Nearly 10 years ago a doctor told me that my immune system was attacking my body, and if my illness progressed I could end up in a wheelchair or with organ failure before I turned 30. The doctor thought I had lupus, though he couldn't say for sure because autoimmune disease is difficult to diagnose.
My mystery disease caused arthritis, painful muscles and exhaustion. Over the subsequent years I saw many other specialist doctors who diagnosed me with other vague autoimmune diseases like Sjrogens syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Although these doctors meant well, I would see them for no more than 15 minutes and be offered little more than a bill and another appointment. None of them could give me a cause or a cure.
I'd spent more than $30,000 on specialist doctors, drugs, nutritionists, and alternative therapists. I had tried everything from group therapy, to acupuncture and kinesiology. I had read books about healing my life and changing my thoughts. And I was still sick.
I did know one thing. When I was under a lot of pressure at work or at home, my symptoms got worse. Increased emotional stress or job stress directly correlated with increased inflammation. I knew my mind was playing a direct role in my health, but no doctors I saw paid attention to this and the alternative therapists I saw explained the connection in mysterious ways I didn't understand.
At the time, I was working as a news journalist, under constant deadlines. I didn’t realize it, but my stress response was being constantly activated. I wasn’t sleeping very well either. I'd lie in bed awake with my mind going around and around in circles, worried about things I had to do and things I couldn’t do anything about.
I was also living away from my family and friends and didn’t have a strong community network around me. Given that autoimmune disease runs in my family, looking back I realize I was the perfect candidate to get sick.
As a journalist, I needed answers. I wasn’t prepared to accept a lifetime of pain, exhaustion and medication as a medical prognosis. I spent the next three years delving into a growing movement of research looking at the role the mind plays in health outcomes. I’ve come across thousands of peer-reviewed academic papers looking at the science of mind-body medicine, with more research being published daily.
The result is a feature documentary called The Connection, and it shows how the latest science is proving what ancient wisdom has known for a long time: that the mind and body are interconnected when it comes to health outcomes.
The information I found was staggering.
We’re living in midst of a chronic illness epidemic where sicknesses like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune diseases are sweeping the world, and many of these diseases are exacerbated or caused by stress. According to the World Health Organization, 63% of deaths are due to chronic illness. That means there’s more than a 1 in 2 chance you’ll end up with a chronic illness that kills you.
The CDC estimates that stress accounts for about 75% of all health care costs. An American Psychological Association Report found that in the past month, 43% of people reported lying awake at night, 38% reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods, and 30% reported skipping meals due to stress.
No wonder UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon describes chronic illness as reaching epidemic proportions.
As I interviewed the experts and learned more about their groundbreaking research linking the mind and body to health outcomes, I started practicing the things they were studying. When I learned that being isolated means we’re three times more likely to die prematurely, I moved back to the city where my family and friends were based. I quit my job in daily news and started a small production company so I could determine my own hours and reduce my daily stress.
I learned about balancing my emotions by becoming more aware of my subconscious thoughts and beliefs from professional psychologists. I started meditating, practicing mindfulness and practicing yoga.
But one of the biggest breakthroughs for me came when I interviewed Dr. Sara Lazar from Harvard Medical School, who's work looking at the brains of people who meditate shows that none of this was about changing my life. It was about changing my relationship to my life. I still faced stress and emotional ups and downs, but the way I felt about those ups and downs was different. As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction told me, "Nothing is different, but everything is different."
These changes were gradual and happened over a number of years and slowly, I became increasingly well. I was 24 years old when I was first told I was sick. I’m now 33. I’m not in a wheelchair. I’m not even taking medication. I haven't seen a specialist doctor for years and I've stopped seeking a label for my illness.
I see my recovery as an ongoing journey. I now see that when it comes to my health, balancing my mind and body is absolutely essential. Hopefully the evidence will soon become so compelling that our doctors will see this too.