses get triggered and your nervous system goes on red alert. Your stress responses flip on, your body is filled with cortisol and epinephrine, and your body reacts as if your child really did just die.

And here’s the kicker. Your body is brilliantly equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that can kill cancer cells, fight infection, and repair what breaks. But those self-repair mechanisms only operate when you’re not in “fight-or-flight.” So every time you dress rehearse tragedy, you put your body at risk of disease, disabling its ability to heal itself. Then BINGO. It’s no wonder you’re not at the top of your health game.

Joy Is Preventive Medicine

Yet fully experiencing joy is essential to living a long, happy, healthy life, especially if you are battling a chronic illness and hoping to experience the kind of spontaneous remission I write about in Mind Over Medicine—and the scientific evidence clearly proves this to be true.

To determine how much joy affects longevity, researchers investigated a group of nuns who lived in the same convent. The study design was genius. Many potentially confounding variables that might influence the data were controlled because of their living situation. They ate the same food, breathed the same air, received the same medical care, shared the same lifestyles.  Pretty much the only thing that differed between these nuns was their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

When researchers investigated the lives of these nuns, they found that 90% of the most joyful nuns – those who frequently described their lives using words like “very happy” and “eager joy”—were still alive at age 84, compared to only 34% of the least joyful nuns. In fact, 54% of the most joy-filled nuns were still alive and kicking at age 94, compared to 11% of the least cheerful. In general, joyful nuns were found to live 7.5 years longer than their unhappy counterparts. Other studies show that happy people live up to 10 years longer than unhappy people. As it turns out, joy is preventive medicine, and yet we try to protect ourselves against it because it makes us feel vulnerable, and if we can’t tolerate the discomfort of the vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.

The Prescription For Foreboding Joy

What’s the Prescription? Brené says the solution is to lean into the vulnerability of those moments of joy – to feel the flutter in your belly when you’re feeling deep love or worried that the other shoe might be about to drop – and to use that flutter of fear of loss as a reminder to practice gratitude. Look at that sleeping child and feel grateful.  Stare into the eyes of your beloved and count your blessings. Feel grateful for the fact that you’ve found your calling and are in full service to your mission. Acknowledge how much you have to lose – and just revel in it. Give those you love permission to break your heart, and lean into how lucky you are.

When you do, you calm the scaredy-cat amygdala in your limbic brain, you shut off “fight-or-flight,” you decrease levels of potentially poisonous cortisol and epinephrine, you flip on relaxation responses, you fill your body with healing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, and endorphins, and your body’s self-repair mechanisms can come to the rescue. (For more tips on how to activate your body’s self-repair mechanisms, download my free Self-Healing Kit here.)

The Epiphany

Do you get it? The willingness to make yourself emotionally vulnerable to pain and loss, to lean into joy, even when it feels foreboding, to practice gratitude when you fear how much you have to lose, it isn’t just the gateway to intimacy. It doesn’t just improve your relationships, allow you to savor your blessings, and optimize your mental health. It’s preventive medicine for your body, and it just might save your life.

Are You Afraid To Lean Into Joy?

Tell us your stories. Lean into your vulnerabilities with us. Share your thoughts in the comments.

Vulnerably yours,

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12 Comments

  1. Janet

    Such a great reminder for me to read today. I love the phrase “leaning into joy”. Where can I lean more into joy in my life? Where am I holding back?

    I know for sure that I’ve been busted on one particular worst case senario that I’ve been chewing on in my mind. With both parents now in assisted living and a very dear friend recently moved into extended care, I’ve watched their independence diminish and familiar comforts replaced with institutional structure. Although their circumstances are not mine, I’ve spent a whole lotta time thinking about how I’ll manage this in the future (I’m in my 40’s). Seriously joy-robbing! I think I’ll stop doing that now! Thank you LIssa!

    Reply
  2. Bab Altman

    I have enjoyed reading your blog & receiving my Inner Pilot messages. Amazing how often they are spot on for the day :). I know I am leaving a joyless life. I try to be grateful every day for the love I received in the past & the ability to be vulnerable. It’s been a year now that my Mom passed away. She lived with me for 16 years. I left my heart open & received much love from her !!! The pain of the loss & the friends and family who chose to turn their back when I quit working to help my Mom in her last year – has been much to bear. My heart is still open – somehow the pain is causing the lack of joy .

    Reply
  3. Marie

    Wonderful reminders to count our blessings and be grateful for what is right there in front of us, exactly in that moment. What I call “pure bliss,” those moments when we feel so much joy we get the flutter in our stomach like you mentioned, seem few and far between lately. When dealing with a chronic illness, leaning into joy is most definitely healing but how to really allow the body to feel this when the pain is so present and so deep? When I’ve put the pain aside and tried to live life to it’s full potential my body rejects it and takes me right back down. There seems to be a major barrier between the mind and the body! So, being vulnerable means letting that fear of what has happened in the past go, taking a few deep breaths and asking the body what it needs. Hopefully from there the joy will begin to find it’s way in again.

    Reply
  4. Intuitive Leadership Coach

    It feels really good to read this post, especially about the “foreboding joy”!

    Frankly, sometime I have these crazy thoughts (about loosing my dogs, my house, my fiance) and I get so caught up in “what if” that I have to (gently) smack myself to STOP & snap out of it!

    This is huge : “Our nervous systems can’t tell the difference between dress rehearsing tragedy and real tragedy” and for me such a powerful reminder to snap out of it and get back into joy.

    Reply
    • Jeri Glenn

      Some time ago I read or heard, can’t remember which, that if we pause for a moment and truly answer those “what if” questions we are always asking ourselves, then we’ll stop worrying so much. In a sense that is what living vulnerable is. When you really stop and think about it, how much time do we waste or give up worrying about things that in some regards are really out of our control? How much of that time could be spent doing something that brings us immense joy? If you get a chance and are interested, I recommend watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday when Brene was her guest. She talks about allot of what she talked about in her book and for me actually hearing it from her makes me remember the information better.

