Scientist and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn includes in his pages of “Full Catastrophe Living” a horrifying story that speaks powerfully about the mind and body connection.
When renowned cardiologist Bernard Lown was in training to become a physician, he had in his clinic a patient, “Mrs. S.,” who had a narrowing of one of the valves on the right side of her heart, the tricuspid valve, and was in mild congestive heart failure; however, she functioned well enough to maintain her job as a librarian and do household chores. She would come to the weekly cardiac clinic run by Dr. S. A. Levine, a well-respected professor of cardiology at the Harvard Medical School and at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, to receive digitalis and injections of a mercurial diuretic. One week Dr. Levine greeted Mrs. S. warmly, as he usually did—the two had an affable relationship—and then he turned to the entourage of visiting physicians and said, “This woman has TS.” With those words he abruptly left.
Dr. Lown describes what happened after that:
No sooner was Dr. Levine out of the door than Mrs. S.’s demeanor abruptly changed. She appeared anxious and frightened and was now breathing rapidly, clearly hyperventilating. Her skin was drenched with perspiration, and her pulse accelerated to more than 150 a minute. In reexamining her, I found it astonishing that the lungs, which a few minutes earlier had been quite clear, now had moist crackles…. I questioned Mrs. S. as to the reasons for her sudden upset. Her response was that Dr. Levine had said that she had TS, which she knew meant “terminal situation.” I was initially amused at this misinterpretation of the medical acronym for “tricuspid stenosis.” My amusement, however, rapidly yielded to apprehension, as my words failed to reassure and as her congestion continued to worsen. Shortly thereafter she was in massive pulmonary edema. Heroic measures did not reverse the frothing congestion. I tried to reach Dr. Levine, but he was nowhere to be located. Later that same day she died from intractable heart failure.
The story is as tragic as it is inspiring: If this woman’s thoughts could induce congestive heart failure, then they also hold incredible healing powers.
In his book, Kabat-Zinn discusses a hundred or so scientific studies that suggest that our thoughts, emotions, and life experiences can very definitely influence our health. The practice of mindfulness, in particular–moment-to-moment awareness and cultivating an attitude of non-striving and non-doing– can bolster our immune system, determine which genes in our chromosomes are turned on, lower blood pressure, regulate emotions under stress, reduce pain, increase our stamina, and make us much more fun to be around.
For example, researchers at the University of Wisconsin looked at the effects of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MBSR) founded by Kabat-Zinn 35 years ago. The course was delivered in a corporate setting during working hours with healthy, but stressed-out employees. The researchers found that brain scans of those that participated in the course showed activity suggesting they were handling negative emotions like anxiety and frustration more effectively (or more emotionally intelligently) than the group who was on the waiting list for the course. There was right-sided to left-sided movement within the prefrontal cerebral cortex that is involved in the expression of emotions. The study also found that the people who completed the eight-week training in mindfulness showed a significantly stronger antibody response in their immune system after given a flu vaccine (at the end of the eight weeks of training) than did those who were on the waiting list.
Another study conducted at UCLA and Carnegie Mellon University showed that participating in an MBSR program reduced expression of genes related to inflammation, measured in immune cells sampled from blood draws. The mindfulness training also lowered C-reactive proteins in participants, which is an indication of inflammation—a core element of many diseases.
Given that on any given day, I am battling symptoms of one or more of five health conditions—bipolar disorder, Raynaud’s phenomenon, thyroid disease, pituitary tumor, and aortic-valve regurgitation—I thought I should enroll in Kabat-Zinn’s eight-week course offered at our local hospital (taught by a trained MBSR instructor). So every Friday I show up for Getting-Life-Under-Control school, where I’m taught coping skills geared for those of us with colorful childhoods and blessed with fragile mental-health genes, or for anyone who wants to look as calm at the Dalai Lama.
The twelve of us in this course are taught things like how to transform an automatic or habitual stress reaction to a mindfulness-mediated stress response, how to disengage from the emotional, alarm reaction of our automatic nervous system and be able to see with a perspective that breeds calm. The class consists of many sessions of formal meditation, where we choose an anchor for our thoughts—our breath, or sound, or an emotion—and return to that anchor over and over, learning to gently let go of any thought or thought pattern outside the present moment, such as judging, planning, or analyzing.
My illnesses haven’t disappeared. I am far from being cured. However, I’m beginning to heal. Kabat-Zinn makes that important distinction in his book. He acknowledges that “there are few outright cures for chronic diseases or for stress-related disorders,” however, “it is possible for us to heal ourselves—to learn to live with and work with conditions that present themselves in the present moment. Healing implies the possibility that we can relate differently to illness, disability, even death, as we learn to see with eyes of wholeness.”
At the very least, I think I am communicating with my body well enough these days that if a doctor told me I had TS and walked away, I would blame his rudeness on an empty stomach, say something impolite, and then go on to think about something else.
Originally published on Sanity Break on Everyday Health.