How Vulnerability Can Save Your Life
Lissa Rankin, M.D., is the New York Times bestselling author of "Mind Over Medicine," "The Fear Cure," and "The Anatomy of a Calling." She is a physician, speaker, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, and mystic. Lissa has starred in two National Public Television specials and also leads workshops, both online and at retreat centers like Esalen and Kripalu
This week, 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 a big epiphany during our call that I want to share with you, so pull our 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.
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 heart broken. 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
Fully experiencing joy is essential to living a long, happy, healthy life, especially if you're battling a chronic illness and hope 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.
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.