      Reply
  5. Jeri Glenn

    I have been reading Daring Greatly, still not quiet finished yet, but it has resonated with me so much, especially the chapter on shame. I immediately saw a connection between Brene’s insight from her studies and what you wrote about through your research. Truly amazing. I have been experimenting at work and doing my best to be vulnerable (show up and let the real me be seen as Brene puts it) no matter what. I find that although my days are hectic, they are not as stressful. Reading your book and then hers has been a great combination that has put my thoughts on the road to a more healthier lifestyle. Yeah, there still are some bumps and potholes, but I’m going to make it. Also going to do my best to finish reading Brene’s book in the next few days and then I might just read it again!

    Reply
  6. Anna Toth

    Hi Lissa, as a young mother of two boys aged 4 and 7 and a violinist with long unfulfilled career dreams AND a chronically ill woman since childhood with terrible digestive problems, chronic fatigue and now autoimmune issues peaking during and after the loss of my third pregnancy around 20 weeks along two years ago, I have nothing but hope and sincere wishes for my own spontaneous healing. Your talks and interviews have been inspiring to me on my own journey to find the roots of my illness and understand the various causes, whether genetic, dietary, environmental, or emotional or all of the above (closer to the truth…). I have started to live differently, with more positivity and energy towards good things and it has also helped listening to you talk and reading your thoughts. Interestingly I also realized that I had done many of the things on your list of healing things. Even while quite sick I started helping a friend who had 4 boys and was sick at the end of her pregnancy. She needed help with the birthing of her twin girls as well as the weeks following. Despite my fatigue and frustration and pain in my own life I took on the organizing of her meals, went to the hospital to be there helping, stayed with her for visits and took calls on her behalf to organize her whole community and helped care for her babies. During this time I felt almost wildly driven to do this despite feeling so badly myself. The truth was, I realized later on, that I was getting more out of it myself than intended. This was one step. It took me out of my pain, into another realm of life entirely unrelated to my misery and it was a kind of escape, but such a meaningful one. I also (finally after years of saying I didn’t want more responsibility), got two kittens for our household. Pet therapy! They calm me down instantly and take my attention from the nagging pain, or constant fears. We in turn gave them a loving home when they needed it, and my children adore them. I also started going down the street (As an atheist, albeit a spiritual one this was quite a leap!) to the local church for gatherings there, some spiritual and some just doing good for the community. I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in positive energy. I also believe in connecting with others. I sought out community even though I’m a newcomer in my area…and kept busy gardening and making music whenever I could. When I came across your list, I was astonished to see how many of your suggestions I was already doing instinctively. I wish so much that your efforts to heal our medical system will take off, making generations of Doctors who truly know what healing means, and how to make patients feel taken care of. It is with sincere joy that I say I’m glad you came along in my life, and I sure wish you lived closer to MA so you could be my Doctor! If you’re ever in Massachusetts please let us know so we can try to see you. Best wishes, Ana Toth

    Reply
  7. sharon david

    I really needed to read your beautiful words, especially at this time in my life. After losing my father a few years ago, I constantly worry about losing my mothet, my fiance and even my dog who is like a child to me. I try so hard to libe in the present moment but it is not always easy. I’m working hard on living a joyful life. I know it is imperative to my health. I have Crohn’s disease and need to stop the stressful thoughts and just be grateful for every minute. Thank you, Dr. Lissa. You have changed my life in so many ways. I’m reading your book now and feel so hopeful.

    Reply
  8. Suze

    You are so right – feeling joy DOES make you vulnerable. And especially if you’ve had a major loss, does indeed make you wonder when (not if) the other shoe will drop. This was a bulls-eye on me. Wow.
    I think some of this may come from vigilance – you know – can’t dodge a bullet if you don’t see it coming. Nobody likes being caught off-guard. But being on guard all the time evidently has its own price.

    Reply
  9. Anna Lundeen

    I can totally relate to the idea of not fully feeling joy in the moment… What a gift to have a concrete strategy for when I manage to catch the gremlin running my game! It makes complete sense that gratitude will help my heart stay open 🙂

    Reply
  10. Jeri Bar

    I lean into Joy.

    Dear Lissa,

    I’m currently enrolled in your healing course to help resolve my “life stopping” problems with Fibromyalgia. I’ve also have been following Zen Habits.

    Before I read this article, I had a lean into joy day this week with my tango-when-I can partner. I live in the Milwaukee in a high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan and I love it. He lives in the country on a small farm and raises dogs. It took a long time to befriend this solitary Viet Nam vet. Now he lets me enter his world where I hear water falling and find a Koi pond. This week, I went to visit 8 2-week old puppies and the mom-dog and two other dogs. Afterwards I felt like a kid. Puppies will do that to a lot of people. When I’m at his place I tune in to his peaceful patience and his environment that is different from mine.

    I recognize there is great joy is simply being. It’s easier to do this in a place away from home. I carry this feeling with me as I meditate and let it to my heart. I’m sure this keeps the evil hormones away.

    I let him know that I feel this way even if I think it will scare him. At age 57, this married lady is taking on a relationship with less expectations than many people would have with a single man. He also feeds me homemade strawberry ice cream.

    Your article helps be to believe that this is a healing path to follow.

    With puppy love,

    Jeri

    Reply
    • Lissa_Rankin

      I love your story Jeri. I can feel it, sitting with this quiet man, healing him, letting him heal you.

      And those puppies…now that is soul medicine.

      With love
      Lissa

      Reply

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